February 7, 2020

Barnes & Noble forced to cancel “diverse” book series amidst accusations of “literary blackface”


Melville House UK author Hanif Abdurraqib joined the Twitter discussion

Since 1976, every February the United States has embraced Black History Month, celebrating the contributions that African Americans have made to American history in their struggles for freedom and equality. The literary world often marks the occasion, and this year, Barnes & Noble had a grand plan to launch a new series of classic novels, featuring “diverse” covers. A plan which has ended in disaster and accusations of racism.

The new “Diverse Editions” series was supposed to hit shelves on Wednesday in B&N’s Fifth Avenue store in New York. The twelve classic titles were chosen by artificial intelligence, which analysed the text from over 100 famous titles, searching to see which books omitted the ethnicity of primary characters. Based on this criteria, the selected titles to ‘re-brand’ were Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Moby Dick, Emma, The Secret Garden, Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, Frankenstein, Peter Pan, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Three Musketeers, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Romeo and Juliet.

Each book was given five different cover treatments readers could choose from, according to B&N, designed by “artists hailing from different ethnicities and backgrounds.” The main protagonists on each cover were portrayed as being of BAME origin, so, for example, in one cover we see The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy as Asian, in one she is black and in one Native American.

Unsurprisingly the backlash to the launch has been fierce, with many, including authors and book lovers, taking to social media to express their outrage. Anger at portraying BAME characters on the covers of books written by white authors and calling it “diversity” has swept across Twitter, with some calling it “literary blackface” including Rod Faulkner in an essay on Medium, and authors LL McKinney and Vanessa Angélica Villarreal on Twitter.

The co-founder of the Black Girls Book Club, Melissa Cummings-Quarry told The Bookseller:

“Initially I assumed that this was a project re-imagining the classics—but this isn’t a re-telling. It’s book ‘black face.’ The same stories. The same racist tropes but with a flashy new cover.

“This is virtue signalling at its finest: a lazy, tokenistic gesture with a meaningless attempt at diversity. It’s really just a cosmetic change that does little to deal with the root of the issue. We want investment in diverse authors and in diverse characters. We have important stories; we just need the opportunity to tell them.”

This comes after the ongoing backlash to the publication of American Dirt, along with the recent boycotting of the RITA romance awards amidst racism claims, the publishing industry is awash with diversity issues.

In a statement to the Guardian, Barnes & Noble said:

“We acknowledge the voices who have expressed concerns about the Diverse Editions project at our Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue store and have decided to suspend the initiative. The covers are 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.”

B&N also put out the below statement on Twitter about the series cancellation:

Not only has the book series been cancelled, but in a bid to make amends, Penguin Random House (a partner in the project) has said it will donate up to $10,000 to the Hurston Wright Foundation, which works with up-and-coming black authors, giving a dollar every time people tweet the hashtag #BlackStoriesHavePower.

Some quick back-pedalling is not going to fix the increasingly alarming blunders being exposed within publishing, which is failing to address diversity issues at its roots. Many are calling for real change, including Colour of Change, a progressive nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization who want to hold Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble accountable and make them commit to change.

Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.