Say goodbye to public perceptions of Frankstein’s monster as a pale green beast. And shame on you if you assume that Ishmael, Herman Melville’s 19th-century sailor in Moby Dick, is a white cisgender male (like its author). With a new initiative for Black History Month, Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble tried to render Frankenstein’s monster, Ishmail, and 10 other classic literary characters as people of color to “reflect the diversity of America” — and desperately failed.
To many, the initiative felt like an advertising ploy that reeks of fake corporate wokeness; and bookish social media users were quick to point this out. Responding quickly to the backlash, the project was scrapped less than 24 hours after it was announced on Tuesday, February 4, and a panel planned for today at Barnes & Noble’s Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan was canceled.
The re-outfitted books were to be prominently featured on the shelves and storefront window display at Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue throughout Black History Month. But the project raised the questions: Do we really need Peter Pan or Dr. Jekyll to be people of color? Shouldn’t Penguin and Barnes & Noble work on the inclusion of more writers, editors, and book reviewers of color instead of investing their resources in this tame, almost comical gesture? A survey on diversity in publishing released last month by Lee & Low Books found as of 2019, 79% of workers in the publishing industry are white. Only 2% of executives in the industry are Black, while white workers constitute 82% of editors and 89% of book reviewers.
A social media storm preceded the decision to cancel the project. Writer LL McKinney immediately pegged the initiative as “another version of literary blackface.” The author Mercedes Siler wrote, “So instead of paying poc to write new fresh stories, they’re hornswoggling people into paying for the same old stories with covers that are heavily stereotyped & have nothing to do with the content?”
Romance writer Tracey Livesay reacted with a tweet that read, “What?!? No! Is it really this hard? People sat down & had meetings & put a lot of energy & money into creating covers f/black people on books w/ the same old stories INSTEAD of promoting books written by black authors & featuring black characters? WTF?!”
And the novelist Porochista Khakpour concluded, “Good job you managed to make diversity look racist, a real talent of white America!”
In a statement today, Barnes & Noble said, “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 … The covers are not a substitute to black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard.”
The project purported to “portray new, ethnically diverse main characters that more accurately reflect today’s multicultural society,” according to Penguin and Barnes & Noble. Collaborating with the advertising agency TBWAChiatDay New York on the project, the two companies say they used an artificial intelligence (AI) program to “scour the pages of 100 classic literature books that portrayed white characters on the cover and revealed several books in which the protagonist’s race was never specified, only assumed.” An announcement by the advertising company said that artists from a “diverse range of backgrounds” were hired to create the new covers but did not name them.
Some titles have earned multiple versions for their new sleeves. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Secret Garden got at least three different covers, featuring their protagonists in various hairstyles and complexions. Romeo and Juliet had several covers as well, featuring racially mixed couples including one in which Juliet appears to be a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, kissing a dark-skinned Romeo.
Parallel to the new bookjackets’ launch, Jeanine Cummins’s controversial American Dirt is featured large on Barnes & Noble’s website as the company’s “Book Club Pick.” In the past few weeks, a debate has been fuming about Cummins’s new novel, which tells the story of a mother and son who flee Mexico for the United States after their family members are killed by a drug cartel. Critics have accused Cummins, who is Irish and Puerto Rican, for appropriating the immigrant and Latinx experience for personal gain (she was reportedly paid a seven-figure advance for the book). They also pointed to inaccuracies and stereotypes in the novel and suspicions of plagiarism. Oprah Winfrey, who included the novel for her book club list, is sticking by her choice, and announced that she will host a debate on Apple TV to “bring people together from all sides to talk about this book.”
The debate over American Dirt has also sparked a conversation about the underrepresentation of the Latinx community in the publishing industry. While they constitute 20% of the US population, only 6% of all workers in the industry identify as “Latinx/Latino/Mexican,” according to Lee & Low’s survey.
These debacles should bring the publishing industry to a moment of reckoning. Diversity must finally be taken seriously, not as material for fluffy initiatives made for white people who want to feel better about themselves.
Here’s the full list of titles that went through the diversity treatment:
- 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