Daniel Handler, as already reported, has made public penitence for his racist gaffe at the National Book Awards presentation ceremony. Jacqueline Woodson. subject of the gaffe, has now gone on record in the New York Times Opinion column to give her account of “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke.” Her statements on her friendship with Daniel Handler make the whole thing even more remarkable, and raise some really interesting questions about his psychology:

Daniel and I have been friends for years. Last summer, at his home on Cape Cod, he served watermelon soup and I let him know I was allergic to the fruit. I was astonished when he brought this up before the National Book Award audience — in the form of a wink-nudge joke about being black.

So much for Daniel Handler’s responses under certain types of public pressure. And as for Jacqueline Woodson’s account of what watermelons mean to her:

I had seen the racist representations associated with African-Americans and watermelons, heard the terrifying stories of black men being lynched with watermelons hanging around them, watched black migrants from the South try to eke out a living in the big city by driving through neighborhoods like my own — Bushwick, in Brooklyn — with trucks loaded down with the fruit.In a book I found at the library, a camp song about a watermelon vine was illustrated with caricatures of sleepy-looking black people sitting by trees, grinning and eating watermelon. Slowly, the hideousness of the stereotype began to sink in.

And so far as I know, there wasn’t any contextual reason whatsoever for bringing up the whole watermelon issue at the Awards ceremony. But Woodson’s reaction does highlight what Toni Morrison said on the Colbert Report very soon after: “I wanted to show how painful this constructed horrible racism was on the most vulnerable people in society – girls, black girls, poor girls – and that it really and truly could hurt you.” And as Carol DeSanti remarked in The Guardian, American publishing remains resolutely white. Woodson’s testament confirms just how much some young girls did get hurt by this – and that the racist stereotype is still out there, and still hurting.


  1. I erad about this brouhaha on the Net from my home in Taiwan, and having lived outsode the USA for over 20 years, some things seem blown out of proportion there in terms of race etc.

    This watermelon thing is interesting. I read her oped and it was excellent. I read Handler’s mea gulpa and it seemed honest.

    But i need to say this from a far away POV: here in Taiwan, the men and women who sell large huge watermelons all summer long from their watermelon trucks are for teh most part, low-educated country people, farmers, or they work for the farmers, and to drive such a truck and lift the huge watermelons, one must be big and strong. So the people who do this kind or work in Taiwan, are for the most part low educated professional wrresler looking giants with big strong arms and backs. ANd…i assume that the watermelon trucks in the old USA south and even now maybe, many of hte workers were brown men and women, who couild do the heavy lifting,,,,and i use the word brown now, not black since nobody is BLACK in color, that is a misnomer…so maybe these watermelon jokes vis a vis brown people is old folklore of south USA based on reali life in that the men and women who did this watermelonm work had to be big and strong, to lift those melons. So of course, they also sat on the road soemtees and ate leftover watermeloons they cid not sell. Same happens in Taiwan even now. So this old watermelon stuff in the USA is maybe not racist so much as old folklore, and of course, racist jokes should never enter into thos and HAndler was way off base to joke that way, stupid man, and the writers’ oped in The Tiems was right on. End of story.

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