Some of the people who have been pushing back on “American Dirt” have found a new target for their anger. That target is a series of 12 classic books which Barnes & Noble planned to release in February in connection with black history month. The gimmick here is that the books have the same content as always but the covers now feature the characters depicted as black:
One cover of “The Wizard of Oz” shows Dorothy as an African American girl with her hair in a braid and puffs and a pair of red sneakers slung over her shoulder. Juliet wears a head scarf on one cover of “Romeo and Juliet”, “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” wears a turban and Frankenstein’s monster is a green-eyed, African American man with bolts in his neck.
The bookseller made new covers for “Moby Dick,” “Emma,” “The Secret Garden,” “Treasure Island,” “Peter Pan,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers.”…
The new covers were called “literary blackface” by African American writer Rod Faulkner in an essay on Medium, and others have said the energy spent making the “Diverse Editions” would have been better spent promoting books written by people of color.
I’m not sure describing black Frankenstein as “African American” makes a lot of sense but it’s clear what the publishers were trying to do. As with American Dirt, the criticism of the project was brutal:
“Diverse Editions” was announced at a time when the publishing industry is already facing scrutiny over the novel “American Dirt” and its depiction of Mexican life and culture. “Absolute TONE-DEAF decision-making,” Mexican-American writer David Bowles, a leading critic of “American Dirt,” tweeted about “Diverse Editions.”
Some examples from Twitter:
Can you imagine a young Black girl seeing a cover with someone who looks like her but then finds nothing that reflects her in the pages? No Black girls at all? Y'all that is more than a bait and switch. That's harmful.
— Karen Strong (@KarenMusings) February 5, 2020
Good job you managed to make diversity look racist, a real talent of white America!
— porochista khakpour (@PKhakpour) February 5, 2020
Oh my God. Please tell me y’all didn’t pull a “choose your marginalized adventure” with these covers. pic.twitter.com/Jd4htwnRPz
— Angie Thomas (@angiecthomas) February 5, 2020
It does appear that there were several version of each cover with varying ethnicities depicted:
— Heidi Alagha (@Heidialagha) February 5, 2020
In any case, today Barnes & Noble succumbed to the backlash and agreed to cancel the event:
— Barnes & Noble (@BNBuzz) February 5, 2020
The irony here is that this wasn’t an attempt to marginalize black authors. On the contrary, it was an attempt to make great works of fiction appeal to a diverse audience by suggesting that fictional character don’t have to be imagined to be white to enjoy the stories. According to Publisher’s Weekly, the genesis of this project was the casting of an African American actress in a role previously depicted by a white actress.
Diverse Editions was initially conceived to answer the question, “What if your favorite literary characters reflected the diversity of America?” It was in-part inspired by the casting of Noma Dumezweni, who is black, as Hermione Granger in the original stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
At the time, it was considered a broad-minded attempt to expand representation of the characters to a wider audience. The people who led the Diverse Editions appear to have had the same goal. The effort was led by African-Americans, and the artists who created the covers were described as racially diverse:
The project involved a collaboration between Barnes & Noble, PRH, and TBWA\Chiat\Day, a prominent advertising agency; the initiative was led by a trio of African-American executives, including Sanyu Dillon, executive v-p and director of marketing strategy and consumer engagement at Penguin Random House; Cal Hunter, manager for business development and the business department of Barnes & Noble 5th Avenue; and Doug Melville, chief diversity officer for TBWA North America. In addition, the seven artists creating the new cover art were also ethnically and racially diverse.
But none of that seems to matter anymore. There are always woke scolds ready to denounce everything as problematic.