Author Daniel Handler (pictured), who is best known for his Lemony Snicket series of children’s books experienced an ‘unfortunate event’ at a ceremony announcing the winners of the National Book Awards on Wednesday night. When the writer was presenting the award for young people’s literature to Jacqueline Woodson, a black woman and author of “Brown Girl Dreaming,” he referenced a racist trope that blacks have an affinity for watermelon but then wound up apologizing for his verbal faux pas according to The Guardian.
“I told you! I told Jackie she was going to win. And I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned 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. And she said, you put that in a book. And I said I am only writing a book about a black girl who is 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.”
Woodson was the only person of color in her finalist category. Woodson is a three-time National Book Award finalist, prestigious Caldecott Medal recipient and winner of a host of other accolades for her writings. “Brown Girl Dreaming” is about growing up as a black girl in the turbulent 1960s told entirely in verse.
After Handler made the troubling misstep, the backlash was immediate. After a reported few jittery attempts at laughter from the audience, the author then made the comment, “We’ll talk about it later.”
Earlier in the evening, Handler, who considers himself to be a secular humanist (someone who embraces the fact that humans can be ethical or moral without bringing God into the mix), also joked about not being awarded a Coretta Scott King Award, a prize given to black writers of young adult fiction.
Predictably, Daniel was taken to task via social media for his offensive joke and wound up issuing a very well-deserved apology to Woodson on his Twitter page. He later tweeted a donation of $10,000 to raise money for an organization devoted to diversity in literature, and is matching any other funds raised in the next 24 hours up to $100,000:
My remarks on Wednesday night at #NBAwards were monstrously inappropriate and yes, racist. -DH
..and not to overshadow their achievements with my own ill-conceived attempts at humor. I clearly failed, and I’m sorry. -DH
My job at last night’s National Book Awards #NBAwards was to shine a light on tremendous writers, including Jacqueline Woodson… -DH
The money is a good move, but keep those offensive jokes to yourself Lemony Bigot!