Black History Month is a time of the year when many reflect on the contributions of black Americans over the centuries. Many companies choose to celebrate this by highlighting certain products created by black Americans.
Barnes & Noble decided to take this another step further, and in partnership with Penguin Random House, redesigned book covers of classic novels. The idea was titled “Diverse Editions” and saw classics like Romeo and Juliet, Frankenstein, Peter Pan, Moby Dick, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reimagined with the protagonists being black.
The “Diverse Editions” were supposed to be on shelves earlier this month. However, it didn’t take long for outcry on social media to show the bookseller that their attempt at celebrating Black History Month was beyond a miss.
I love seeing myself represented in the diverse Barnes & Noble classic editions. For example, whenever I turn evil, my eyes turn extra slanty pic.twitter.com/sl8Ob4Hwdw
— readwithcindy 💩 (@readwithcindy) February 5, 2020
Instead of uplifting authors of color for black history month Barnes & Noble thought it was a good idea to redesign the covers of “classic” novels with images of ethnically diverse protagonists?? Make it make sense lol https://t.co/GLvHuhGNdC
— Noname’s Book Club (@NonameBooks) February 6, 2020
damn barnes & noble why dont u just hype up *actual* diverse stories instead 😭😭 we know damn well romeo and juliet was two white kids https://t.co/LPa0a8NhhH
— ceo of gay yearning (@kitscarstairs) February 5, 2020
Okay, real talk: here is why the whole Barnes and Noble and Random Penguin #DiverseEditions fundamentally doesn’t not work.
In their own words: pic.twitter.com/R9c9CXeyMs
— Justina Ireland Has A Sequel Out (@justinaireland) February 5, 2020
Author L.L. McKinney, who recently published A Dream So Dark described Barnes & Nobels campaign as “literary blackface.”
Another version of literary blackface….eye… https://t.co/uF1u8uEfv8
— LL McKinney (@ElleOnWords) February 5, 2020
She elaborated to NPR:
“It’s still a story by a white author, featuring a white character, told via the white gaze. And none of this has changed within the contents of the story itself.”
McKinney added, “They’re essentially just slapping a cover on it to ‘celebrate diversity.’ But a lot of us felt that you’re just trying to cash in on the fact that it’s Black History Month, and now all of a sudden, black faces and brown faces will sell books. Just maybe one, two years ago, people were saying in meetings, ‘Yeah, you can’t put black people on covers. It’s not going to sell the book.'”
Others also described it as “literary blackface.”
While promoting diversity for Black History Month, two companies made a big blunder when Instead of promoting books already featuring black leads, they turned white ones black, but only on the covers, making it an instance of literary blackface
— Sophia Narwitz (@SophNar0747) February 5, 2020
Kids who read it will still know Ahab is white. The text screams it! But now they’ll also know somebody at B&N thinks blackness is just a meaningless veneer used to mock real representation. It’s literary blackface, and they WILL see through it. Kids aren’t stupid.
— N. K. Jemisin (@nkjemisin) February 5, 2020
Look, I wrote a book that’s funny, timely, and important. I’m Black, the characters on the cover are Black AND the characters on the inside are Black. Imagine that. Would love an extra push from SOMEONE instead of seeing dumbass literary blackface shining. I’M RIGHT HERE. Hello pic.twitter.com/Q0mi9Cgvwd
— Lamar Giles (@LRGiles) February 5, 2020
We have moved into literary blackface.
….this is exhausting. https://t.co/UYzPx5Azmx
— Charlie Knight [they/them] (@CKnightWrites) February 5, 2020
As the outcry on social media continued to erupt Barnes & Noble finally released a statement about their “Diverse Editions” promotion.
In a statement released on Twitter, the bookseller announced they suspended the project and they cancelled their original event planned to be held at the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue in New York.
The statement reads:
“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. Diverse Editions presented new covers of classic books through a series of limited-edition jackets designed by artists hailing from different ethnicities and backgrounds. 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. 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.”
— Barnes & Noble (@BNBuzz) February 5, 2020
What do you think of this public relations debacle by Barns & Noble? Is this yet another example of terrible “woke” marketing? Let me know your thoughts!