A Black History Month promotion from Barnes & Noble and Penguin Random House has been canceled following a social media backlash accusing the companies of employing "literary blackface."
PRH had planned to publish a dozen classic books under the Diverse Editions name, with each book bearing new covers featuring characters from the books rendered to appear ethnically diverse. The program had included an edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley showing the monster depicted with black skin. A new edition of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick portrayed Ahab as an African-American, and a new edition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson offered what appears to be a Sikh character in a turban on the cover. Other books in the collection are Alice in Wonderland, Romeo and Juliet, The Three Musketeers, The Secret Garden, The Count of Monte Cristo, Emma, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, and Treasure Island. Multiple covers featuring characters of different races and ethnicities were available for each title.
The books and covers were to be exclusive to B&N's Fifth Avenue store in New York City, which had planned to host a kick-off party with a panel discussion the evening of February 5.
Diverse Editions was initially conceived to answer the question, "What if your favorite literary characters reflected the diversity of America?" It was in part inspired by the casting of Noma Dumezweni, who is black, as Hermione Granger in the original stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
The project involved a collaboration between Barnes & Noble, PRH, and TBWA\Chiat\Day, a prominent advertising agency; the initiative was led by a trio of African-American executives, including Sanyu Dillon, executive v-p and director of marketing strategy and consumer engagement at Penguin Random House; Cal Hunter, manager for business development and the business department of Barnes & Noble 5th Avenue; and Doug Melville, chief diversity officer for TBWA North America. In addition, the seven artists creating the new cover art were also ethnically and racially diverse.
Artificial intelligence technology was used to scan more than 100 public domain classics. Books that did not specify the race or ethnicity of their main characters were deemed suitable for the promotion. Nevertheless, people on social media quickly pointed out that nearly all the books are by white authors and feature primarily characters presumed to be white. This fact immediately drew criticism and a number of people referred to the promotion as literary blackface. (Alexandre Dumas, who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was mixed race, not white.)
Among the critics of the promotion were The Hate U Give author Angie Thomas, who tweeted: "Or / Here's a thought / Promote books by authors of color. Just a thought." Author Porochista Khakpour wrote: "Good job you managed to make diversity look racist, a real talent of white America!" And author Eric Jerome Dickey said: "How’s about just putting my novels and novels by other POC up front and on display? We have amazing covers of black people who represent characters that actually appear in our labors of love. Can’t browse what you can’t see and can’t buy what’s not stocked. Thanks in advance."
In announcing the cancellation, B&N said in a prepared statement: “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.”
Both B&N and Penguin Random House have other promotions for Black History Month. B&N is featuring tables of African-American titles throughout their stores and is hosting an array of themed events, while Penguin Random House has an ongoing campaign called Black Stories Have Power, which encourages readers to share stories written by black authors that have had an impact on their lives.