Today, in “You could have saved yourselves a whole hell of a lot of trouble by asking, like, a middle school-age child if this was a good idea” news: Barnes & Noble has announced that, on second thought, maybe it won’t be launching a new promotion featuring classic novels with “Diverse Edition” covers attached to them. Launched right at the start of Black History Month, the books—including The Wizard Of Oz, Frankenstein, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, The Secret Garden, and a whole host of other “classic” novels written by various white authors of a bygone era—kept the words of the works intact, but added covers showing the characters as people of color. The end result has been described as “literary blackface” by multiple prominent authors and commentators; even those vaguely sympathetic to the projects’ stated aims have pointed out that the energy that went into creating and promoting the covers could have been put into promoting the literary works of actual Black and other diverse authors instead.
As noted by ABC News, the initiative—launched as a partnership between B&N and Penguin—comes less than two weeks after the controversy that erupted around Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, which was accused of appropriation and trafficking in stereotypes for its tale (written by a white writer with a Puerto Rican grandmother) of a Mexican woman fleeing across the U.S. border. The conversation around the book has put renewed focus on the industry’s tendency to push, and pay, white writers with far more vigor than their contemporaries.
Somewhat bafflingly, the organizers of the Diverse Edition promotion have stated that they chose the books they did specifically because the texts in question never specify the characters ‘race; the assumption presumably being that there’s no evidence against the idea of a revenge-obsessed whaler in 18th century New England, or a small girl living in an upper-class English estate in the 1860s, being a person of color, so hey, why not go with it? None of which addresses the fact that every author surveyed for the project was white (or that the books in question are all in the public domain, which almost certainly contributed to the decision to promote them without having to pay any pesky authors at all).
In any case: Barnes & Noble has formally apologized, stating that it was “not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard. The booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles. It was a project inspired by our work with schools and was created in part to raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month, in which Barnes & Noble stores nationally will continue to highlight a wide selection of books to celebrate black history and great literature from writers of color.”