Barnes & Noble is having to back down from a diversity-oriented project that it hoped would be seen as positive and would improve its tarnished reputation.
Here's the background…
The company partnered with Penguin Random House to publish a series of classic novels - including Lewis Carroll's “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,” Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein” and L. Frank Baum's “The Wizard of Oz" - for which the covers would portray characters from the books as being dark-skinned. None of the words would be changed, but the covers were meant to pose a provocative question: Did you ever consider the ethnicity of the characters in these classic books?
The thought was that for the most part, ethnicity was never mentioned in the books or factored into characterizations, but the assumption always was made - regardless of the the color of the reader - that they were white. The new series of covers - marketed as "Diverse Editions" - were meant to suggest to people of color that these characters could look like them and help them engage with the classic titles.
To say the least, the effort backfired.
The criticisms of the series focused on the fact that these novels were not representative of the black experience, and therefore minimized it by trying to suggest that the white experience was universal. One critic called it “the classics in blackface.” Others argued that it would have been more powerful and appropriate to republish and promote classic novels by black authors. And it didn't help that the series was released for Black History Month.
Barnes & Noble has pulled the books from its shelves and website.
The company released a statement, saying that the new covers were "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.”
- KC's View:
Obviously, Barnes & Noble miscalculated here. So did Penguin Random House.
I have no doubt that their intentions were positive, that they wanted to make classic novels more accessible to children of color. But it assumed that people cannot relate to characters who don't look like them or live like them. One of the things that literature - and art in general - can do is give us access to lives and experiences unlike ours. Our lives and insights are broadened, not narrowed.
I totally agree that the companies would have been better off making books by black authors more available and accessible, which makes me wonder how many black people were in the room when these decisions were made. I'm not judging here, because I don't know, but is it possible that this misguided attempt to be more diverse actually reflects a lack of diversity?