Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble teamed up for an ill-advised project called “Diverse Editions” for Black History Month in February 2020, only to swiftly suspend the program following an immediate and widespread outcry. Diverse Editions presented a dozen classic books (including Frankenstein, Moby-Dick, and The Secret Garden) with new dust jackets featuring illustrations of the (mostly white) characters reimagined as people of various other races. The program was announced on February 5, 2020, and the online response was vicious, with critics accusing the publishers of “literary blackface” and pointing out that publishers would do better to promote works by Black authors during a Black History Month promotion. The project was a collaboration among B&N, PRH, and ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day. The ad agency reportedly “used artificial intelligence to analyze the text from 100 of the most famous titles, searching the text to see if it omitted ethnicity of primary characters.” The original press release said, “We hope that seeing characters and beloved heroes in these classics embodying the diversity and inclusion to which parents and children can relate will make these works more resonant and meaningful for everyone. Diverse Editions is an initiative that is as opportune as it is essential.”
B&N was first to respond to the controversy, saying, “We acknowledge the voices who have expressed concerns… 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 a not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard.” PRH soon released their own statement: “We collaborated with B&N Fifth Avenue store on this promotion and we apologize to our authors, colleagues, and readers. We support Barnes & Noble’s decision to cancel it.” PRH pointed out that it has other Black History Month initiatives in place, including making donations to the Hurston Wright Foundation when people tweet with the hashtag #BlackStoriesHavePower.
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