Between Barnes & Noble and Penguin Random House, 26 executives are listed on their websites. 0 are black.
Looking at Barnes & Noble and Penguin Random House's Black History Month 2020 "Diverse Edition" cover campaign–a special release of 12 classic young adult novels, all written by white authors, but now with culturally diverse characters on the covers–you can practically smell the boardroom meeting that led to this abomination.
How did they possibly think it was a good idea to celebrate Black History Month by putting "Diverse" faces on stories about white characters written by white people instead of...you know, actually recognizing the works of black authors like Angie Thomas, Tomi Adeyami, and Nicola Yoon? Worse, did they really not recognize that giving each cover five different "multiethnic" variants actually seems to suggest that people of color are interchangable?
The entire point of Black History Month is to do the work to recognize the lived experiences of people of color. Barnes & Noble and Penguin Random House seem to have mistaken this for what essentially amounts to literary blackface. So what happened in that boardroom meeting? Here's how it almost definitely went down:
SETTING: Barnes & Noble HQ, a penthouse boardroom with a billion windows.
WHITE EXECUTIVE #1: We need to come up with ideas for Black History Month.
WHITE EXECUTIVE #7: What if we took a bunch of our best-selling classic books and like...made them for black people?
WHITE EXECUTIVE #1: The ones written by white authors? Those are my favorites! But how would we make them black?
WHITE EXECUTIVE #15: Easy. We just slap pictures of the main characters as black people on the cover.
WHITE EXECUTIVE #1: I love it. Except, wouldn't that make other minorities mad?
WHITE EXECUTIVE #23: Good point. In that case, we can just make five different variants of each cover featuring different minorities.
WHITE EXECUTIVE #1: Right. That way they know they're all represented, because representation is just saying a character is a different skin color. This is a great plan and is sure to go off without a hitch. We'll be profiting off Black History Month in no time!
The White Executives all laugh. Also, this boardroom is in actual hell.
Photos courtesy: TBWA\Chiat\Day\New York
In all seriousness, campaigns like this one are what happen when the teams coming up with high level decisions aren't diverse enough. Someone, at some point, should have been able to step in and say this "Diverse Cover" campaign was a bad idea that wouldn't actually appeal to anyone aside from the most basic "We had a black president, so racism is dead!" type of white people.
Again, for the people in the back, representation is not about slapping black skin on a white character. It's about highlighting the voices of actual people of color who have actual lived experiences to share with others and imbue into their work. It's about trying to see the world from any perspective other than just "white." (Quite frankly, as a white guy, even I'm sick of white guys' perspectives.) If they had hired a black author to reimagine Frankenstein from a black perspective, that actually could have been super cool. But as it stands, what Barnes & Noble and Penguin Random House did isn't helping anything other than their own profit margins.
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