Saturday, November 22, 2014

48 Hours Later: Prolonging the Cringe

There has been a surfeit of commentary about Daniel Handler’s ghastly faux pas at the National Book Awardsbanquet after Jacqueline Woodson received the NBA for her book Brown Girl Dreaming. Naturally, I feel the urge to add to the noise.

Like pretty much everyone watching Handler’s remarks, I winced as the words left his mouth, and my first thought was, There, but for me, go I. Because I have been steeped in —isms from birth, as have we all. I’ve laughed at racist/sexist/ablest/homophobic jokes; I’ve made assumptions about strangers based only on their physical appearance; I’ve patted myself on the back for accomplishments that are mostly or entirely the result of being white, male, heterosexual, and physically unimpaired; I’ve discounted the feelings of those whose life experience I do not fully comprehend.

I cringe to remember insensitive jokes and remarks I made forty or thirty or twenty or ten years ago. Or last month. I hope I get better every day—I try. Life is a constant struggle to overcome our preconceptions and prejudices. All of us fail at times, as did Daniel Handler last Wednesday evening.

And he knew it, in the moment. You can see it on his face. In that ten seconds he went from one of the highlights of his career—hosting the National Book Awards—to his greatest professional embarrassment. It is agonizing to watch, both for Handler and for Jackie Woodson. I feel bad for both of them.

But Daniel Handler is a smart guy. He knows he screwed up, and he has taken steps to make things better. No backpedaling, no justification, just a straight-up mea culpa, an admission that his comments were racist, and a penance in the form of cold hard cash. I am not big a fan of Handler’s brash, self-consciously clever public persona, but I think he’s sincere this time, and he has done what he can to make things right. I would guess that Jackie Woodson appreciates his effort, even though there is no way he can truly undo the mortification he has wrought.

There is a bright side to all of this: We Need DiverseBooks has raised far in excess of $100,000 (plus the extra $100,000 promised by Handler), Jacqueline Woodson’s extraordinary Brown Girl Dreaming is being read by people who might not otherwise have heard of it, and Daniel Handler has been handed a life lesson of incalculable value—I hope.

Addendum: There is a very smart and rather painful discussion going on in the comments section at Horn Book about an article written by Roger Sutton. Roger makes some of the same points as I made in my post above, and man, is he taking it on the chin! The main point of those who chimed in is that Roger is giving too much sympathy to Daniel Handler without giving Jacqueline Woodson and every other person of color their due. Perhaps true, and I may be guilty of the same. If so, well, I'm working on it.

Addendum Two: Nice article by Woodson in the NYT. Kind of painful to read, but heartfelt and well-said.


Little Messy Missy said...

Took his foot out of his mouth and place his hand on his wallet. How unfortunate and important for him. Have not read the book yet...

Laura M Kaminski said...

Pete, I'm working on an email about this blog post to send to you, hopefully a bit later today.

Daughter Number Three said...

It reminds me of the Ani DiFranco debacle, except that Handler realized his profound error much more quickly. Glad he has tried to make it as right as he can.

But it's still hard for me to get into the head space where I could even accidentally saying something like that.

Pete Hautman said...

I agree, D3.