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Barnes & Noble Puts Literary Classics in Blackface for Black History Month

Barnes & Noble Black History Month, Barnes & Noble diversity fail, Black History Month, Kristen Lamb, diversity and books, publishing

For those who might not know, in the United State, Black History Month is celebrated for the entire month of February. The point of dedicating an entire month is so we can bring focus to the works, art, history, and voices of a specific community within our vast and diverse nation.

We can learn, grow, heal hurts, right wrongs, increase understanding and create and deepen friendships that will (ideally) endure far into the future.

Like most other authors, I’m a huge advocate of literacy. Books, stories open up new worlds, and place us in perspectives we have no other way to experience.

Reading is Crucial for Understanding

Stories allow us to be another gender, race, or even species (Um, Trekkies?).

It is a level of empathy we can experience no other way, which is why it’s so vital.

Which is why for the LIFE of me I cannot understand what the HELL Barnes & Noble was thinking with their Black History Month initiative…which apparently to only THEIR shock was canceled midday Wednesday after massive online backlash (which I hope to fuel).

*pours out gasoline* *strikes match*

I know I’m going off my usual script here, but it’s been a long time since something made me this angry.

When I first saw the Barnes & Noble ‘diversity initiative’ I thought the same exact thing as Frederick Joseph, the black author of the upcoming book The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person.

“Instead of platforming black writers during Black History Month, they’re basically doing blackface. They’re using our imagery, our likeness, to still sell white narratives.”

Frederick Joseph

AMEN! I could not agree more. Who was smoking what when they approved of something as insulting as to put white literary characters in blackface to honor Black History Month?

No, I am NOT making this up.

New covers on classics only illustrated with multiethnic characters. They PAID good money to be this insulting.

Barnes & Noble Black History Month, Barnes & Noble diversity fail, Black History Month, Kristen Lamb, diversity and books, publishing
They were PROUD of this.

Penguin Random House, I literally frigging give up on you. We are DONE. Barnes & Noble I will never spend another cent in your stores EVER.

*throws furniture*

And Barnes & Noble is being run by a British C.E.O.? I thought y’all were supposed to be teaching us rube Yanks something about sensitivity.

Pound sand.

Black History Month: Literature Goes Blackface

I literally can’t even…

Barnes & Noble has screwed up so catastrophically that I am embarrassed I ever envisioned my books gracing their shelves.

So the bright idea Barnes & Noble had to honor African Americans this month? Redo covers from classic books like—I kid you not—Moby Dick, The Wizard of Oz, Alice and Wonderland—but make the characters on the covers dark-skinned.

Oh-kay, so classic books written by white authors, for white audiences chronicling white problems are appropriate for Black History Month…if we just change the color of the characters on the covers? Just put them in blackface?

NO ONE THOUGHT THIS WOULD BE OFFENSIVE? Yes I am posting the pic again because *screams*…..

Barnes & Noble Black History Month, Barnes & Noble diversity fail, Black History Month, Kristen Lamb, diversity and books, publishing
What the ACTUAL %$#@?

What About Actual African American Authors?

Last I checked, there are actual living breathing African American authors that Barnes & Noble could have used its remaining power and influence to highlight and promote.

In an age where discoverability is a nightmare for ALL authors who aren’t Stephen King (no hating on King, just we’re down to a handful of mega brands commanding most of the name-recognition), why not help authors of color?

Why NOT? There is a DEDICATED MONTH TO DO THIS!

Readers are wanting something new and fresh to read. We’re in a unique time in history where readers are WANTING to read authors of color. Race relations are a hot topic right now, and this was a huge window of opportunity.

And you missed it. You could have used this moment in time to take a primed audience and introduce them to authors of color, but instead, you squandered it on titles that anyone over the age of six knows exists and has seen a movie version.

Barnes and Noble, do you really think we’ve NOT yet heard of Alice and Wonderland? That we somehow missed The Wizard of Oz?

Who in your marketing department thought that we wanted to spend our very limited free time reading Moby-Frigging-Dick?

