Jacqueline Woodson, the National Book Award winner for the young adult memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, addressed in a recent op-ed the racist watermelon joke made by her author friend Daniel Handler, two weeks ago.
Woodson, who is black, recalls in the New York Times piece how she grew up eating watermelon during summers in her southern childhood, and writes about her subsequent revulsion to the fruit—perhaps because of the watermelon's loaded and race-ridden history.
...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.
Woodson says that her friend Handler's joke at the National Book Awards, in which he racially poked fun at Woodson's allergy to watermelon, "came from a place of ignorance" and "showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all."
Handler, who is the author behind Lemony Snicket of the Series of Unfortunate Events, has apologized for his joke and has since helped raise tens of thousands of dollars to help diversify children’s literature.