Barnes & Noble 'Diverse' Covers 'Get This Wrong,' Says Black Author Barnes & Noble suspended its campaign to reissue classic books with covers depicting protagonists as people of color after many authors, including McKinney, criticized the initiative.
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Author L.L. McKinney: Barnes & Noble 'Diverse Editions' Are 'Literary Blackface'

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Author L.L. McKinney: Barnes & Noble 'Diverse Editions' Are 'Literary Blackface'

Author L.L. McKinney: Barnes & Noble 'Diverse Editions' Are 'Literary Blackface'

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The publishing industry insists they're trying to answer the call for diversity when it comes to books, but this week, they fell short. Barnes and Noble had planned to sell a new range of books at their Fifth Avenue store that were being touted for diversity - classics like "Frankenstein," "Romeo And Juliet" and "The Wizard Of Oz" - only the covers featured a range of brown-faced characters. So same authors, just different cover art - and this was supposed to celebrate Black History Month. So, of course, Twitter blew up because where are the black authors?

L.L. McKinney is a writer who reacted to this misstep. She joins us now from Kansas City, Mo. Welcome, L.L.

LL MCKINNEY: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So the strongest kind of criticism I saw of this was that it was essentially literary blackface. Can you talk about what's behind that charge?

MCKINNEY: Well, essentially, it's still a story by a white author featuring a white character told via the white gaze, and none of this has changed within the context of the story itself. They're essentially just slapping a cover on it to, quote-unquote, "celebrate diversity." But a lot of us felt that you're just trying to cash in on the fact that it's Black History Month. And now all of a sudden, black faces and brown faces will sell books, which is - just maybe one, two years ago, people were saying in meetings, yeah, you can't put black people on covers. It's not going to sell the book.

CORNISH: And now it seems like they've had a change of heart, is what you're saying.

MCKINNEY: They've had a change of heart so long as they don't have to actually have any black content.

CORNISH: Barnes and Noble issued a statement on Twitter announcing their decision to suspend the Diverse Editions initiative. They said the covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color whose work and voices deserve to be heard. They also said that one of the goals for the initiative was to drive engagement with classic titles, and that is an idea you've embraced in some ways - right? - like the retelling of "Alice In Wonderland."

MCKINNEY: Yes. So these are stories that I grew up, you know, hearing and learning, and I've interpreted it. But that doesn't change the fact that the story itself - like, the one they're going to put on the shelf completely ignores my existence, the existence of other black and brown people. And some of those authors were very racist, so it's just - it adds insult to injury that, you know, this author wouldn't dare include me in his story, but you're going to put me on the cover to sell books during Black History Month. OK.

CORNISH: When it comes to bookselling in particular, there's been a long ongoing debate - right? - about how and where books are placed that are authored by people of color, whether they get, quote-unquote, "kind of ghettoized" in one section or if putting them all in one section somehow helps them to be sold. What would have been a better way to celebrate Black History Month - right? - if a bookseller is going to do that that isn't just slapping brown faces on the stories of white authors?

MCKINNEY: I mean, feature black people. That's the beginning and end of it. If you're wanting to, you know, put a spin on classics, feature classics that are by black and brown authors.

CORNISH: Right.

MCKINNEY: You know...

CORNISH: Things that are, quote-unquote, "also in the canon..."

MCKINNEY: Exactly.

CORNISH: ...I guess would be a good term.

MCKINNEY: Like Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison - give their covers updates, and put them on your tables. Or if you want to do this thing, you know, where you connect to this idea of the classic canon, we are out there writing reimaginings and retellings and putting ourselves in the narrative of these stories like "Pride And Prejudice," like "Alice In Wonderland," like "Wizard Of Oz." We're doing that, so feature those books if that's the angle you want to go. There are so many ways to get this right. They had to look for a way to get this wrong.

CORNISH: That's L.L. McKinney. Her most recent book is "A Dream So Dark." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCKINNEY: Thanks for having me again.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILA BRAZILLIA SONG, "A ZED AND TWO L'S")

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