‘Literary blackface’: Barnes & Noble scraps ‘diverse’ classic covers after backlash

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Barnes and Noble has canceled its plans to rerelease classic books with covers that reimagine white characters as people of color. 

Publishers Weekly ran a story on Feb. 5, detailing a New York City location’s plans to sell refreshed editions of 12 classics, like Romeo and Juliet, Frankenstein, and Moby Dick. The twist? These covers depicted Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers and Frankenstein’s monster as people of color.

Black writer Rod Faulkner, among others, deemed this an act of “literary blackface.” 

“The history of blackface is rooted in the dehumanization, humiliation, mockery, and exploitation of Black people,” Faulkner wrote in a Medium essay. “These diverse editions continue that hateful legacy. Black people are not centered in these books. They are not of any consequence in these books. And if Black characters are even present, their place in the story is relegated to the farthest of margins.”

He added that because these books are not diverse, marketing them as such simply because of a difference in packaging is dishonest and exploitative.

“Slapping illustrations of Black versions of white main characters on the covers of these novels do not change any of these facts,” he said. “And in no way, shape, or form make the books diverse. What this amounts to is (another) audacious way to exploit Blackness for gross corporate profit.”

Barnes and Noble has not responded to the Daily Dot’s request for comment.  

Twitter users mostly seem to agree with the blackface claims.

“You put me on the cover to make a buck but I’m not in the pages?” Twitter user @BCMorrow said. “Promote INCLUSIVITY instead and back non-white authors, howbowdah.”

This…feels like a fail. You put me on the cover to make a buck but I'm not in the pages? Promote INCLUSIVITY instead and back non-white authors, howbowdah. https://t.co/8isEfbTjKZ

— Bethany C. Morrow (@BCMorrow) February 5, 2020

Another version of literary blackface….eye… https://t.co/uF1u8uEfv8

— LL McKinney (@ElleOnWords) February 5, 2020

Nah bruh. That's not how diversity works. If you're gonna promote diversity, promote the authors and stories that are actually diverse. https://t.co/XCUbeKOG7t

— BT:Level 35 (@B_Rabbit843) February 5, 2020

Not sure that judging books by their covers is a particularly positive message for diversity *or* books. https://t.co/M9UiPBEwRW

— DatNoFact ↗ (@datnofact) February 5, 2020

fyi:1. there are fantastic retellings of classic novels that feature diverse characters2. if you wanna promote diversity then promote diverse people cause this ain't it https://t.co/WPft0r4doD

— valerie wong 🇭🇰 (@wingity) February 5, 2020

Covers need to match the content of a book. How can a POC cover of Secret Garden accurately represent the experiences of a spoiled white English girl whose wealthy, colonialist parents died of a cholera in India? Diversity should be about creating safe spaces for #ownvoices! https://t.co/Ynwf85S1aj

— nayeli 🐢 (@eleennaeisloved) February 5, 2020

Twitter user @srbelter pointed out the missed opportunity to promote actual Black authors within the classic literary space, especially considering the legacy of Black New York writers who wrote during the Harlem Renaissance.

All I'm saying is they missed an opportunity here. This is Fifth Avenue. As in NYC. As in … the Harlem Renaissance? Instead of redoing classics by white authors, promote authors like:✨ Langston Hughes✨ Zora Neale Hurston✨ Claude McKay✨ Jean Toomer✨ Sterling A. Brown https://t.co/eMgVabhgaf

— Sammie (@srbetler) February 5, 2020


In finishing his essay, Faulkner succinctly identified his—and what seems to be many people’s—issues with these covers.

“Being more inclusive and diverse means doing the real work of seeking out and accepting contributions from marginalized communities,” he wrote. “Insipid marking gimmicks and lip service are transparent in their insincerity and fool no one.”


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H/T Slate

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