Oh, but the book is somehow better and less mind-numbingly boring because Morgan Freeman posed for the cover?

Bite me, Barnes & Noble. Just…bite me.

What I find fascinating is I’ve been on the hobby horse of exposure-dollar bullsprinkles, and how this industry will do everything it can to screw over authors and avoid paying them.

You Know What I Think?

Some beancounter crunched numbers and it was cheaper to redo some covers of white people books with dark-skinned characters than it was to risk that some authors of color might break out and sell big.

Don’t have to pay Lewis Carroll or Shakespeare royalties. I never thought I’d be mentioning Lewis Carroll in Black History Month. Wonders never cease.

I really have fallen down a rabbit hole.

Barnes & Noble has lamely offered what I will call The J.K. Rowling Defense, how Rowling claimed she never expressly described Hermione Granger as any race. Publishing and B&N then used that lamely to go back through the classics where race was never expressly described and **POOF** make the characters ethnic. And THERE is some diversity!

No one is going to imagine Alice in Alice in Wonderland as anything other than a wealthy white girl of a privileged time. The entire POINT of Black History Month is to highlight black people and their works, their art, their history, their voices and THEIR STORIES.

It is the entire frigging reason for the month. There is SO much to learn about. An incredible richness of language, custom, culture, history, myth that too many people–READERS–are missing out on. That you—YOU—Barnes & Noble, that YOU publishing industry could have done something REAL about.

Instead, you offer people of color this petty token? When y’all could have offered something real? As in tables or giant glorious displays of books by black authors in the flagship store in NYC on 5th Avenue? But you didn’t. You could have. But you didn’t.

SHAME ON YOU!

This is…

Is there a stronger word for atrocity? To do this is essentially saying that people of color are incapable of having their own art or their own stories…so let’s lend them some white stories and help them out.

God, I just can’t! I am so, so, so sorry that the publishing industry has done this to you. It’s appalling.

White People Get Offended Too

Me and ‘exposure dollars.’ Hold my ax.

I get it. I know that I’m whiter than a paper plate of Minute Rice trapped in a blizzard. But I’m a human and also a female, which comes with a bag of worms there. I can also empathize and WANT to empathize.

It’s why I want to know about books from authors with perspectives I NEED to see from, and I don’t believe that perspective includes a half-mad sea captain hunting an albino whale.

God even the WHALE is white! Did they make the whale black, too?

*sobs into laptop*

Granted, I can never truly know what it’s like to be a person of color. The closest I can get is pretty much STORY.

Which is why saying the publishing industry and Barnes & Noble dropped the ball does not BEGIN to cover cataclysmic proportions of how they’ve insulted a) people of color b) authors of color c) authors d) readers e) anyone with a brain f) anyone with half a brain g) anyone with a moral compass…

AHHHHHHHHH!

*breathes into paper bag*

This is why I strive to read many different genres from a wide array of authors, time-periods, opinions, and backgrounds. I WANT to be uncomfortable, to be challenged. This is how we form bonds, common ground, understanding.

Black History Month and Focus Time

Time can get away from me, which is why it’s good for me to be deliberate about what I’m choosing to read.

One day tends to blend into the next and the next into the next until a year has passed. So Black History Month or Women’s History Month or Asian/Pacific History Month is helpful for me.

These months are earmarks. Reminders. Black History Month is where I discovered novels like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Most of my favorite African American authors are non-fiction, so I rely a lot on Black History Month to discover the novels.

I’ve read fiction, non-fiction, memoirs and more, and I count on booksellers to help me.

Booksellers Should Be There to Help

I generally can count on Audible to offer up suggestions, books I might never have found on my own, stories that I may have never discovered. Librarians will do their magic and curate wonderful tables highlighting authors other than the megas we see donning every airport bookstore.

Historically, Barnes & Noble would do the same. But this? This is why the aliens don’t land.

