A publishing initiative to celebrate Black History Month by putting cartoon black and brown protagonists on the covers of classics novels written by white people — including The Secret Garden, Moby Dick and Alice in Wonderland — has been scrapped after backlash that called it literary blackface.
Dubbed “Diverse Editions,” the covers included Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a black man with an afro, Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz holding a pair of red sneakers instead of ruby slippers and Juliet, from Romeo and Juliet, wearing a hijab.
The project was created by Penguin Random House, Barnes and Noble, and advertising company TBWA.
But people quickly slammed the idea, calling it disrespectful to center white authors in Black History Month using black faces, rather than promoting black writers.
Author LL McKinney called it “literary blackface.”
“Giving Dorothy ruby Jordans DOES NOT CHANGE THE WORDS INSIDE THE BOOK,” tweeted writer Kendra James.
“Slapping brown people on classic books, some of which are problematic, isn’t diversity,” tweeted author Seressia Glass.
The covers were to be displayed and given out at Barnes and Noble’s Fifth Avenue store in New York, and sent to libraries. The covers were not for sale, according to Alex Ortolani, the director of corporate communications at Barnes and Noble.
Mikki Kendall, author of Hood Feminism, tweeted her frustration at the books being displayed near the birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance, a black literary and artistic movement in the 1920s.
Despite the books being written by predominately white authors and set in historical or fictional times, computer software selected the books for not containing characters specifically described as white.
They “harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to scour close to 100 classic titles, revealing in classics such as Alice in Wonderland, Romeo and Juliet, The Three Musketeers and The Wizard of Oz the protagonist’s race or ethnicity had not been specified,” reads the Diverse Editions press release.
Yet people noted that the character of Mary Lennox, the protagonist in The Secret Garden, is a white girl who has grown up with British parents in colonial-era India, a key part of the plot.
Barnes and Noble Fifth Avenue announced on Wednesday afternoon that the initiative has been suspended and its launch event cancelled.
“The covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard,” read the statement. “The booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles.”
The statement said that black authors are also being promoted as part of Black History Month.
“It was a project inspired by our work with school and was created in part to raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month,” it reads, “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.”
Amber Jamieson is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Amber Jamieson at [email protected]
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