Presented by the National Book Foundation
November 19, 2014 Cipriani, Wall Street, New York City
For the second year in a row, I’ve attended the National Book Awards presented by the National Book Foundation. Last year’s ceremony was simply great, and this year’s event was just as enjoyable.
The National Book Awards is often likened to the “Academy Awards” of the Book industry. I think the comparison does a disservice to this event which recognizes the best of American literature. What we see on the movie screen starts with writers; there could be no Academy Awards without writers to craft the stories, write the screenplays or even write the words spoken during their awards ceremony. The National Book Awards stands alone as the most important event in the American book world.
Of course given the lack of coverage, by main stream media, it would be impossible to appreciate the importance of this event. In fact, much of the coverage I encountered centered around a dumb joke, this year’s Master of Ceremonies, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) told regarding a watermelon and Young People’s Literature award winner Jacqueline Woodson. If you based your impression on what is being said on social media alone you’d think Daniel uttered the most racist thing said in public. Daniel immediately apologized, almost to the point of groveling.
Indeed, Lemony Snicket has even agreed to contribute up to $100,000 to We Need Diverse Books, an organization which Woodson is an advisory board member. One can’t help but wonder if this payoff is motivated by a desire to ensure Netflix’s adaption of his popular book series comes to fruition. Talk about a series of unfortunate events.
Most of the outrage was seemingly fueled by people not at the event. I spoke to almost all of the Black people in the room that evening. Nobody mentioned the comment. One Black attendee posted in Twitter, “Handler is the best NBA host since Calvin Trillin and Steve Martin.” I didn't hear Handler’s comment, at the time he made it; I was busy making my way over to Jacqueline to take a photo of her with her trophy.
Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket
That was not the only failed “Black joke,” Handler told that evening. Handler’s comment about hoping to win a Coretta Scott King Award
, in his introduction of Sharon M. Draper
, was not funny either (the 0:19 second mark in the video above
). It was not offensive, it just fell flat on a virtually all white audience that was probably unfamiliar with an award that celebrates Black literature for children. In any case, neither joke caused much of a stir at the event, was unworthy of the outrage on social media, and certainly did not warrant overshadowing the coverage of the rest of the entire event.
If books mean anything to you, so does freedom of speech. I’m more surprised by our collective reaction to Handler’s statement than the statement itself. The man made a bad joke, he was checked, and he apologized. Let’s move on. There are far more critical things that need our attention—particular as it pertains to Black people and the book industry. Ganging up on Handler won’t do anything but provide us with a fleeting false sense of moral superiority over someone else. When did we become so sensitive and callous that we can’t accept an apology from someone who admits they made a mistake?
Racism, or the utterance of stupid remarks did not start with Daniel, nor will it end with his $100K payoff. It will end when we recognize we are all flawed and learn to forgive each other.
More importantly, the National Book Awards ceremony is really the culmination of a year long series of events and support of literacy spearheaded by the National Book Foundation. One such program, is BookUp, an after school reading program in partnership with the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development. Award winning author, Mitchell S. Jackson, one of the program’s instructors, mentions BookUp in the video below.
David Steinberger, Chairman of the Board National Book Foundation The Press Box: Clare Swanson and Calvin Reed of Publishers Weekly Fred Moten, 2014 Finalist for Poetry and Troy Johnson Mitchell S. Jackson (award winning author), Sherrie Young (National Book Foundation‘s Director of Marketing and Special Projects) and Troy Johnson Related Links
35 African-American Nominees for National Book Awards (2014 to 2001)
2014 National Book Awards Long List
AALBC.com’s coverage of the 2013 National Book Awards