On this week’s episode of “Books in Blackface,” the book retailer Barnes & Noble decided to “suspend” its controversial Diverse Editions series that was supposed to launch Wednesday in Honor of Black History Month.
The series, spearheaded by the chain’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, was a planned rerelease of beloved classics with newer covers featuring black characters instead of white faces, a move many critics, including the Root’s Michael Harriot, labeled as “blackface.”
Why couldn’t B&N simply showcase the works of black authors already deemed classics? Why couldn’t it publish and champion the works of new black writers?
The criticism rightly gave the behemoth bookstore pause. In a statement posted to Twitter, the company wrote:
“We acknowledge the voices who have expressed concerns about the Diverse Editions project at our Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue store and have decided to suspend the initiative. Diverse Editions presented new covers of classic books through a series of limited-edition jackets, designed by artists hailing from different ethnicities and backgrounds. The covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard. The booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles. It was a project inspired by our work with schools and was created in part to raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month, 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.”
For some, however, the apology was too little, too late.
Personally, I’m tired and we’re just one week into Black History Month. I’m tired of disrespect being packaged as praise, of blackface being heralded as greatness. Of course, I shouldn’t expect black folks to be treated right for one month during the year when blackness is disrespected the other 11 months of the year...but I had hoped.
The somewhat bright moment in this controversy is that Penguin Random House—the publishing house that dressed the classic books—says it will “donate up to $10,000 to the Hurston Wright Foundation, which works to develop, discover and serve black authors,” CNN reports. Plus the publisher promises to give one dollar “every time people tweet the hashtag #BlackStoriesHavePower.”
So that’s something, kinda, sorta, I guess. But it’s nothing compared to what could’ve been if somebody—anybody—would’ve given this initiative some proper TLC. It would’ve gone a long way to remind Americans that classics emerge from authors of every color in every era; and that these books should be lauded during Black History Month and every other month.