This week, Barnes & Noble unveiled a new book series – “Diverse Editions” – which reprinted classic titles like Frankenstein, Romeo and Juliet, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but with one crucial difference: the covers had black and brown characters on them. With the exception of Alexandre Dumas, who was partly black, all the books selected were by white authors. Let’s just call this what it is: literary blackface.
It is mind-boggling that in 2020 – during Black History Month, no less – readers and writers of color still need to explain the most basic tenets of diversity to the media and publishing industry. This is so racially insensitive that it is hard to believe many – or any – black people were present in the room when this idea was approved. Apparently internet outcry is still the only way to get through.
The bookstore, whose initiative has since been canned following a series of justly angry tweets, apparently used a computer program to scan novels considered classic and to choose ones where the ethnicity of the protagonists is unidentified. Hence: a black Captain Ahab on the cover of the “new” Moby Dick. A black Frankenstein’s monster.
Of course, that’s ridiculous. You don’t need to be a brilliant detective to discern what phrases like “porcelain skin” or “flaxen hair” mean. Changing these covers is also blatantly deceptive; young readers may be misled. But those are hardly the most infuriating aspects of this whole story.
The most infuriating is: if Barnes & Noble really wanted to honor black history, the company could promote books by black authors.
Booksellers were “convinced” that the cover-swapping scheme “would help drive engagement with these classic titles”, Barnes & Noble explained in its mea culpa. What the bookstore’s executives are essentially saying in this poorly crafted statement is that they thought they could lure readers under false pretexts to drive more book sales to white books.
According to Barnes & Noble, the initiative was intended to “create more awareness and discussion during Black History Month”. Well, it certainly sparked discussion, if not the kind they were hoping for.
If the company really wanted to celebrate racial diversity in literature for Black History Month, then they should only have promoted books from black authors or that have black and brown characters. The statement said that the covers “are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color”. But isn’t that exactly what it is? We encourage you to read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick because this one has a black Captain Ahab on the cover. The audacity.
This whole disaster reflects not just insensitivity, but a lack of awareness of how much young readers want and crave to see themselves reflected on the page. Even more alarming, the decisionmakers at Barnes & Noble willingly overlooked superb authors like Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Angie Thomas, Walter Moseley and Walter Dean Myers. How are young readers of color supposed to learn about their history and culture – during Black History Month, no less?
In a devastatingly depleted bookstore industry, Barnes & Noble is one of the most successful brands we have. When a company like that does something like this, it shows that the notoriously white publishing industry has still learned absolutely nothing. Publishers and booksellers are still indefensibly tone-deaf.
Any time you wonder about the lack of representation in book publishing, remember this moment.