Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ever Since The Watermelon: A Multi-Part Rant Begins

My dears.

I feel a rant coming on, and, although I may be a little late to the party, I find I have a lot to say.

Last spring I was asked to contribute a series of six articles on writing for young adults to a web blog. I could write them about anything, or so I was told. I wasn't going to be paid for them, but they would generate publicity and some pretty big names had contributed in the past. I was pleased to be asked. I wrote my first two articles, and had them not only rejected but had myself rejected as well, with the comment, "We are not interested in the sociology of race and gender."

This tickled me. I wasn't even aware that I could write about the sociology of race and gender.

I will get back to what I wrote about. I will, in the next few days (this is a multi-part rant) discuss the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and why it matters so much to me, a white more-or-less fully-abled heterosexual Christian woman living in east Tennessee, about as non-diverse a person in as non-diverse a place as you can be.

It matters to me for many, many reasons, but I'm going to start with this:

Imagine that you are a writer. It's not an easy way to make a living, but you are as it happens both hard working and immensely talented. You publish your first book, for middle-grades readers, in 1990, when you are 27 years old. It's well received. Very well received. In the next twenty-four years, while raising a family, you publish twenty-four books, for all ages of children from preschoolers to teenagers. You win just about everything there is to win: Newbery Honors, Coretta Scott King awards, a National Book Award. Then, two weeks ago, your autobiographical verse novel, Brown Girl Dreaming, wins you a second National Book Award.

The man who introduces you at the presentation of the award is a fellow writer and an old friend. He's also white. As you're coming up to the stage with the crowd on their feet, clapping, he says, "And she's allergic to watermelon! Let that sink into your heads."

And she's allergic to watermelon. Even though she's black!

A racist comment marring what should have been one of the proudest moments of your life.

You'll never remember that award ceremony, or the award itself, without remembering the watermelon.

Because you're Jacqueline Woodson you write a beautiful response, published in the New York Times. You acknowledge that the man who said it, Daniel Handler, meant it as a joke, unaware of the history and pain to which he was referring.

Daniel Handler should have been aware. We need diverse books because of him. Because of Ferguson, because of Treyvon Martin, because of racial slurs directed at our President's children, because we don't yet understand each others' stories, and we should. We must. It's time to move past the past, but we'll never truly do that without learning the stories we carry. For a very long time in this country, we've told the stories of white people only, or of non-white people only from white peoples' points-of view.

To Daniel Handler's credit, he got it. A bit late, but better than not at all. He issued a genuine apology, admitting that he had been racist and that he had marred the happiness of the occasion. He then donated $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books Campaign in progress on Indiegogo, and pledged to match all donations up to $100,000 for the next 24 hours. (Daniel Handler writes under the name Lemony Snicket. He's got the cash.) The campaign had already reached $100,000 at that point, but a lot of people in publishing, myself included, saw a way to make Daniel's comments into lemonade, and happily donated again up to the full $100,000 match.

We need diverse books. Stay tuned.