Barnes & Noble kicked off Black History Month by announcing a new initiative with Penguin Random House to create “a series of covers for twelve American classics that reimagine protagonists as people of color.” The “Diverse Editions” were scheduled to be unveiled at the Fifth Avenue Barnes & Noble in New York—but after a backlash that included accusations of “literary blackface,” not only has the event been canceled, but the entire initiative has been suspended.
The short-lived “Diverse Editions” project comes on the heels of two recent controversies around a lack of diversity in the publishing industry. At first glance, the covers seem like they’re attempting to address the inherent whiteness of the canon, asking and answering the question, “What if your favorite literary characters reflected the diversity of America?” According to AM New York Metro, each of the 12 novels—which include Frankenstein, The Count of Monte Cristo, Peter Pan, and Treasure Island—had five different custom covers designed “to ensure the recognition, representation, and inclusion of various multiethnic backgrounds reflected across the country.”
A press release describing the selection process for the novels says that the organizers used artificial intelligence to “analyze the text from 100 of the most famous titles, searching the text to see if it omitted ethnicity of primary characters.” The algorithm apparently had the ability to account “for the fact that when authors describe a character, they rarely outright state their race, but often use more poetic and descriptive language.” Yet The Secret Garden, a book about a child of British colonialists who considers Indians subhuman, was somehow still included.
That choice, among others, reveals the fundamental problem with the “Diverse Editions” concept: The project assumes that stories written by and about white people are somehow racially neutral and that you can just slap a black or brown face on them and declare them diverse. But just because a character isn’t described as having pale skin or golden hair doesn’t mean that their whiteness isn’t a part of their narrative. And as authors like N.K. Jemisin and Mikki Kendall noted, “Diverse Editions” comes at the expense of lifting up and promoting actual nonwhite authors. (Of the 12 classics chosen, Alexandre Dumas is the only author who isn’t white.)
Rather than challenging what’s included in the classic canon, “Diverse Editions” simply repackages books by white authors while centering them … during Black History Month. In a statement Wednesday announcing the suspension of the initiative, Barnes & Noble offered that “Diverse Editions” covers weren’t meant to be “a substitute for black voices or writers of color,” but that “the booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles.” Hopefully Barnes & Noble’s next diversity initiative won’t measure its success by engagement with classic novels, but by actual diversity.
Update, Feb. 6, 2020: On Wednesday, David Bowles, a Mexican-American poet and translator, recounted a conversation he had with Sanyu Dillon, the director of marketing at Penguin Random House, that sheds more light on the initiative’s origins. According to Bowles, the idea for the “Diverse Editions” began with advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day and was not intended as the company’s only Black History Month initiative, nor was it meant to be a national campaign. Apparently, the head diversity officer of TBWA\Chiat\Day took inspiration from J.K. Rowling’s response to a black actress being cast as Hermione in the London staging of The Cursed Child.