Illustration by Hannah Robinson
America’s largest chain bookstore Barnes & Noble came under fire recently after announcing plans to launch a new series of diverse classics. The ill-advised series takes the classics (think Moby Dick), slaps on some kaleidoscopic covers featuring vaguely ethnic cartoon characters, and calls it a day. Some noteworthy makeovers include Sikh Jekyll and Hyde, indigenous Alice in Wonderland, and a shockingly tone-deaf black Frankenstein.
Predictably this throwaway attempt to win diversity brownie points failed to fly in the Twittersphere and beyond. One comment sums up the collective outcry: “Do not repackage white books with diverse covers and lie about what’s inside them”. A second calls it nothing short of “literary blackface”. The online disbelief seems somewhat uniformed, considering the diverse classics series is simply the latest of several companies’ attempts to secure the politically correct seal of approval. To say that we’ve all seen the advert featuring Kendall Jenner sipping Pepsi and protesting police brutality shows that we’ve seen it all.
Pretending that diversity is surface deep has become routine. But perhaps what makes this instance more concerning is how the series assumes that blacking up the classics is somehow equivalent to actually working with non-white authors. Penguin’s little-mentioned endorsement has saved them from the the firing squad, but it points towards the larger issue which goes beyond booksellers to a publishing industry that continually faces criticism for being too middle-class and too white.
But imagine a world where the diverse classics series does not replace but is sold alongside a rich and representative array of non-white authors. Indeed, the diverse classics series is useful because it urges readers to critically rethink those books and their, often obscured, relationships to cultural difference. For one, the blacked up The Three Musketeers is more appropriate that most might think as it brings to light a little-known fact: Dumas was partly black. More so, the series is especially workable for classics that aren’t tied – at least somewhat – to any real-world context: is an indigenous Alice in Wonderland really that different to black Ariel? Both allow more little girls to imagine themselves as heroines.
The truth is that the classics, and the world that wrote them, assume an all-white worldview. Point in case, the bookstore apparently used a computer program to scan novels considered classic and to choose ones where the ethnicity of the protagonist is unidentified. Whether it is implicit or explicit, white is always the default setting and scans as colorless. And that all-white worldview assumes that whatever, and whomever, that isn’t white simply does not exist, or at best leads an irrelevant existence confined to some faraway backwards bush. Take any Jane Austen novel as it lovingly and effortlessly describes England’s stately manors only to uncomfortably skirt around the subject of fortunes beefed-up through non-specified overseas trade. Even the widely held misconception that non-white Britain began with the Windrush generation displays the same self-inflicted amnesia.
It is certainly foolish to think that colourful book covers could ever replace diverse stories. But it is less so to acknowledge how those covers help the fight to recover white-washed histories and challenge dangerous fantasies of a gloriously uncontaminated past that the classics, actually, do much to uphold.