Skip to main content

Daniel Handler Learns a Valuable Lesson About Making Racist Watermelon Jokes

Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler told a watermelon joke as author Jaqueline Woodson exited the stage with her National Book Award last month, a juicy story that TV news almost completely ignored.

On Nov. 19, Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming. In what has become a universally-overlooked acceptance speech, Woodson thanked her colleagues and family, and thanked the audience for the only thing that mattered to her at that moment:

"Thank you for your love of books."

But seconds later, National Book Awards emcee and Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler, who can be seen gleefully hugging Woodson as she approaches the stage to accept her award, turned that triumphant spotlight into a death ray with a particularly awful attempt at humor:

“I told Jackie she was going to win. And I 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. I said, 'You have to put that in a book,' and she said, 'You put it in a book.' I said, ‘I’m only writing a book about a black girl who’s allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornel West, Toni Morrison and Barack Obama saying, ‘This guy’s okay, this guy’s fine.’”

As it turns out, Handler and Woodson are friends, but as the author pointed out in a pained editorial for The New York Times, Handler's "joke" completely overtook the occasion. "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," she wrote.

Handler, for his part, delivered the rare apology for a racist remark that included an admission that the remark was racist, and pledged to match donations to the We Need Diverse Books campaign.

Early last week, I saw some Twitter chatter about Handler's remark, but never caught up to the story, and didn't see anything else about it on TV. Then, on Saturday, I caught a great segment about it on Melissa Harris Perry's show, and decided to look up Handler's actual quote. That's when I discovered that cable news had completely ignored the story when it happened, save a single mention on MSNBC's The Reid Report. That's weird, because the Lemony Snicket books are immensely popular, and the story is an explosive one, but with great, thought-provoking angles. Woodson wrote a beautiful and gracious response to the incident, and Handler paid as fulsome a penance as I've seen.

My initial thought, upon actually watching Woodson's speech and Handler's performance, was that this may have been a case of intersectionality gone wrong. Handler, as a gay man, may have felt enough of a kinship with Woodson's struggles as a minority to make a joke that overstepped. Problem is, the dude's not gay, so I guess I'm the asshole. Fascinating.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized just how much the watermelon stereotype bothered me, which is the real tragedy. Racism has always pissed me off, and the stupid stereotypes that accompany it, but there's something special about the watermelon stereotype. As that MHP panel talked about how delicious watermelon is, just like fried chicken, I realized that even though watermelon is the only kind of melon I can stand, I haven't eaten it in decades. I think the dumbass racist stereotype is why.

I was almost ten years old before I ever met a racist in person. I had grown up in an almost all-black neighborhood in a mostly-black city, so I was acutely aware of my won race. Hardly a day went by that I didn't feel some kind of explicit, palpable hostility toward my whiteness. The city had been devastated by race riots right before I was born, and the wounds of that era, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, remained fresh. I didn't like it, but I understood it because I knew the history. Besides, pretty much every person who ever stood up for me, or got me out of a jam, was black, because everyone I knew was black. I don't think I even heard the n-word until I heard it on Roots, because nobody I knew ever used it back then, at least not in front of kids.

The first white person I ever heard say it, I must confess, was me when, in third grade, while inspecting what I thought must be a defective globe, I loudly exclaimed "There's a country called Nigger!"

My mortified teacher, Ms Ross, explained that it was pronounced "NYE-jur," which I skeptically regarded as a thin pretext for obviously racist globe-makers.

A few months later, we moved to an all-white neighborhood in an almost all-white town, and the culture shock was unbelievable. Even before I left, none of my friends believed me when I told them the school there would have hot lunches that were ten cents cheaper than the cold sandwiches we got. Everybody there owned their own house, which was a tremendous relief for me, because I'd always recoiled at the idea of the landlord, a mysterious reverse-Santa Claus figure whom I'd never met, but who could just take away your place to live if he didn't like you for some reason. Also, we had a pool, and so did everyone else, it seemed. Our old apartment building had a derelict pool full of inky sludge and garbage that it took years for the city to make our landlord fill in. It was great for hunting dragonflies, though.

It was a matter of days, not weeks, before I had my first experience with race in this new, white paradise. One of the neighborhood kids asked me, in a group of other kids, what kind of music I liked, and I said "Rock and roll," which is what I called any kind of music that wasn't church music or classical. Asked for an example, I said, "Well, like The Jackson 5..."

"Oh, you're a nigger-lover!" came the reply, and I nearly shorted out like a HAL 9000 that got dropped in the toilet. It was an impossible thing to respond to, even once I had comprehended that it had really been said. Unable to even process the secondary premise, I paused and said something along the lines of "Well, I don't have any problem with black people."

It was then that I learned that in this central New Jersey town, in the late 1970s and into the mid 1980s, the choice to say, or not say, the n-word was viewed more as a matter of personal taste than anything else. Not everyone used it, but when they did, they'd look around to see who had a problem with it. That particular interaction ended with something like a "Oh, you're one of those," before they all explained how awesome Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones were.

At the time, as this sort of thing happened over and over again, the question I wanted to ask was "What the fuck are you all so angry about? You won! You get to eat pizza at school, you own your houses, everybody has a pool. There aren't even any black people around! What the hell?"

While most of it runs together, there's one other incident that stands out in my mind. One of the neighborhood kids and I were hanging out across town with the kid's cousin, Joe, who was mixed-race. We were playing Wiffle ball in the street when another guy from our neighborhood went riding by on his bike. I ran over to see if he wanted to play.

"Who's that?" he asked me.

I explained that he was our neighbor's cousin, Joe. So, the guy leans in with a meaningful glint in his eye and says "How now, brown cow?"

Again, this confused the shit out of me, because as far as I knew, Brown Cow was an ice cream bar, and I could not fathom what that had to do with this. He nudged his head at Joe for emphasis and repeated, more intently, "How now, brown cow!"

I was already accustomed to racism being stupid, so what really stood out to me was that this kid expected me to know what the fuck "How now, brown cow" meant to him. These are insane people.

So, even when I had figured out that he was talking about Joe's race, I still didn't get it. By now, I was pretty well-acquainted with some of the white gripes with black people, beginning with the drums in their music that were somehow different from the drums in "white" music like The Rolling Stones, but also stereotypes about crime, which were big in the North. But this kid barely had a deep tan, he had red hair, and he was this other kid's friend's cousin.

It stuck with me because, aside from the insane details, it really drove home to me the purpose of that particular brand of racism: to put Joe, not just "back in his place," but in a place he had never been before. And to keep him there. It didn't matter where he really came from, or what he ever did in his life, to this racist asshole, he would never belong in our Wiffle ball game.

There are lots of offensive stereotypes, for all different races and ethnicities, but the watermelon stereotype, like the n-word, is uniquely designed to put a person back in a place that's supposed to be gone, and to keep them there. It shares a similar history with the fried chicken stereotype, but with a stronger connection to slavery, and a greater ability to stimulate racism. At least in my experience, you could eat fried chicken around other white people without incident, but watermelon always drew a comment out of some asshole. Eventually, just looking at one gave me that Clockwork Orange sick feeling, so I guess I just avoided it without even realizing it.

All of which makes me wonder if the story of Daniel Handler's watermelon joke was just too distasteful for TV news, too fraught with the potential for a misstep, or maybe just too much race in a news cycle chock-full of it. Or maybe it was ignored because the watermelon stereotype doesn't actually resonate that loudly in the ears of TV news editors.

Either way, it's a shame, because while Handler's remark was hurtful, his apology taught a lesson that more people could learn. More than that, though, Woodson's response was beautiful and graceful, and it should make more people want to buy her book.