December 02, 2014
Exposed as I am, even at this distance, to the still-radioactive residue of America’s “original sin,” I thank God every day for making Canada too cold to grow cotton.
Looks like I”ll have to add “watermelon” to that prayer of thanksgiving.
L”outrage de la semaine occurred at the National Book Awards. The emcee, children’s author Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler, said this after Jacqueline Woodson accepted her prize for her memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming:
I told you”I told Jackie she was gonna win, and I, uh, said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned about her this summer. Which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind. And I said, you have to put that in a book. She said, YOU put it in a book. And I said, I”m only writing a book about a black girl that’s allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morrison and Barack Obama saying, “This guy’s okay, this guy’s fine.”
Now, my reputation as a rabid white supremacist precedes me. (As does my seemingly contradictory one as a self-hating Zionist dupe.)
So surely it counts for something that even I was pulled up short when I read that.
I rapidly righted myself: OK, I thought, maybe these two writers are close friends. I recalled a similar ceremony I”d attended, at which a Catholic priest, who”d known the Jewish honoree since high school, made cutting jokes based on their religious differences, and the guest of honor loved it.
Handler’s comments seemed like a naked attempt to bring the audience’s attention back to himself. (News flash: the average author’s ego dwarfs a diplodocus.)
But was what he said, was he, “racist,” as the Internet’s white-knight, hive-mind jury quickly decided?
I made a note to watch for what Jacqueline Woodson herself had to say, if anything.
Woodson’s op-ed in the Friday New York Times (where else?) is entitled “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke.”
Reluctantly popping over to the NYT website to reread it for this column, I was confronted with the Sunday op-ed page, which approached a late-career-Marlene-Dietrich level of self-parody.
After being confronted with a photo-illustration of a man in a “hoodie” draped with an American flag, readers are offered: “Where Do We Go After Ferguson?” by Michael Eric Dyson (whom I briefly confused with Neil deGrasse Tyson and now resent for preventing me from cracking a perfectly decent “How’s about outer space if you love it so much?” joke); “conservative” Ross Douthat’s contention that “After Ferguson, it’s harder to make a case for optimism about race and politics in America”; and (I”m not joking) “When Whites Just Don”t Get It, Part 5″ by Nicholas Kristof.
(Something else to thank God for? Maureen Dowd and Thomas L. Friedman are off today.)
Woodson’s “Watermelon-quiddick” op-ed is, predictably, very “Maya Angelou””a slice of bitter yet lyrical autobiographical anti-nostalgia, heated to, if not quite to a boil, then to a strong simmer, over a steady, well-stoked flame of resentment:
In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I”ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from.
And lest you find yourself carried away by all the “We Shall Overcome”-ity, Woodson notes:
Mr. Handler’s watermelon comment was made at a time of change. We Need Diverse Books, a grass-roots organization committed to diversifying all children’s literature, had only months before stormed the BookCon conference because of its all-white panels.
“Stormed.” As in “troopers.” But they did it “for the children,” so …
(Said literary event took place in America, by the way. Not Rhodesia.)