Author Jacqueline Woodson won the young people’s literature prize at the National Book Awards on Wednesday night for her novel “Brown Girl Dreaming.” The day after the ceremony, the story making waves? An incredibly ill-advised joke by awards host Daniel Handler, who marveled that Woodson, who is black, is allergic to watermelon.
Handler, author of the popular “Lemony Snicket” novels, told this brief anecdote to the crowd after Woodson’s victory. “I told Jackie she was going to win,” Handler said. “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.”
There was some quiet rumbling from the crowd. Handler continued that he urged Woodson to put that fact in a book, but then she told him that he should 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,'” Handler added.
Twitter backlash was harsh after the clip (captured by C-SPAN) started making the rounds on Thursday morning. Handler quickly apologized.
My job at last night’s National Book Awards #NBAwards was to shine a light on tremendous writers, including Jacqueline Woodson… -DH [1/2]
— Daniel Handler (@DanielHandler) November 20, 2014
…and not to overshadow their achievements with my own ill-conceived attempts at humor. I clearly failed, and I’m sorry. -DH [2/2] — Daniel Handler (@DanielHandler) November 20, 2014
Here were some the reactions:
Daniel Handler’s racist “humor” at the NBAs last night is not okay and I am shocked that so few people are talking about it.
— Roxane Gay (@rgay) November 20, 2014
The casual and unexpected racism of Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler highlights that this isn’t one guy, but rather, an endemic sickness.
— Chuck Wendig (@ChuckWendig) November 20, 2014
I adore Daniel Handler’s work, but those “jokes” are something he needs to apologize for publicly and privately. Now. Dismayed.
— Gwenda Bond (@Gwenda) November 20, 2014
When Jackie Woodson won the NBA, she thanked people for loving books and for changing the world. Then Daniel Handler made a watermelon joke.
— Laila Lalami (@LailaLalami) November 20, 2014
Glad to see @DanielHandler take responsibility and apologise. And to put attention on where it belongs, the NBA winners.
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) November 20, 2014