restricted access Of Black Bodies, Watermelons, and a Series of Unfortunate Events
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Of Black Bodies, Watermelons, and a Series of Unfortunate Events

As she gave her acceptance speech after receiving the prestigious 2014 National Book Award (NBA) in the category of Young People’s Literature on November 19, 2014, one could see on Jacqueline Woodson’s face a sense of gratitude and jubilation. Her body language communicated a sense of being at home within that ceremonial space. With style and humility, she congratulated the other finalists and stressed just how important young adult and children’s literature are to our world. Her presence was marked by a sense of accomplishment, of having revealed to the world, through the literary creation of Brown Girl Dreaming, what it is like to grow up in the 1960s and 1970s vis-à-vis the vestiges of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. Brown Girl Dreaming is her existential odyssey, one explored through verse, a text that signifies to the literary world and beyond that she is part of a formative tradition that feeds the active imaginations of young adults and children regardless of race. Her dreams speak to universal themes that denote fungible relationships among all readers. She could have said with Frantz Fanon, “I wanted to come lithe and young into a [literary] world that was ours and to help to build it together.”

Woodson dreamed through the critical imagining of a black/brown body, tracing her origins and making meaning of life, of joy and pain. Yet, and without a moment’s notice, there was set into motion a series of unfortunate racist events, ones that decentered Woodson’s humanity and installed in its place an event of racist violence. Daniel Handler, host of the NBA, reminded Woodson (and all black bodies by implication) that her most sublime moment of achievement was secondary to the true meaning of her racial epidermal surface, a surface that is woven “out of a thousand [white racist] details, anecdotes, stories,” stereotypes, myths, and lies. She was transmogrified into an oddity, like Sarah Baartman’s “primitive” backside. While there is no attempt to conflate the deep existential tragedy that happened to Baartman with Woodson’s experience at the NBA ceremony, there is that sense in which Woodson became a spectacle, a wonder to behold, a racial and racist essence as Handler revealed that “Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon.” Handler then asked the audience to “Just let that sink in your mind.” By doing so, he drew on the collective white racist meme within the audience and effectively engaged in an act of discursive violence against Woodson’s embodied integrity. “Let that sink in” was an invitation to the audience to join him in a collective act of affirming their racism through acknowledging the racist joke that implicates all black bodies as bodies that love watermelon. After the audience allowed it to sink in, there was laughter from the predominantly white monochromatic audience, revealing the active production of a form of racist knowledge that is distortive and dehumanizing. It’s not simply that they understood the joke, but that they affirmed, through laughter (and not outrage) their sense of humor regarding the oxymoronic idea of a black body allergic to watermelon. They think that they are hip and cool (racially neutral) literati who can laugh without being deeply implicated in the perpetuation of white racist injustice and anti-black racism. Yet, the collective laughter further marked Woodson as an essence, as a black body, with big eyes and oversized lips, which naturally and sloppily eats watermelon; she is gluttonous and lacks control, a racist trope that has deeper hypersexual implications. The audience, along with Handler, forgot about the flesh and blood black woman standing there before them, her feelings, and her sense of pride. They were more concerned about what they took to be humorous than Woodson’s sense of dignity and elation in what was her moment. In other words, Handler, and the other white people who laughed, helped to install a racist value-laden colonial space at the NBA ceremony, creating a racist Manichean divide between “us” (whites) and “them” (Woodson and other ontologically “problematic” black bodies). And as is typical within the colonial...