At the National Book Awards last month, author and ceremony host Daniel Handler soured the proceedings by making a racist joke at the expense of the author Jacqueline Woodson, whose book Brown Girl Dreaming won the book award for Young People’s Literature. “Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon,” he said, “Just let that sink in your mind.”
The audience laughed dutifully. He continued: “And I said, ‘You have to put that in a book.’ And she said, ‘You put that in a book.’ And I said that I am only writing a book about a black girl who is allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama saying, ‘This guy’s OK. This guy’s fine.’ ” (Source: NPR.) Handler has since apologized. (Source: NYT, employing an unfortunate use of scare quotes.)
I am reproducing the patter here to draw attention to the structure of these “jokes.” The humor of the first joke pivoted on the ostensibly ironic juxtaposition of the reality (a black woman allergic to watermelon) with the racist stereotype (black people categorically love watermelon). The second joke is a variation on the old “I know it’s not politically correct, BUT” standard, and I’m not actually sure it was intended to be a joke, although it sure sounds like one to me — i.e. the ironic juxtaposition of the claim (it’s dangerous for whites/men/members of any privileged class to talk about race/gender/any kind of privilege; he needs members of any oppressed class to protect him) with the reality (do you even read the news, bro?)
It’s a pretty straightforward example of punching down. It’s also a good example of why I wish we taught the anatomy of jokes alongside five-paragraph essays and citing sources: humor is an incredibly powerful rhetorical tool which can buttress systems of inequality or tear them apart, and if kids learn this in comp rhet we’d have fewer grown folks making embarrassing and harmful gaffes. It’s also a good example of why #WeNeedDiverseBooks (the campaign to which Handler donated his apology money) and diverse curricula in general. I wonder, genuinely, whether Handler would have attempted the watermelon joke if he had known Carrie Mae Weems had already skewered it decades ago.
Ain’t Jokin’ is one of Carrie Mae Weems’ earliest photographic series, and established the wry wit, intimate portraiture, and interplay with text for which she is well known. The images in this series are titled after supposedly humorous stereotypes about black culture, which contrast mightily with the portraits themselves. For example: “Black Man Holding Watermelon.”
This man stands in an almost architectural pose, with his hair sculpted and his arms held close to his body. But while his body language is closed, his gaze is open and directed at the viewer. (In my experience, Weems’ photographs are printed close to scale and hung at about head-height; looking at them is like coming face to face with her subjects. They are also finely textured and beautiful gelatin silver prints, which may not be clear from the web images; in print, they invite gazing.) The man holds a watermelon, but isn’t engaged or reacting to it in any other way. Between his aloof posture, his frank stare, and his unadorned background, the composition suggests that whatever burdens you bring to this image — watermelon or otherwise — are yours, not his.
Another relevant photo from this series is “Black Woman With Chicken”:
Not “Black Woman Eating Chicken” or even, like the man above, “Holding.” She just has it. What she does with it is clearly none of your business: whether or not she plans to eat it, whether or not she enjoys it, is obscured by the hand partially covering her mouth. Like the man holding the watermelon, her posture is guarded — even her heavy sweater suggests armor — but her gaze directly anticipates and confronts the viewer.
Now imagine these photos without the food props. Completely different reading, right? The man, without the watermelon and absent any other context, would pull attention to his distinctive style; the woman, without chicken, might be interpreted any number of ways. But though the things they carry may seem like minor details, these foods introduce layers of meaning: regional associations, black culture connotations, and a history of racist ridicule. The foods transform the composition and throw the subjects’ blackness into stark relief. There’s a palpable tension in these photographs that resembles humor, is maybe even actually funny, but is definitely deeply, bitingly ironic: the juxtaposition of the self-possessed, watchful subjects and the racist narratives that would cast an imagined otherness over them like a net.
I’ve been thinking about microaggressions these last few weeks, in the wake of the Book Awards debacle along with wave after wave of state-sanctioned overt aggression. Macroaggression. And I’ve been quiet, because I think sometimes it’s important to shut up and take a seat, and to listen. But I recently saw a photo of a woman holding a sign that said “White silence = white consent.” And I think that’s important, too. I do not want my silence to be interpreted as consent to a white culture that presumes my friends and neighbors guilty even when they are proven innocent, that treats a history of inequality as a joke, or that pretends to feel threatened and afraid when it should be impossible to ignore who the real threat is.
So I write about what I know. I know about food symbolism, and how even foods that are widely consumed and enjoyed can, in certain contexts, come to represent and reproduce cultural difference. I know about the ways humor can reflect or resist social order. I know that microaggressions such as casual, ironic racist jokes are just the tip of a vast and dangerous iceberg, the kind that sinks ships. And I can share and promote some of the powerful writing and images that have already been made on these subjects.
Most importantly: Jacqueline Woodson’s own words at the New York Times. The “joke” is all the more hurtful in the context of her relationship to Handler–she told him about her allergy when, as a guest at his dinner party, she couldn’t eat a watermelon soup–and her own conflicted history with the fruit.
One of the first and most poignant reactions I read was from poet Nikki Finney:
Suddenly and without warning Handler throws his watermelon joke up into the air like a Monday night football pass that anybody in America can catch. The watermelon breaks against the posh black-tie Cipriani restaurant lights and shatters into the keyboard of my computer without warning. I stare down at my fingers.
Everything is red and sticky.
At The Atlantic, How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope. A good primer for anyone who isn’t familiar with the watermelon stereotype or the ways it lingers in the present day. This article does a nice job with history of this association — much of which I didn’t know — as well as its implications.
On this blog: more on microaggressions.