Barnes & Noble’s Race-Swapping Book Series Pulled Over ‘Literary Blackface’ Accusations
America’s largest bookseller Barnes & Noble has withdrawn a new book series after being accused of ‘literary blackface’.
The ‘Diverse Editions’ series was announced on Tuesday, February 4, in honour of Black History Month, which is celebrated in the US throughout February.
In an effort to make 12 classic novels more inclusive, artists designed 42 new covers showing ‘culturally diverse’ protagonists for books including Frankenstein, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Moby-Dick.
The back cover of the books promoted the project, explaining:
For the first time ever, all parents will be able to pick up a book and see themselves in a story.
The campaign was a joint effort between Barnes & Noble, advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day and publisher Penguin Random House, with the books set to hit shelves yesterday, February 5.
However, the plans received a heavy backlash after members of the public argued the publishing industry should do more to promote writers of colour, rather than attempting to address underlying diversity problems with a superficial fix, such as changing the skin colour of characters.
Author Frederick Joseph tweeted:
A lot of us Black people also have books releasing and could use some “diversity promotion”.
This is essentially literary blackface.
Similarly, photographer Eunique Jones Gibson accused those behind the project of ‘giving the ‘appearance’ of diversity to appeal to Black consumers [without] doing the work to be inclusive’.
Some Twitter users referred to a problematic press release apparently shared by the companies involved, which claimed artificial intelligence (AI) had been used to determine whether the protagonists of the chosen books had been explicitly described as ‘white’.
Elizabeth Minkel, co-host of the podcast Fansplaining, wrote:
What’s not mentioned in here, though highlighted in the press release I received, is how they picked these titles: they used ~AI~ to scour a corpus of 100+ books to determine whether or not the protagonist was explicitly described as white, and if they weren’t, they went to town!
Diverse Editions was condemned by numerous social media users, with many others expressing a similar sentiment:
In response to the backlash, Barnes & Noble announced it had acknowledged the issues and suspended the series. In a statement shared on Twitter, the company explained the covers had been designed by ‘artists hailing from different enthnicities and backgrounds’ and that they were not supposed to be a ‘substitute’ for writers of colour.
The statement continued:
The booksellers who championed this initative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles.
It was a project… 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 [sic].
Advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day responded to the backlash by apologising for the offence caused, explaining the intention behind Diverse Editions was to ‘remove biases from our shared assumptions about literary characters’.
The 12 books included in the series were: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Moby-Dick; Emma; The Secret Garden; Treasure Island; The Count of Monte Cristo; Frankenstein; Peter Pan; The Wizard of Oz; The Three Musketeers; The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; and Romeo and Juliet.
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