Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and she deserved better than a racist joke.
This past summer, a copy of a book called Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson showed up on my desk. It was a memoir written in poems, about a young black girl raised in South Carolina and New York City. I read it immediately. Each page was as enthralling as the last. It was the book I’d waited a lifetime for, the book I never worked up the nerve to write.
I have a letter from my father that says, “My darling, books are the easiest place to find your dreams. Once you have your dreams, keep them safe and they will keep you safe.” My father had drawn pictures of me in the margins. He sent it a month before my eighth birthday. I brought the letter to class for show-and-tell. The other kids were confused. “Why does your daddy write you letters? Why doesn’t he just talk to you?” I told them my dad was in jail, and letters were how he talked to me. The teacher cut me off, and asked the next student to come up. I sat on the circle carpet, clutching my dad’s letter. Sometimes I feel as if a version of myself is still sitting there: a little brown girl holding onto that letter for dear life.
I’ve spent the last 20 years learning to live what my father wrote.
By the time I was in the third grade, Romeo & Juliet was my favorite book. It was a prize I’d won in a summer reading program at my local library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I kept a notebook where I spent hours copying my favorite passages. I was sure someday I could write like William Shakespeare. That was my dream. At school, my teacher snatched the book out of my hand during silent reading hour. “Romeo & Juliet? Ashley, this is reading time, not pretend to read time.” From then on, I left Shakespeare at home.
The library became a refuge. The librarians never stopped me from reading anything, but they weren’t terribly interested in my desire for more books about black girls. I’d read The American Girl series, Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, and even The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. When asked — and I asked often — the librarians insisted they were ordering all of the most popular books for kids and teens. One librarian slid a book across the counter toward me. The protagonist on the cover was a blonde-haired and blue-eyed girl. I picked the book up and halfheartedly read the synopsis on the back, and sat it back down. “A book doesn’t have to be about someone the same race as you for you to love it,” the librarian told me. A younger librarian piped in and said, “We’d love to have more books for kids like you, Ashley. There just aren’t enough of them. No one really writes them.” I checked out the book with the blonde on the cover.
I was a child, but I was well aware I could love a book about someone who wasn’t the same race as me. In fact, if I only read books about brown kids, I would have quickly run out of reading material in our little library. Had my white classmates decided to only read books with characters who looked like them, the same would not be true. This felt wrong. I had stories too. I had dreams, and I wanted the same confirmation that my written words would matter to someone. During an “Our Future” presentation for my third grade class, I stood up and said I wanted to be a writer for kids. The presenter said, “You can do that! What would you write about?” Before I could speak, a boy in my class said, “About her daddy being in jail!”
As an adult, I’ve read many books with black women and girls as central characters. But I would be lying if I said they were all easy to come by or widely known. Whenever a book with a brown girl as a protagonist comes out, word among brown women writers spreads fast. “Did you pick up Pointe by Brandy Colbert? The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson?” We are no longer teens or children, but we are still ravenous for these images of our younger selves. We buy these books for the kids we know and love, especially the girls, because it should be better for them than it was for us, right? We’ve been waiting, writing, and voting for these stories with our dollars. When I read Brown Girl Dreaming this summer, it was the realization of a dream.
Last Wednesday, I was supposed to attend the after-party for National Book Awards, but found myself in bed with an ear infection and hives. Still, I had my fingers crossed for two writers I desperately wanted to see walk away with awards. I followed the tweets of friends and fellow writers who attended the banquet, waiting for them to announce the winners. I was disappointed when Claudia Rankine’s name was not called for Citizen for the Poetry award. Rankine’s book on racial micro-aggressions was searing, and it seemed a win would potentially bring it to the attention of a broader audience. I was ecstatic when Jacqueline Woodson won for Brown Girl Dreaming. I tweeted about my excitement for her, and at home, I picked the book up and re-read it until I fell asleep.
When I woke up the next morning, I saw what I’d apparently missed the night before. After Woodson accepted the award, Daniel Handler — author of the popular Lemony Snicket series and the host of this year’s award ceremony — said: “I told Jackie she was going to 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.”
We forget how often carelessness is a kind of malicious behavior. Woodson was worth taking the time to consider if “the joke” would undercut her moment. She should not have to accept a National Book Award in one hand and Handler’s apology in the other. She was worth the time it would take to come up with a joke that was less lazy. Her story deserved better. A writer’s victory is also a victory for the many readers nourished by her work. Every brown girl watching, hoping, and writing deserved better.
Handler has since publicly apologized and donated $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign, with the promise to match up to $100,000. I’m not sure exactly how much racism is worth, but it’s a price I’m tired of brown girls having to pay.
There is a passage in Brown Girl Dreaming where Woodson’s beloved ill grandfather asks her to tell him a story. She writes, “This I can do — find him another place to be / when this world is choking him.” Brown girls everywhere know what it means to choke with invisible hands at their throats, to drown with water nowhere in sight. For us, a book like Brown Girl Dreaming is air itself. When I found out about Handler’s joke, I gasped, my lungs briefly useless.