Barnes & Noble managed to find just the laziest but also the most tactless way to “celebrate” Black History Month. They have partnered with Penguin Random House in “a new initiative to champion diversity in literature”, but rather than actually publishing the works of the works of diverse authors, B&N and PRH thought it would be a good idea to slap brown faces on novels by white authors.
They have selected twelve “classic” public domain works and gave each one “five culturally diverse custom covers designed to ensure the recognition, representation, and inclusion of various multi-ethnic backgrounds reflected across the country”.
Update: B&N canceled the project Wednesday morning.
Edit: I am being faulted on Twitter for blaming B&N when this project was actually the brainchild of a famous ad agency. Okay, fine, it was B&N’s contractor, and B&N’s involvement was only the six or seven meetings at B&N corporate where this project was discussed and approved. (That’s not a huge difference in my mind.)
The books in question are:
- Alice in Wonderland
- Romeo and Juliet
- Three Musketeers
- Moby Dick
- The Secret Garden
- The Count of Monte Cristo
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
- The Wizard of Oz
- Peter Pan
- Treasure Island
The astute reader will note that eight of the books are by British authors, and two are by Americans. And while the list includes two novels by a black author, I am sure this was an accident (they probably didn’t realize Dumas was a black Frenchman). You will also note that this list includes a work by Shakespeare, just not the one starring a black character.
There are also several titles on this list with problematic content, including Peter Pan and The Secret Garden, where the main character is explicitly racist. (This last issue could be dealt with by bowdlerizing the book, but even so why would you bother to do so when you could just choose a work by a black author?) Edit: There’s also the hints of antisemitism in Jekyll & Hyde.
And then there are the covers. I don’t know which is worse, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde cover where Hyde is depicted as Asian wearing a turban, or the cover of Frankenstein, where Frankenstein’s creation is portrayed as black (in the book, this creature is pursued by pitchfork-wielding and torch-bearing villagers).
I will let you decide which is worse, but I plan to hold back. There are sixty covers, so I am expecting that the worst is yet to come.
Barnes & Noble will be unveiling all 60 covers at an event Wednesday night in NYC (RSVP here). We are also supposed to be able to download the covers from B&N’s website, and I would go look for them, but I just can’t get past the banner on B&N’s home page touting B&N’s book club pick for February.
Folks, what Barnes & Noble did here was no more and no less than literary blackface. They republished questionable works by white authors when it would have been so easy to find actually diverse authors to promote.
It took me less than 5 minutes of searching Wikipedia to find the lists of American authors (Mexican, African-American, Egyptian, etc), and about 5 seconds to figure out how to identify the ones with works in the public domain.
Barnes and Noble could not be bothered to do even that tiniest of work. Instead, they blindly grabbed whatever “classic” was handy, and slapped new covers on them without putting even the slightest thought into the message they were sending.
Update: According to the promotional materials, AI was used to select the titles.
We used artificial intelligence to analyze the text of 100 of the most famous titles, searching the text to see if it omitted ethnicity of primary characters. Using speech and linguistic patterns,or natural language processors (NLP) accounted for the fact that when authors described a character, they rarely outright state their race, but often use more poetic and descriptive language.
I was originally going to simply mention this in an update, but I decided to pull it out and put it at the end after I realized what this said about the thinking behind this project. They blindly put their faith in tech to save them when they should have been aware of the principle of “garbage in, garbage out”. AI is only as good as the data you feed it, and since this one wasn’t fed diverse books, there was no way that it could have picked up on problems like the racism in The Secret Garden, or the symbolism of the Frankenstein or Jekyll & Hyde covers.
And the worst part is that there were any number of people who could have pointed out the problems, had someone thought to ask.
* * *
We acknowledge the voices who have expressed concerns about the Diverse Editions project at our Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue store and have decided to suspend the initiative. Diverse Editions presented new covers of classic books through a series of limited-edition jackets, designed by artists hailing from different ethnicities and backgrounds. The covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard. The booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles. It was a project inspired by our work with schools and was created in part to raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month, in which Barnes & Noble stores nationally will continue to highlight a wide selection of books to celebrate black history and great literature from writers of color.