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Books pulled over “literary blackface” accusations

Written by Arts

Barnes & Noble, the largest bookseller in the US has pulled a new series of ‘culturally diverse’ classic book covers off the shelves after facing widespread criticism. Critics claim they were supporting “literary black face”.

The bookseller had launched a new ‘Diverse Edition’ of books which feature covers illustrating main characters as people of colour. Titles include Romeo & Juliet, Moby Dick and the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Author Frederick Joseph had stated that the feature was ‘essentially literary blackface’

Earlier this week, the company announced a Black History Month event to sell the ‘Diverse Editions’ of the classic books, However has since received swift backlash. This was as the featured books were by white authors, starring characters who had been represented and interpreted as white. Author Frederick Joseph had stated that the feature was ‘essentially literary blackface’. Instead of promoting black authors and protagonists, the bookseller merely changed the covers of classics and called it ‘diverse’.

Further, a number of black authors took to issue with the bookseller’s project, pointing out that it did not address the lack of diversity in the publishing industry. Author N K Jemisin tweeted, ‘Kids who read it will still know Ahab is white. The text screams it! But now they’ll also know somebody at B&N thinks blackness is just a meaningless veneer used to mock real representation. It’s literary blackface, and they WILL see through it. Kids aren’t stupid.”

The initiative had revealed the struggles in addressing ongoing diversity problems in the publishing industry. While the bookseller had insisted on ‘good intentions’ regarding the Diverse Editions, the story behind how these editions came to be a thing may spark some controversy. Doug Melville had been inspired by the casting of a black actress as Hermoine Granger in the Harry Potter sequel, the Cursed Child. Melville and Cal Hunter, of Barnes & Noble’s flagship location had a ‘straightforward thinking: They assumed that changing the cover art for classics would change the way readers thought about those literary characters and their race. Backlash quickly followed, ‘this fake diversity nonsense is disgusting…’ author Nnedi Okorafor tweeted.

The ‘Diverse Editions’ were supposed to be on the shelves from early February, but has since been suspended due to the social media outcry.

The ‘Diverse Editions’ were supposed to be on the shelves from early February, but has since been suspended due to the social media outcry. It was released in a statement on Twitter that the project is cancelled, also admitting that ‘the covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of colour, whose work and voices deserve to be heard’.

Black History Month promotes the opportunity to recognise contributions by people of African and Caribbean dissent. This month, why not support by picking up a book by Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou? The publishing industry should give their cover updates instead of just representing them in the moment. ‘Feature black people, that should be the beginning and end of it.’ as L. L. McKinney states.

Last modified: 23rd February 2020

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