An American Treasure: Jacqueline Woodson

National Book Award Winner, Jacqueline Woodson
I recently was involved in discussion thread on one of my librarian listserv lately regarding award winning author, Jacqueline Woodson.

Woodson is the 2014 National Book Award Winner for Young People's Literature for the book, "Brown Girl Dreaming".  During the program, an insensitive joke was made by the master's of ceremonies that centered around a stereotype of watermelon and African-Americans.  Since that time, Woodson has responded by writing an eloquent column in the New York Times which was also picked up by Time Magazine. Both posts are currently being circulated on social media during this holiday season and in my opinion has made online reading quite interesting.

The Pain of the Watermelon Joke
by Jacqueline Woodson
I read some of the comments on the listserv and on the articles comment section....honestly my blood pressure spiked a bit.  I was saddened, then angered and then left bewildered by some of the comments.  Overall, many understood how Woodson felt in that moment:  She had just happily received this prestigious award and while making her way from the stage back to her seat, had the moment belittled to an insensitive joke.  What was also interesting is some of the comments ranged from Woodson reacting in a hyper-sensitive matter about the subject, while others believe that the joke was just delivered in poor taste and she and others should just let it go.

I know you are probably thinking, K.C. why are you so wound up about the comments of others? The reason why is, these comments represent the general thought or opinions of others.  You see in today's technology driven society, it's easy to hide behind a computer or online name these days, so one can be their authentic self and express their views freely. The comments in my opinion were authentic and represent as a society, that there is still a lack of understanding of people from other races/cultures. These comments also are an indicator that we still have a long way to go.

After reading all of the press associated with Woodson's award, I also think about a heated argument I had with a librarian colleague about ten years ago.   The argument centered around her lack of understanding about offensive books about people of color.   I explained to her that when I was working at Kdg. - 8th grade school, I used to cringe when I read the book, "Five Little Monkey's Jumping on a Bed."  This is a classic children's counting book that many of us are familiar with.     What many don't realize in the earlier version, the book was called, "Ten Little Nigger Boys." The popular chant that is now known as "Five Little Monkeys" (also known as "Ten Little Monkeys or Ten Little Indians") used the "n word" plural or "darkies" as a reference for Black people instead of the word "monkey".   Historically, the word "monkey" itself is a word which has also been used in the past and the present as an offensive reference for Indian and African American people. 
This is where I can directly relate to Woodson.  When she heard the comments during 'her moment', it took her back to a time of pain and struggle.   In my case, my colleague felt that since the revised version was reissued, I should no longer have strong feelings about the theme of the book.  My argument was it's hard to just 'erase' the imagery and message that was once present in this book, especially when I see copies on the internet and rare book collections.   This is why organizations such as, 'We Need Diverse Books' is needed because they are committed to diversifying all children’s literature.  Children should have the opportunity to be exposed to a diverse body of literature that accurately represents themselves and for their personal leisure and required reading.

Me Sitting Behind the Circulation Desk
I have been a Jacqueline Woodson fan as long as I've served as a school librarian.  She is one of many authors who are committed to filling the void of stories written about children of color. Through her stories, she has demonstrated to the publishing field that these stories are rich, wonderful reads that bring a different voice to contemporary fiction.   I applaud Woodson and so should you.  Her accomplishments should not be overshadowed by the comments of the ill informed that lacks cultural understandings.
She is an American treasure and we should treat and celebrate her as such.

Dwyer, C., (November, 2014)
Daniel Handler Apologizes For Jokes At National Book Awards

Frizell, S., (November, 2014)
Jacqueline Woodson Responds to Racist Watermelon Joke

Frizell, S., (November, 2014)
Children’s Author Helps Raise Thousands After Racist Remark

Gates, H. L. (July, 2014)
The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism
Oxford University

Harvey, R., (February, 1997)
Don't Judge Hearn Merely by Latest Slip of Tongue
Los Angeles Times

We Need Diverse Books

Woodson, J., (November, 2014)
The Pain of the Watermelon Joke
New York Times

1 comment:

  1. As a Children's Librarian in a public library and a Hispanic woman of color, I thank you for the information regarding the "Ten Little Monkeys" background. I did not know of the previous history of this book. This information is not taught in library school or in the "multicultural" library courses that are being offered in our library schools. I had always wanted for library school to teach more courses on diversity within the libraries, but have never seen any push for it. In reading your blog I realize that it is up to the few of us librarians of color to push for such curriculum or offer to teach it ourselves.
    Jacqueline Woodson has always been one of my favorite authors. I had the pleasure of meeting her in person and she is as gracious and generous as she is with her stories. I also applaud her for not letting a negative and ignorant comment steal her thunder. We must celebrate loudly our authors of color so the whole world can hear.