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Literary blackface: Barnes & Noble miss the mark

Though their name may suggest an inherent nobility, the recent project by American bookseller Barnes & Noble seems to prove otherwise.

In celebration of Black History Month, the company announced the ‘Diverse Editions’ series, where covers of classic texts were re-designed to present black protagonists, as well as others from diverse ethnic backgrounds. This contemptible take on ‘diversity’ has led several black authors and creatives to deem the initiative as a kind of ‘literary blackface,’ noting the negative implications of the bookseller’s ‘race-swap,’ and how this widely reflects on the still-prominent racial divide within the books and publishing industry today.

Emerging through a partnership with Penguin Random House, the series selected twelve classic, canonical novels – including Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Frankenstein and redesigned their covers to feature people of colour. The limited-edition novels were justified by Barnes & Noble as a way to “help drive engagement with these classic titles… created in part to raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month”. Not only does the project raise questions of what makes a ‘classic’ or ‘canon’ text, but in an ironic and self-sabotaging manner, also points out a stark lack of black and coloured voices in the books industry – one where representation can only occur on a limited-edition basis. 

The initiative proves nothing more than an “attempted commodification of Blackness for profit”

As many responses to the initiative have pointed out, the ‘Diverse Editions’ series is a supposed means of observing Black History Month, so would it not have made more sense to celebrate black writers instead? As the author of The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas, suggests “here’s a thought/promote books by authors of colour”. Rather than recognising the need for voices of colour within the industry and the necessity to fill the gap which has been created through years of systemic prejudice, Barnes & Noble has missed this opportunity entirely by propelling such sentiments further.

The lack of recognition for black writers, as well as writers of colour in general, reaches an almost comical peak when simply race-swapping the covers of books on a temporary, limited-edition basis is seen as an effective way of celebrating diversity. As Rob T. Faulkner boldly suggests, the initiative proves nothing more than an “attempted commodification of Blackness for profit”, with Barnes & Noble arguably exploiting the need for diversity and celebration of Black History Month.

The project sends a clear message that diverse voices do not need to be heard, that they don’t matter

Ultimately, sales of these ‘diverse’ editions would not directly benefit black communities in any way. Furthermore, with a lack of black representation within the novels themselves, to race-swap the covers achieves nothing for people of colour, but instead propels the largely exclusionary nature of the books industry further. Some have pointed out that changing the covers may be misleading to young readers, particularly considering several of the titles which “have featured enslaved characters of colour would now have these characters on the cover”.

Barnes & Noble’s ignorant blunder proves exemplary of wider issues within the books and publishing industry, which are often overlooked. In choosing 12 canonical texts to promote through exploited ‘diversity’, the series reflects on the disposition of the publishing industry to only popularise certain stories. The project sends a clear message that diverse voices do not need to be heard, that they don’t matter or hold value compared to the domineering canon. 

Barnes & Noble have since responded to criticism, suspending the project and claiming that “the covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of colour, whose work and voices deserve to be heard”. The ‘Diverse Editions’ initiative was meant to be a celebration, yet instead, experiences of people of colour seemed to be trivialised as a special edition.

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