Sometimes you come across an idea so monumentally stupid that you have to stop what you’re doing, step out of your lane, and figuratively smack your fellow humans upside their damn heads.
That happened tonight when we saw that Barnes & Noble 5th Ave was planning to promote diversity and Black History Month by…releasing classic books with POC on the covers.
Let that sink in. Books almost entirely written by white people, containing main characters that are, by and large, white… but slapping a POC drawing on the cover makes it all better?
Several of us white people with — you know — common sense looked at each other and went “What…the…hell?”
How many people had to approve this before it happened?
How many people are that damned ignorant when it comes to what diversity means and how to promote it?
I can just see the convo in the boardroom:
Bob: “The minions tell us we need to promote diversity after that AD thing that those faceless brown people got upset about. How do we do that?”
[Karen and Bob stare at each other.]
Karen: “Well, we could find some POC authors to promote?”
Bob: “I have a better idea! Let’s just resell shit we have 80 versions of already, but this time…THIS TIME WE PUT BROWN PEOPLE ON THE COVERS!”
Karen: “Oh, that’s a great idea!”
Bob: “Much better than spending any time looking for diverse authors, right? I mean they’re so hard to find.” [Bob googles most popular classic books while talking without realizing the irony.]
Karen: “Exactly, Bob!”
Now, obviously (HOPEFULLY) that isn’t how the scene went down, but you gotta consider how things look from people on the outside looking in. And, y’all, this looks bad.
This article is addressed to the people that think like the fictional Bob and Karen in the above scene. We’re gonna talk to you as one white person to another. Maybe it’ll make it a little easier to understand.
What is DIVERSITY in publishing? Diversity, at its most basic in publishing is this: Publishing talented authors that aren’t straight white able-bodied guys! You let people tell their own stories instead of making sure that all that generations of readers see is experiences through a white, heterosexual, abled lens.
Wow, that was hard to understand, right? We know, so let’s break it down some more for you.
- It means you publish people whose skin tone is a color other than white.
- It means you publish people who are disabled.
- It means you publish people who love sexes and genders other outside hetero definitions.
- It means you publish people who identify as genders outside of the one you would assume for them.
It. Ain’t. Hard.
How do you PROMOTE diverse voices? Well, it ain’t by slapping a POC-rep cover on a white person’s book, Karen. But I’ll tell you the secret.
Are you ready for this?
Tracy says: By highlighting books and stories written by authors from DIVERSE backgrounds. That’s it. That’s the secret.
Lilyn says: Put more simply: You promote books by diverse voices, Karen.
I know, I know. It’s shocking. Take a minute to sit down and gather your composure if you need to.
How do you promote BLACK HISTORY MONTH? Well, it ain’t by slapping a POC-rep cover on a white person’s book, Bob. But there is something you can do! Something super easy, I swear!
Sam says: By promoting and uplifting own voices authors that encompass the Black experience, past and present.
Lilyn says: Put more simply: You promote books by black authors, Bob.
If you are having trouble comprehending these ideas, I have a brilliant solution for you!
One more time for the Bob in the back: HIRE DIVERSE VOICES AND LISTEN TO THEM.
Tracy says: I recognize my privilege in that, as a young girl in America, the books I read and the toys I played with looked mostly like me. Characters I could relate to were not difficult to find. I didn’t even think about it. Now, of course, I realize that not all people had this. So many children of color of all ages read the same books, watched the same things, all without truly seeing themselves reflected in a physical sense. So I understand, a little bit, at what this company is trying to do. This seems, however, like they are waving a big diversity flag, all while still promoting the works of mostly old white men. We all know there are other books out there from so many different countries and experiences, give THEM fresh, beautiful covers. Give THEM the spotlight. And these covers? Maybe rethink the facial expressions. This is my take as a 40-year-old white lady; I’m very interested in hearing what others think of this as well.
Sam ( also white!) says: When I first saw the tweet, I rolled my eyes at the tone-deafness of the idea. But given a few minutes to stew on it, I got full-blown angry. First, this is dismissive as all hell of actual classic diverse literature. It’s like B&N thinks POC didn’t exist before the 1900s, so this was the only way to represent them since obviously classic books actually written by the groups they’re trying to represent on these covers just don’t exist, right? Then there’s the covers themselves and the books chosen. Romeo and Juliet over Othello (ie: a book with a Black main character). The Secret Garden with…honestly I’m not even sure what they were going for there, but it wasn’t bringing the disabled character who already plays a huge role in the novel to the forefront, that’s for damn sure. Alice in Wonderland with the classic Alice dress – but braids and a headband so there’s no confusion that Alice is Indigenous American now (let’s not talk about its non-american setting, the cover creator clearly didn’t think that deeply into it so no point in hurting ourselves trying to make sense of it).
Barnes and Noble claim that this initiative aims to “champion diversity in literature” – while promoting 10 books written by white authors and two books written by the same POC author. Real diverse. There’s a way to elevate diverse classics and ensure that YA readers are seeing themselves in what they read, but slapping a new cover on and expecting readers to ignore descriptions and depictions of characters that are still “other” to them is NOT it. Honestly, it’s insulting how little effort apparently went into this project, but I’m sure Karen and Bob will be patting themselves on the back for weeks to come at their genius.
“To kick off Black History Month, Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue is partnering up to give twelve classic young adult novels new covers, known as “Diverse Editions.” The books will hit the shelves on Feb. 5, and Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue will have the books on display in their massive storefront throughout the month of February. The following books will be on display with their Diverse Edition covers:
- Alice in Wonderland
- Romeo and Juliet
- Three Musketeers
- Moby Dick
- The Secret Garden (PS: This is racist. Don’t believe us? Just read it.)
- The Count of Monte Cristo
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
- The Wizard of Oz
- Peter Pan
- Treasure Island
Each title had five culturally diverse custom covers designed to ensure the recognition, representation, and inclusion of various multiethnic backgrounds reflected across the country. The new covers are a part of a new initiative to champion diversity in literature. Customers who can’t make it in-store to purchase a book can download the new cover online for free. To celebrate the release of the new covers, Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue is hosting a Diverse Editions Launch & Panel Discussion from 6 to 8 p.m. on Feb. 5. The panel, which will be moderated by TBWA North America’s Chief Diversity Officer Doug Melville, will feature key opinion leaders within the industry including bestselling author MK Asante, literary agent Nena Madonia Oshman (Dupree Miller), Cal Hunter of Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue, and more.”
Now, because we have access to Google (and English teacher – Love you, Tracy!) here’s a quick list of some actual classic diverse voices you can read this month!
- The Souls of Black Folk by WEB Du Bois
- Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
- Black Boy by Richard Wright
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
This looks like a case of “Good intentions, Horrible Idea.”
Fellow white people, we can do better.
PS: We would like to thank S.H. Cooper for the title for this article. I was originally going to put: Diversity: Slapping Diverse Covers on (Mostly) White People’s Books Ain’t It, Karen.
Lilyn G is the founder of Sci-Fi & Scary, and leader of the Coolthulhu Crew. She does book and film reviews for both genres the site focuses on. Her tastes run towards creature features, hard science fiction, and lots and lots of action. She also has a soft spot for middle-grade fiction that rears its head frequently.
Though no longer involved with Ladies of Horror Fiction due to other responsibilities and a too-full plate, she was one of the original 4 co-founders.
Feel free to chat her up on Twitter as long as you aren’t hitting her up to review your book.