‘Literary blackface’: Barnes & Noble scraps ‘diverse’ classic covers after backlash

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Barnes and Noble has canceled its plans to rerelease classic books with covers that reimagine white characters as people of color. 

Publishers Weekly ran a story on Feb. 5, detailing a New York City location’s plans to sell refreshed editions of 12 classics, like Romeo and Juliet, Frankenstein, and Moby Dick. The twist? These covers depicted Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers and Frankenstein’s monster as people of color.

Black writer Rod Faulkner, among others, deemed this an act of “literary blackface.” 

“The history of blackface is rooted in the dehumanization, humiliation, mockery, and exploitation of Black people,” Faulkner wrote in a Medium essay. “These diverse editions continue that hateful legacy. Black people are not centered in these books. They are not of any consequence in these books. And if Black characters are even present, their place in the story is relegated to the farthest of margins.”

He added that because these books are not diverse, marketing them as such simply because of a difference in packaging is dishonest and exploitative.

“Slapping illustrations of Black versions of white main characters on the covers of these novels do not change any of these facts,” he said. “And in no way, shape, or form make the books diverse. What this amounts to is (another) audacious way to exploit Blackness for gross corporate profit.”

Barnes and Noble has not responded to the Daily Dot’s request for comment.  

Twitter users mostly seem to agree with the blackface claims.

“You put me on the cover to make a buck but I’m not in the pages?” Twitter user @BCMorrow said. “Promote INCLUSIVITY instead and back non-white authors, howbowdah.”

Twitter user @srbelter pointed out the missed opportunity to promote actual Black authors within the classic literary space, especially considering the legacy of Black New York writers who wrote during the Harlem Renaissance.

 

In finishing his essay, Faulkner succinctly identified his—and what seems to be many people’s—issues with these covers.

“Being more inclusive and diverse means doing the real work of seeking out and accepting contributions from marginalized communities,” he wrote. “Insipid marking gimmicks and lip service are transparent in their insincerity and fool no one.”

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H/T Slate

Felix Kalvesmaki

Felix Kalvesmaki

Felix Kalvesmaki is a second-year student at the University of Texas at Austin and an intern for the Daily Dot. His work has appeared in Input magazine, Teen Vogue, and on Texas NPR station KERA.