Did Barnes & Noble engage in ‘literary blackface’?
No doubt, Barnes & Noble thought it was making a good business move when it came up with the idea for its Diverse Editions project in its flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The idea was to present a limited-edition line of classic novels featuring characters of color on the covers. The flaw in the project, which was intended to celebrate Black History Month, became clear when it was discovered that the novels getting the redesigned covers were primarily written by white authors and featured characters of the same skin color.
The project, developed with Penguin Random House, included new covers for such novels as Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Emma, Frankenstein, Moby Dick, Peter Pan, Romeo and Juliet, The Secret Garden, Treasure Island and The Wizard of Oz.
Alexandre Dumas, who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, was the only black author on the list. Mr. Dumas’ father, who was born in what is present day Haiti, had a French nobleman as a father and a slave as his mother.
The pushback on Diverse Editions was swift. Rod Faulkner, an African American writer posted an essay on Medium, calling the project “literary blackface.”
Barnes & Noble’s Twitter page included responses from puzzled consumers of different races wondering what the retailer was thinking, in particular when it came to novels that feature overt racism themes such as The Secret Garden.
The bookseller issued a statement in response to its critics after cancelling its Diverse Editions event in Manhattan.
“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. 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.”
- How Barnes & Noble’s ‘Diverse Editions’ Of Classic Novels Widely Miss The Mark – Medium
- Barnes & Noble – Twitter
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How well do you think Barnes & Noble responded to the controversy surrounding its Diverse Editions initiative in New York? How could the negative reactions have been avoided in the first place?