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What if the main character of your favorite classic book were black? A publisher makes it so (UPDATED)

Penguin Random House teams with TBWA and Barnes & Noble to launch #DiversityEditions for Black History Month.

What if the main character of your favorite classic book were black? A publisher makes it so (UPDATED)
[Photo: courtesy of Penguin Random House]
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UPDATE: Since the launch of Diversity Edition on February 5th, the online response has been huge, with critics calling it everything from tone-deaf to literary black face. Barnes & Noble has decided to cancel the project as a result. The company’s statement, as well as one from TBWA, is below.

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During the Pequod‘s last voyage in Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is 58 years old. Physically, he has a prosthetic leg made of whale bone, and a pale white mark or scar that runs from his hairline and down one side of his face and neck.

Now, here’s a question for you: Was he white? Or do we just assume he’s white based on the many, many depictions created since the book was published in 1851? How do you know he wasn’t black or brown?

This is the premise for Penguin Random House’s newest editions of literary classics, launching to celebrate Black History Month but to also challenge our perceptions of classic characters and offer a new lens through which to see these much-loved books and stories. Launching today in New York, Diversity Editions is a collaboration between Penguin Random House, agency TBWA/Chiat/Day New York, and Barnes & Noble. Twelve classics, including Romeo and Juliet, The Secret Garden, Moby Dick, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Frankenstein, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Three Musketeers were chosen after 100 books were run through a custom AI system created by TBWA to see if the author ever identified the protagonist’s skin color or ethnicity. The agency then commissioned seven artists from different backgrounds to create limited-edition custom covers, ensuring ethnic minorities across the country were accurately represented. The limited-edition run of these books will be available at the Barnes & Noble New York flagship on Fifth Avenue starting on February 5, but also to everyone else online. The Diverse Editions site will also allow fans to create and upload their own user-generated cover designs.

[Photo: courtesy of Penguin Random House]
The idea started with TBWA, where chief creative officer Chris Beresford-Hill and chief diversity officer Doug Melville started talking about how the conversation around the casting of a Harry Potter character in a play in 2015 could be applied to so many books. Back in 2015, there was a bit of an uproar when the London stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was cast and Hermione was being played by a black actor. Soon author J.K. Rowling waded in to make her approval official and try to put a stop to argument.

“When you’re a kid in school, they always tell you that the wonderful thing about reading is what’s on the page is fixed, but you can imagine it any way you want,” says Beresford-Hill. “And we started to think, well, if J.K. Rowling can say she never identified race, and it’s open to any interpretation you choose, then a lot of books have covers with white protagonists just because of some shitty marketing back in the day.”

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Melville sees this as an opportunity to make literature accessible and inclusive for many readers who haven’t felt a connection to the classics. “If you’re able to go on your iPhone and switch your emojis, if you’re able to go on Instagram and change your filters, why shouldn’t you be able to look at publishing and look at a book and be able to pick a cover where you can imagine yourself in it?” says Melville.

[Photo: courtesy of Penguin Random House]
Part of the goal here as well is to also inspire other publishers, authors, and writer estates to see this example and be inspired to create diversity editions of their own. Melville says that it’s such a seemingly simple thing that has the potential for positive impact for both readers and book sales.

“Sometimes you get the questions like, what does it matter? It’s just an emoji or whatever it is,” says Melville. “Every image matters. Images are powerful. Words are powerful. We speak in images. We speak in emojis. We speak in vivid language, and a lot of these books aren’t getting in the hands of the future generations because they just don’t see them as relevant. It’s just plain and simple: You have to see yourself in the creative arts to get the casual fan involved.”

UPDATE:

Statement from Barnes & Noble:

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And here’s the statement from agency TBWA:

“The Diverse Editions project was intended to remove biases from our assumptions about literary characters and used a custom-built AI to identify classic books in which the race or ethnicity of the protagonist was never explicitly stated. The Diverse Edition limited-edition jackets were designed by artists hailing from different ethnicities and backgrounds to create a more inclusive and culturally diverse visual expression of these classic works.

The covers were never intended to be a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices need to be heard. The booksellers who championed this initiative did so in an effort 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.

However, we acknowledge the voices who have expressed concerns about the Diverse Editions, and as a result, the project has been suspended. We sincerely apologize for any offense this has caused.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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