The bookstore Barnes and Noble, in a joint collaborative effort with Penguin Random House and the advertising company TBWA Worldwide, proposed an initiative to celebrate Black History Month.
It thought that the best course of action was to put cartoon Black and Brown protagonists on the covers of some literary classics written by white authors, such as “The Secret Garden,” “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Moby-Dick,” “Frankenstein” and many more.
The idea was scrapped after the prominent book chain faced a lot of backlash online and heavy criticism from the general public and prominent figures in the literary community. One of the main voices of criticism was author L.L. McKinney, who dubbed the initiative as “another version of literary blackface” on Twitter.
In an interview with National Public Radio, McKinney states that “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.”
It has decided to suspend the “Diverse Editions” initiative and claimed that “the covers are not a substitute for Black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard,” according to Barnes and Noble in a press release on Feb. 5, 2020.
The company also claimed the use of artificial intelligence was used to find classic books that the protagonist’s race or ethnicity had not to be stated, but a lot of the books it had selected, like “Peter Pan” and “The Secret Garden,” are blatantly racist.
While many of the other books are noted as having racist themes and undertones, the statement made by Barnes and Noble makes zero sense because the whole plot of “The Secret Garden” was centered around a white girl in a foreign land.
It’s evident that Barnes and Noble didn’t have anyone put an ounce of thought into whether this was a good idea, and like a lot of people on social media are feeling like this seems like a desperate display of money grabbing. There are more effective, proactive and non-problematic ways to celebrate Black history.
For one, instead of including a list of classics written by white authors, why not have classics written by Black authors, such as Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Rita Dove, Nella Larsen and James Baldwin, and have their covers remastered instead?
Those were authors whose books focused primarily on the Black gaze and telling Black stories from Black points of view — which are stories that should be exemplified during Black History Month, instead of stories by white authors. White authors offer no literary contribution to the Black plight and struggle in this country and abroad.
Secondly, there should be a greater focus on up-and-coming Black writers not only in America, but also internationally as well. Explore their different works and display the new breakthroughs they are making in the world of literature. There should also be a strong focus on modern books that not only showcase new voices, but also represent new groups of people.
Representation in literature is a big deal — and representation at all from anywhere is huge. It’s important for people to see people that look like them doing amazing things, and for people to be inspired to try and accomplish those things too.
Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” was the first book I have ever read in school that had a Black protagonist, and a female one at that. It was interesting to imagine a character looking like you or someone you know — and it wasn’t something I had been able to experience before.
The literary and publishing world just hasn’t been able to handle diversity and race in an effective way. The novel “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins was criticized for inaccurately showcasing Mexican culture and portraying Mexican immigrants negatively. Many industry leaders also just don’t know how to talk about race and how to push out diversity in a way that makes sense.
The only way to fix that is for the people of color they want to so badly represent to actually have a platform to talk about their issues, and for them to reach the people that are affected most.