If you haven’t been following the controversy over the recently released “American Dirt,” then you should know that there’s a shake-up happening in the publishing industry and it’s not going to end with one publisher’s commitment to diversify staff and extend book contracts to Latinx authors. In short, the Flatiron Books imprint of Macmillian Publishers paid a non-Latinx writer to turn the trauma that many immigrants experience into entertainment, and Oprah Winfrey made the book infamous by touting it as her latest book club selection.
One would think that other publishers and large scale commercial book sellers would be monitoring these developments closely, and reviewing their promotional practices in light of the evolving consciousness and the momentum building towards narrative equity. Even if that’s not a top priority, executives and decision-makers should be able to see the precarious position the publisher put itself in, and—at the very least—want to avoid the ire of the flourishing movement.
Enter Barnes & Nobles’ Diverse Editions, a cover art marketing ploy to kick off Black History Month at the bookseller’s flagship Fifth Avenue location in New York City. Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble conspired to redesign covers of “classic”, i.e. almost all White-authored printed works, to according to the write up in AM NewYork, present “culturally diverse custom covers designed to ensure the recognition, representation and inclusion of various multiethnic backgrounds reflected across the country.” The article goes on to say that the covers are meant to “champion diversity in literature.”
To be clear, the brilliant folks at Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble decided that it would champion diversity not by, let’s say, actually promoting books by writers of color, but by creating literal cover art Blackface of works created by White people. The stated intent of the endeavor was to reimagine the protagonists of books like “Moby Dick” and “The Wizard of Oz” as people of color because the text didn’t explicitly mention the race of its characters. Did we ever think that Captain Ahab was Black? No. Could Dorothy actually have been an Indigenous girl, with a feather earring and warpaint on her face? Absolutely not. And why not? Because as writer and #DignidadLiteraria activist David Bowles made clear in a tweet: “The canon is White. The culture, on the page in these books, is White. No need to assume. Every reader knows that when they were written, POC were not featured in books. @TBWAChiatNY, all you’re disrupting is #BlackHistoryMonth and the literary dignity of communities of color.”
Accordingly, the Diverse Editions initiative drew immediate condemnation. In a statement released by Barnes & Noble on February 5, just hours after it was announced, the initiative was suspended before it could even fully roll out. But the harm has been done.
The barbed wire-covered book jacket design of “American Dirt”—a visual meant to symbolize the deadly border conditions facing migrants at the United States-Mexican border—told us all we needed to know about what was contained in its pages: a plethora of misrepresentations, racist tropes and cultural inaccuracies. We should have known before we cracked the book’s spine that it would not speak to or about actual Mexican migrants and their multi-dimensional stories. In fact, the narco novel only serves to calcify White American biases and fetishize Mexican pain.
So I’m going to start judging books by their covers. Diversity is nice, but narrative justice is better. The cancellation of this campaign was just a start—we will continue to fight for our voices, for our stories and for our literature to matter.
Melissa Franqui is the director of communications for Race Forward, a national nonprofit working to catalyze racial justice that also publishes Colorlines. She is Puerto Rican and a supporter of the #DigindadLiteraria campaign. Follow her on Twitter @mfranqui.