Reprinted with permission from Nikky Finney
On Wednesday night Jacqueline Woodson won the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. After she left the stage the host of the National Book Awards, Daniel Handler, told the crowd that she, a Black woman, “was allergic to watermelon” and then implored the crowd at the National Book Awards to “let that settle in your mind.” I found myself staring at my laptop and choking on a waterfall of watermelon seeds.
What was spit and spoken out into the celebratory New York City night was bigger than Daniel Handler’s racist joking comments and Jacqueline Woodson’s stunning marvelous win.
News reports immediately called the comments “unfortunate.” Really? That’s it? That’s all you have to say?
What was spit and spoken, was spit and spoken, into a National Book Award microphone, in front of a National Book Award logo, and launched out into a world that hears such “unfortunate” comments all the time and rarely does anything to try and make it right, in order to abort the next racist moment to come, rarely steps into the moment courageously, by saying something, anything, about it, no matter who said it, but decides instead to simply wait for the present “unfortunate” storm to pass so that we can get back to life as normal.
Life as “normal” for this Black girl’s life has meant that every day in America I have to be prepared to endure the shotgun fire of old watermelon jokes aimed at my heart and my life. After the shotgun fire of these “unfortunate” words I am then told to stand there and “let it sink in” as if it wasn’t already lodged beneath my skin like a spray of bullets and then I am expected to just move my broken Black girl heart along. The old LP record starts to play: Pick up some Duck tape on the way home Black girl, bandage up your wounds for the umpteenth million time—you’ll be fine in the morning.
The words Handler spoke were spit and spoken into my face just as they have been spit and spoken into my black face for most of my life. The truth is: his words were spit and spoken into all of our faces. His racist “unfortunate” words are part of what keeps us where and what we are as a country that refuses to deal with “race.”
I was born into this violent and strange Black people and watermelon world. I grew up hearing and seeing watermelons, not as ruby sweet fruit, but as strange fruit slung into my face and hanging from trees as accompanying racist representation of Black people and the cutting emotional and physical violence that stalked us two hundred years ago and keeps stalking to this day.
Before cutting on the National Book Award ceremony I had come home from a day at my office, an afternoon spent preparing notes on Claudia Rankine’s book CITIZEN, which my MFA students are reading and discussing, which happened to be one of the five 2014 National Book Award poetry book finalists.
I thought I was safe. I thought I had left all of Rankine’s moments of “invisible racism—moments that you experience and that happen really fast” at the office.
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.
The Zora Neale Hurston quote that Rankine uses in her book as oar, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” launches into my chest and begins to pound me against the laughing cyber audience at the National Book Awards.
I hear some in the audience laughing into the cavernous room along with Handler and his ridiculous rocketing racist joke. I stand up in my house and stare at the lap top screen. I look at the door to make sure it is locked. I look around to make sure I know where I am. I look down at my feet to make sure I am not standing in front of my 13, all-white, MFA students, in a calm discussion about quotidian racist moments in America, in our end-of-semester text, a week before Thanksgiving.
I am in my house, right? With the door locked, right? Safe on my blue couch, right? I have left all of that other behind, for now, right?
A few hours pass and I calmly and with respect send an email to the National Book Foundation suggesting that it might go a long way if they were to issue an apology—on behalf of the organization—who gave the microphone to the man, who we now know, did not deserve a microphone. I am told, by the National Book Foundation, that it does not feel an apology is warranted—by them. I am told that if the National Book Foundation apologized it might seem as if they had done something wrong and not the host himself, who had already apologized on TWITTER. I am told an apology would place the light on the racist remark and not on the winners themselves.
While washing my red sticky hands off in the kitchen sink I wish that the National Book Foundation had known my grandmother.
One summer at my grandparent’s farm, when I was 9, I spent the day fishing with two friends. On the way back to our individual homes, one of those friends picked up a handful of river rocks and aimed his proud elbow at a trio of bottom windows in Mr. Elijah’s barn. I stood there watching with my jaw dropped, amazed at his accuracy and his blind arrogance.
Later that night, after word made its way back around to our individual families about what had happened that day, all three of us were marched together back to the Mr. Elijah’s house. I didn’t understand. I told my grandmother that I had done nothing wrong. I tried to make my case for my innocence by even showing her how I had kept my hands in my pockets, as Eugene had been the one who picked up and threw the rocks. But my case fell on wise deaf ears.
“You were there,” she told me. “You are not responsible for breaking the glass but you are responsible for walking away as if you were not involved, as if you were not there, as if you did not have the power or the courage to do something to try and make it right.”
Winning the National Book Award for Poetry, in 2011, was a great honor but before that I won something far greater, what my grandmother taught me about collective responsibility.
I am sending this missive out today in order to keep reaching for the writer in me that Ursula K. Le Guin spoke of yesterday as she accepted the 2014 National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the one who writes for freedom, and I will refuse, forever and a day, to remain silent about the cozy racism that the National Book Foundation, and the rest of us who occupy the human race, but sit silently by while the watermelon jokes fly, spraying their staining red meat and black seeds on us all.
Even if our mouth was not the mouth that said it—we still must have and find the courage to speak out against such moments as these, lest all our windows be broken, lest all our great literary celebrations be reduced to a watermelon patch.