Major bookseller Barnes & Noble canceled a Black History Month initiative at its flagship Fifth Avenue store in New York City after public backlash.
The store planned to host an event Wednesday evening launching its new “Diverse Editions” project, which would showcase ”classic” books ― like “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and “Moby-Dick” ― with new covers illustrating the main characters as people of color. The store planned to feature the newly jacketed books in its window display all month.
But after significant outrage online, the company canceled the initiative midday Wednesday.
People on Twitter suggested Barnes & Noble promote diversity by featuring works by actual writers of color. Most of the books the bookseller created new covers for, including “Emma” by Jane Austen and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll, were written by white authors and feature white protagonists.
“You have to look at the obstacles already facing writers from marginalized communities,” Frederick Joseph, who is Black and the author of the upcoming “The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person,” told HuffPost. “Instead of platforming Black writers during Black History Month, they’re basically doing blackface. They’re using our imagery, our likeness, to still sell white narratives.”
Author Elle McKinney, who is also Black, noted how Barnes & Noble chose to invest significant time and funding on making over “all these old stories by predominantly white authors featuring white characters” rather than put those resources into boosting Black authors.
“It’s literary blackface,” she echoed.
If Barnes & Noble was serious about this #BlackHistoryMonth celebration, they would feature and push renditions of the "classics" actually written by Black authors.— LL McKinney (@ElleOnWords) February 5, 2020
At WNDB we believe diversity goes beyond book covers; it needs to be present in the specificity of the storytelling.— WeNeedDiverseBooks (@diversebooks) February 5, 2020
For #BlackHistoryMonth, here are picture, MG, and YA books about Black characters by Black authors and illustrators — across genres. What are your faves? pic.twitter.com/1EPbFCu4Ch
Barnes & Noble said in its statement canceling the project that it acknowledged “the voices who have expressed concerns about the Diverse Editions project.”
“The covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard,” the bookseller wrote, saying it created the project to “help drive engagement with these classic titles,” as well as to “help raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month.” It noted that its stores in February would “highlight a wide selection of books to celebrate black history and great literature from writers of color.”
HuffPost did not immediately get a response from Barnes & Noble to a request for further comment.
McKinney suggested Barnes & Noble reconsider “what the canon classic is,” noting that many of the books they planned to feature come from an era in American history when Black people were segregated and pushed out of education and work opportunities by law.