No Joke

The Pain of the Watermelon JokeI’ve come to expect the blatant and dog-whistle racism routinely sounded by Fox News. But Lemony Snicket?! For it was none other than the beloved children’s author of A Series of Unfortunate Events–aka Daniel Handler—who recently made racially insensitive remarks while emceeing this year’s National Book Awards. Right after his friend Jacqueline Woodson won for Brown Girl Dreaming, Handler told an unfunny joke about watermelon. He drew deserved criticism for his racially insensitive words, and quickly apologized. Woodson wrote about the injury in an eloquent essay called, “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke.”

In grappling with my very different reactions when prejudice comes out of the mouth of someone I like rather than someone I hate, I’m reminded of another unfortunate event involving poor word choice from my childhood.

I grew up in an all-white, affluent Boston suburb. My parents had moved from Tennessee because they did not want their children to grow up hearing black people called “Nigger.” Civil rights activists, they worked tirelessly to end racial discrimination in housing and schools.

Life was simple because we knew who to hate—bigots like South Boston politician Louise Day Hicks, a rabid opponent of court-ordered busing to end school desegregation. Buses may have burned in working-class Southie, but racism was far more genteel in our privileged enclave. Homes for sale would just suddenly disappear from the market should the prospective buyers turn out to have an abundance of melanin. My parents were outspoken critics of this northern variant of discrimination. Apparently racism knew no geographical bounds, as my mother was reminded every time she picked up the phone to hear the whispered hiss, “Nigger Lover.”

Undeterred, my parents spoke frequently at civic and church gatherings in favor of fair housing. At one such meeting, my mother rose from her seat next to her black friend Bernie and approached the podium. Particularly furious about the latest example of redlining that kept non-whites from living in our town, my mother shook her fist and proclaimed, “Let’s call a spade a spade!”

Realizing with horror the racial slur she had just uttered, my mother prayed for the earth to open up and swallow her whole. Meanwhile, her friend Bernie threw back his head and roared with laughter.

I wonder if their friendship could survive today in light of the furor surrounding this year’s National Book Awards. Much of the ensuing commentary fell into two polarized camps: what an unforgivable racist Handler was; or an attack on black people for seeing everything through a racial lens. One commenter wrote, “I cannot imagine that they are still friends.”

My fervent hope is that they are. I like to imagine the two friends sitting down together for a good, long, honest talk. Racism must be called out, but we must also know the difference between malevolence and ill-spoken ignorance.

I am saddened by the pain oblivion causes, whether it is Handler’s or my own. I want to do better, be better, even if I am clumsy in the process. There are plenty of times my fear of offending or of being upbraided for saying the wrong thing makes me say nothing. I do not want to remain adept at this kind of silence, where no one is the wiser, and no one learns a thing.

The National Book Awards created a stir, but also offer a way forward. In a recent Fresh Air interview, Woodson spoke further about Handler’s remarks: “I’m sad that so many are not connected to the deep history [of the African-American’s experience of racism]. Daniel didn’t know. He made the mistake of thinking we’re beyond that. Friendships are complicated. But he has a good heart. A lot of people who are ignorant have good hearts, and that’s what this kind of racial mistake looks like.”

So I’m guessing she and Lemony Snicket are OK, just as my mother and Bernie were, just as I hope to be with whomever I offend.  Such unfortunate events open up opportunities for understanding, if only we keep talking honestly with one another.