Tweets were calling it “faux diversity” and “literary blackface," a major marketing blowback during Black History Month.
“Diverse Editions” — a rerelease of classic titles including Romeo and Juliet, The Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan, each with five new covers representing different ethnic groups — was set to launch Wednesday evening at Barnes & Noble’s Fifth Avenue location in New York City.
But hours before, not only was the launch canceled but Barnes & Noble announced the initiative would be suspended.
“The covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard," said a statement issued by Barnes & Noble. “The booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles.”
The project, created in part to raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month in partnership with TBWA\Chiat\Day and Penguin Random House, printed 42 covers across 12 classics recasting lead characters as people of color.
The backlash started Tuesday evening after initial tweets posted by Barnes & Noble — “What if your favorite literary characters reflected the Diversity of America?” — landed with a thud.
“By slapping a brown or black face on the cover, it’s more white imperialism,” David Bowles, a Mexican American author and professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said in an interview Wednesday.
“It gives the illusion of diversity without the real diversity."
Penguin Random House did not respond to a request for comment.
Terri N. Watson, an associate professor of educational leadership at City College of New York, is African American and a former middle-school English teacher. She said it is important for all young people to read timeless books from beginning to end.
But she said it is a mistake to assume that only the current literary canon is classic literature.
”There are authors [of color] they could have highlighted, but they’ve simply put a new cover on an old book that’s part of the canon, which is a problem because [the canon] lacks diversity," Watson said.
The illustrations themselves were also criticized as being stereotypical: On the Wizard of Oz cover, Bowles said, the Native American girl wears war paint on her face and a feather in her hair.
Edith Campbell, a librarian at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, who is African American, called the Diverse Editions line hurtful, a slapdash way to accomplish diversity.
“Diversity is not about having more black and brown faces, but about decentering whiteness in stories.”
Campbell, who once worked in high schools, said a young person of color would “immediately know that the book is not about them. They want books that have meaning to them.”
A candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives lamented the line on Twitter on Wednesday.
“So rather than promote — you know — actual diverse authors for #BlackHistoryMonth, Barnes & Noble chose to re-imagine books by white authors w/Black face & Brown face characters,” said Qasim Rashid, who is running for Congress in Virginia.
Bowles, also a critic of American Dirt, a novel about migrants’ perilous flight to the United States by a non-Mexican American woman, noted the Diverse Editions was, literally, a cheap way to capitalize from Black History Month because the titles are in the public domain. The authors don’t need to be paid.
Critics on Twitter offered parodies of how a Diverse Editions novel would differ from the original.
"White Dorothy: welcomed to Oz with a song and dance.
“Black Dorothy: shows up in Oz and a bevy of Munchkins ask her if they can help her find anything and then offer to hold her bag for her. #DiverseEditions”