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Literary Blackface

When the largest book retailer in the United States, Barnes & Noble, launched their so-called Diverse Editions initiative in honour of Black History Month, they probably didn’t guess that backlash to the move would be so widespread and immediate they would end up shelving the campaign a day later. The initiative essentially professed to champion diversity by relaunching several classic novels with covers depicting characters of colour as the protagonists and was lambasted by prominent African American writers such as Roxane Gay and Angie Thomas. And ultimately, it isn’t hard to see why. 

The process of churning out an array of several novels, all in the public domain and almost all entirely by white authors with new covers slapped on seems laughably lacking in effort, given that classics are routinely reprinted and repackaged anyway. Whilst Barnes & Noble clarified that all the illustrators hired to design the new covers were themselves people of colour and from diverse backgrounds, the overall effect was at best shallow and at worst perhaps even more blatantly offensive than the absence of a character of colour altogether. It was, in particular, hard to see what exactly the depiction of Frankenstein’s monster as black was supposed to contribute towards the empowerment and representation of black people. The updated cover of The Wizard of Oz, of which several versions were printed showing Dorothy as black, Asian, and Indigenous respectively, swapped out the ruby slippers for a pair of red trainers in a move so facetious and clearly informed by two-dimensional stereotypes it was almost comical. 

However, perhaps the most egregious fault of the campaign lay not in the covers themselves but in the accompanying statement by Barnes & Noble, who preened that “for the first time ever, all parents will be able to pick up a book and see themselves in a story.” The classics that had been reprinted in question have all received their “classic” status from the dominance of a Western canon that has been defined by whiteness for as long as it has existed. In pretending that slapping a new set of covers on them is enough to override the context and content of these novels, and is enough to offer any substantive representation without in any way changing the stories themselves, Barnes & Noble proved their staggering lack of knowledge on representation, diversity, and the history of the erasure and marginalisation of black people and other people of colour in general. One of the classics reprinted is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, whose protagonist is the daughter of British colonists in India. To pretend that a single illustration can suddenly allow people of colour, many of whom are from backgrounds and families that are directly affected by colonialism, to suddenly feel seen by these kinds of stories is patronising and frankly offensive. 

The fact is that, whilst their misstep was a particularly public one, Barnes & Noble is only one representative facet of a publishing industry that is largely still tragically far behind where it needs to be in addressing longstanding lack of diversity and representation. The Diverse Editions fiasco comes after all hot on the heels of the publication of Jeanine Cummins’ controversial novel American Dirt, in which Cummins, a white American, writes the story of an undocumented Mexican immigrant. It should come as no surprise that Latino critics have commented that the novel strikes as stereotypical and woefully out of touch with its subjects, to say nothing of Cummins’ flaunting of barbed wire-themed centrepieces and manicures as she promoted the novel. It is all part of an overarching trend of performative diversity, a readiness to treat Black History Month and genuine political issues as little more than glorified marketing campaigns that can be capitalised upon to make a quick profit. After all, none of these efforts does anything to actually elevate or promote the voices of black writers and creatives of colour. Author Frederick Joseph slammed the Diverse Editions as “literary blackface”. The origins of Blackface stem from Jim Crow-era minstrel shows, in which white performers would don black makeup and perform racist caricatures for the entertainment of other white people; there is an insidious echo of this history, therefore, underpinning modern publishing and its tendency to pedal diversity by elevating only the same white voices that have always been given a platform, allowing them to misrepresent and capitalise upon the minorities whose stories they steal and puppeteer them for their own gain.

It’s not that reframing British and American classics to tell stories explicitly about people of colour can’t be done — but it is a process that requires recontextualising the content of the novel itself, not just its cover, and it is a process that can only be carried out effectively by people of colour. Ibi Zoboi’s excellent 2018 Young Adult novel Pride retells the story of Pride and Prejudice in a contemporary Afro-Latino neighbourhood in New York City, exploring themes of gentrification, colourism, and classism from the point of view of its Haitian-Dominican protagonist and Elizabeth Bennet reincarnation, Zuri Benitez. An Orchestra of Minorities, the 2019 novel by Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma, spins Homer’s Odyssey into a modern love story about a Nigerian couple. Both novels are unique in their ability to draw out aspects of their source material that are uniquely resonant to communities of colour and infuse them with culturally relevant commentary and characters. They are testimonies to the kinds of stories that can be produced when black authors are allowed to tell their own stories for themselves, and it is these kinds of stories that ought to be promoted and supported if one is serious about the promotion of diversity in any real sense. 

Each of the classics that Barnes & Noble was so eager to reprint, confident in its popularity, has maintained a place in cultural esteem because beyond simple intrinsic quality, it has been granted exposure and promotion for years and years, hailed as important, put in classrooms and children’s bookshelves and on “must-read lists”. None of these things are luxuries that have ever been extended to black writers or indeed any writers of colour with anything like the same strength and consistency. Even now, schools are much more likely to tout To Kill a Mockingbird by the white author Harper Lee as the definitive work of fiction dealing with racism than they are to promote Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Toni Morrison’s Beloved with the same conviction. 

Beyond classics and in the realms of genre fiction, it is even harder to garner recognition – if the African-American writer of speculative fiction Octavia E. Butler is still astonishingly underexposed next to the likes of Isaac Asimov or Michael Crichton, it only serves to show how much harder it is for new diverse voices to break out and be heard. In order for the publishing industry to address diversity seriously and with more effort than the kind put into flippant tokenism, it is precisely these kinds of voices it must actively work to seek out, encourage, and uplift. Fostering diversity is about engendering a genuine systemic and cultural shift, not a performative checklist to be touted around one month a year. Publishers and retailers alike have to make a concerted effort to seriously diversify the pool of creators they are promoting, not just how their creators are being promoted. Let this shift happen, and maybe then we can talk about covers.

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