Retroactive blackface is a bad way of getting more characters of color into the literary canon

There are better ways to promote literary diversity.
There are better ways to promote literary diversity.
Image: AP Photo/Pat Roque
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For Black History Month, Penguin Random House, Barnes & Noble, and ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day New York released “Diverse Editions,” 12 classic young adult novels with new multicultural covers.

The project used AI to search through the texts of 100 classic novels and determine if the characters were ever specifically described as white. If they were not, the protagonist could technically be described as being any race, and diverse book covers were born. A literary initiative aimed at “celebrat[ing] diversity and champion[ing] change in the literary world,” the hope was presumably that the redesigned books, available online and at the Barnes & Noble store on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, would force people to consider what assumptions that they have about race, and empathize with more characters of color.

On the surface, this would seem to be a great thing: More representation and more empathy is a win for people of color. But this well-intentioned effort is emblematic of a huge problem with corporate diversity initiatives.

At best, changing the covers of books like Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, Moby Dick, Emma, and Peter Pan is window dressing. A shallow effort to see more black faces without seeing more black stories. At worst, it’s retroactive blackface.

Does it make sense that Mary appears on the cover of The Secret Garden as black? Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel tells the story of a little girl who grew up in colonial India being waited on by “native” servants.  She finds her true home with her rich uncle in Britain, a comfortable life made possible with colonial wealth.

Does it make sense that Emma Woodhouse, the titular heroine of Jane Austen’s novel, living snugly as an heiress on her English estate, is black at a time when most black women in the colonies and Great Britain were slaves?

Changing the race of a protagonist in a story doesn’t change the culture or the context, and putting a multicultural face on a best seller to make money doesn’t mean that a company has championed diversity. Minority experiences and cultures aren’t as interchangeable as book covers.

Barnes and Nobles and Penguin Random House could have instead lifted up black literary giants and re-released their works. Putting a spotlight on Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, Hugo and Nebula award-winning Octavia Butler, or National Book Award-winning author Ralph Ellison, would be elevating not only black faces, but black stories. They also could’ve elevated lesser known, rising stars such as NK Jemison, who won 3 Hugo awards for her Broken Earth trilogy that debuted in 2015, or Nigerian-American novelist Tomi Adeyemi, whose 2018 young-adult fantasy novel Children of Blood and Bone debuted at number-one on the New York Times bestseller list.

Instead, a publisher, an ad agency, and a retailer used works in the public domain, and outfitted these white classics with black faces using buzzwords like AI. In the process, they succeeded in garnering headlines, but they failed to elevate actual black classics or up-and-coming black authors in order to improve diversity in the literary world. It seems Barnes & Noble is ready to admit to failure, too: It announced Tuesday afternoon that it is suspending the initiative after all.