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Behind the Joke, There's a Story

I’ve struggled for some time to process my thoughts on Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler’s watermelon comment at last month’s National Book Awards. Part of me was and is unbothered. A dumb joke about a black person not liking watermelon is closer to the not-worth-my-energy end of the Racial Harm Spectrum. But part of me felt frustrated and tired for Jacqueline Woodson then, and feels exhausted right now. Are we really still in ‘black people love watermelon’ territory, in 2014?   Yes, sigh, we are.

A month being a millennium in internet years, here’s a reminder of what happened at the awards ceremony:

On November 19th, Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her book Brown Girl Dreaming. Introducing her to the podium to receive the accolade, her friend and children’s book author, Handler, attempted a witty intro, revealing that Woodson doesn’t like watermelon. “Just let that sink in,” he said, eliciting (un/comfortable?) chuckles from the audience.

The punchline of the “joke” was supposed to be the revelation of Woodson’s aversion to the summer fruit — incongruous with the historic allusion that black people just love them some watermelon — but it was more of a sucker punch. In what should have been Woodson’s moment, a celebration of her memoir in verse about growing up in South Carolina and New York just as Jim Crow racial segregation laws were being forcibly and violently dismantled across the U.S., Handler “othered” her.  He simultaneously gave credence to the stale stereotype about watermelon-eating African-Americans, and cast Woodson as an oddity for deviating from the caricature.

Daniel Lemony Snicket Handler tweets apology for racially-tinged joke about Jacqueline Woodson's distaste of watermelon_peoplewhowrite

Handler’s off-color remarks went viral, were roundly castigated across the interwebs, and he followed a public apology with a pledge to match donations to an Indiegogo campaign for the group We Need Diverse Books. Woodson also wrote of “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke” in a New York Times Op-Ed, offering the context of America’s racialized history and her personal experience to explain why Handler’s wisecrack was profoundly unfunny:

I was a brown girl growing up in the United States. By that point in my life, I had seen the racist representations associated with African-Americans and watermelons, heard the terrifying stories of black men being lynched with watermelons hanging around them, watched black migrants from the South try to eke out a living in the big city by driving through neighborhoods like my own — Bushwick, in Brooklyn — with trucks loaded down with the fruit.

In a book I found at the library, a camp song about a watermelon vine was illustrated with caricatures of sleepy-looking black people sitting by trees, grinning and eating watermelon. Slowly, the hideousness of the stereotype began to sink in. In the eyes of those who told and repeated the jokes, we were shuffling, googly-eyed and lesser than.

Perhaps my allergy was actually a deep physical revulsion that came from the psychological impression and weight of the association. Whatever it was, I could no longer eat watermelon.

The watermelon incident played out in what has become a familiar three-act in the age of the news cycles that never sleeps: A racially-derisive comment/act opens, a righteous round of indignant castigation follows, and the pageant ends with a mea culpa via a statement apologizing “to anyone who may have been offended”, a pledge to learn from “the mistake”, and/or a meeting with/gesture toward a notable black personality or organization.

And, scene.

The micro news cycle moved on, and we could all go back to pondering the accusations chipping away at Bill Cosby’s model black man image — then shuttle forward to the decisions by the respective grand juries in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths not to indict the police officers that killed them. But less than three weeks later, a new play opened.

A series of leaked emails exposed Sony Pictures Entertainment Co-Chairman Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin joke-guessing about President Obama’s taste in films. was one of many outlets that shared the racially-tinged exchange reportedly believed to have been hacked by a group called the Guardians of Peace, with the involvement of the North Korean government:

Pascal wrote Rudin: “What should I ask the president at this stupid Jeffrey breakfast?” She was referring to a breakfast hosted by DreamWorks Animation head and major Democratic donor Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Rudin, a top film producer responsible for films like No Country for Old Men and Moneyball, responded, “Would he like to finance some movies.” Pascal replied, “I doubt it. Should I ask him if he liked DJANGO?” Rudin responded: “12 YEARS.” Pascal quickly continued down the path of guessing Obama preferred movies by or starring African Americans. “Or the butler. Or think like a man? [sic]”

Rudin’s response: “Ride-along. I bet he likes Kevin Hart.”

Once the emails went public, the pageantry began. A week after releasing a statement — in which she made clear, “The content of my emails to Scott were insensitive and inappropriate but are not an accurate reflection of who I am.” — Pascal had a 90-minute meeting with Al Sharpton. According to Sharpton, Pascal “committed to” establishing “a basis to address the issues.”

She’s got her work cut out for her. Race is so deeply embedded in the American psyche, we will all need to be retrained before we can begin to address the issues. Pascal’s statement of her character could refer to race itself as  it is not an accurate reflection of who anyone is, not as far as science is concerned. Racial classifications have no biological basis — race is an idea that was created to justify American slavery; over time, we have imbued this constructed category with our own culturally-imposed and individually-formed meaning.

Racism has led to the creation of enduring caricatures that effectively reduce wide swaths of people into categories of propensity and preference. It has encouraged the cherry-picking of individuals and cultural elements, and attempted to make them emblems of the whole for commerce, convenience, or both. As a byproduct, it has separated specific experiences and cultural markers from their origins and meaning, and applied coded layers that give them new meaning.

It’s how we get from some Black people enjoying the refreshment of watermelon to all black people loving watermelon; and if one doesn’t, her blackness comes into question. The questions that follow become: What is black(ness)? What is white(ness)? Why do we care? Uncomfortable laughter.

Sharpton tweeted of his meeting with Pascal: “Her leaked e mails show a cultural blindness”. To be fair, we’re all guilty of othering people in one way or another (though the historic cultural power and legacy it bequeathes to people with white skin usually casts them in the “I’m sorry if I offended” role).

It’s more convenient, for example, to summarize fashion designs separately inspired by traditional Persian paisleys as loomed African textiles as “multi-culti”. Easier to chuckle at a stereotype about a gay / religious / rich / homeless person, than take the time to move past the shorthand we’ve created in our heads. It’s more comfortable to play our assigned roles and speak about or at one another, rather than to each other.

As writers, if we tell a story well it can open a window, a door, sometimes a heart, to an experience that once seemed so easy to codify or laugh at.  If it sinks in that we are all the same, though not in the same ways, then maybe we can get past the childish humor and get to the real story.

One response to “Behind the Joke, There's a Story

  1. Pingback: Diversity Up in Children's Books, By Not By Much | people who write

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