Wednesday night was one of the biggest nights in author Jacqueline Woodson's career. Woodson, a three-time National Book Award finalist, finally took home the young people's literature award for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming — before becoming a punchline for host Daniel Handler, better known as the man behind Lemony Snicket.
Handler, for some reason, thought it appropriate to tell everyone in attendance a joke involving black people and watermelon at Woodson's expense:
I told Jackie she was gonna 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.
… And I said, "You have to put that in a book." And she said, "You put it in a book." And I said, "I'm only writing a book about a black girl who's allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama saying 'This guy's OK.
From the tone of Handler's joke, it sounds like he and Woodson are friends, but that doesn't change the underlying issue here. This was Woodson's moment, and Handler marred it with a joke that is deeply questionable at best, and downright racist at worst:
And like, how many people even realized how fucked up that was? In her career highlight, she has to be reminded, "we can still joke"— Roxane Gay (@rgay) November 20, 2014
From the video, it's hard to tell how Handler's joke was received. Porochista Khakpour, an author, was in attendance. She explained that it wasn't just the poor taste of the joke that left her aghast, but also the fact that people were actually laughing along with Handler's crass comments:
No way to express the horror of being in a ballroom of greats &hearing a series of racist jokes & not seeing too many other raised eyebrows.— Porochista Khakpour (@PKhakpour) November 20, 2014