Seriously Publisher’s Weekly, Random Penguin, Barnes & Noble? Y’all need to go sit in the corner and really think hard about what you’ve done. More importantly about what you’ve not done.

Shame on you.

For Authors of Color

My goal with this blog has been to help ALL authors. I’ve spent over ten years and millions of words going to the mattresses for creatives—traditionally published, self-published, indie published. I’ve stood behind all forms of publishing namely BECAUSE so many voices are being ignored by traditional publishing.

Or y’all get this…I don’t even know what to call this. I’d meant to blog on something else when I saw this headline and I was so angry I couldn’t see straight.

This is sickening. Just know it did NOT go unnoticed. We see you. We see the charade and we will not tolerate this behavior and will not let this pass. You deserve the best.

Go create because the world needs more stories. We need YOUR stories!

15 comments

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  1. All I can say is, rave on, Kristen. I cannot fathom where the minds, if any, of those who approved this unforgivable whatever-it-is was that day.

    • Susan Craig on February 6, 2020 at 8:24 pm
    • Reply

    Amazing idiocy. Thanks for call them out, Kristen.

  2. Outrageous.

  3. Loved your expression “bag of worms” which is a malapropism for “can of worms” which I used repeatedly in the 1980s much to the amusement of the younger lawyers in my firm. I met you and bought your book after your presentation at AWP in Boston years ago. I am now am reluctantly dipping my toe into the shark infested waters of social media after the recent publication of my first novel. Best wishes.

    1. Can is WAY, WAY too small.

      1. I don’t think of it as a size issue. I prefer “a can of worms, where the can is made of more worms.” 🙂

    • Deanna Gonzales on February 6, 2020 at 10:26 pm
    • Reply

    Brava! I absolutely agree with you on every well articulated point.

    • Lynn Emery on February 6, 2020 at 10:48 pm
    • Reply

    Welcome to the cluelessness, bigotry, and idiocy Black Americans experience from the moment almost when we emerge from the womb. I assure you someone is still arguing (inside the coffee room or at home to their spouse) that what they were doing is so misunderstood. B&N doesn’t get it. Penguin Random House doesn’t get it. PW? Nope. And let’s not forget the ad agency geniuses who helped craft the debacle. All those brains and eyes saw this and not one said, “Hey guys… um, maybe showcase classics by Black authors?” A Gathering of Old Men. Brewster Place. Devil In A Blue Dress. Blanche On The Lam. Daddy Cool. Or I could do a long freaking list of contemporary authors of sci-fi, horror, thrillers, mystery, and fantasy. I’m talking indies. Our huge challenge is discovery. And there are forces actively working against us. Not paranoia. Look at RWA. Another ugly eruption happened within Novelists, Inc. recently. Start seriously making moves to advance inclusion and diversity. Watch what crawls out of the woodwork. Talk of lowering standards just to to be “PC”, and “if they don’t like it let them go somewhere else.” Yeah. Welcome to a tiny sliver of our world. I was traditionally published. I’ve got stories.

  4. I like to say in my blog posts, especially when it comes to books and labeling, a good story is a good story, period. I believe the human race as a whole is just a bit too fond of using labels. Those darn labels then make it convenient to use just about every “ism” which exists. I’ve had the opportunity to meet people from many parts of the world, through the church I attended, believe it or not. It is an experience I would not trade for anything, especially since several of those folks became very good friends. They gave me an amazing opportunity to learn about their countries and sample their cultures through food. All without my needing a passport or suffering jet lag.

    I’ve been finding many of the people who have started following my blog are overseas. I’ve been wondering why, but I’m beginning to form a theory. I let it be known I returned to writing and decided to pursue an old dream, despite the fact it’s hardly an ideal time right now. I guess my suck-it-up-buttercup, quit making excuses attitude; and go make friends advice doesn’t play well here in the States. Despite my strong desire to ignore it, I found myself offering my opinion on someone else’s blog when they were questioning the RWA board decision, over a Twitter fued which never should have occured in the first place. My whole issue with social media, and what kept me from it, until I wanted to sell a book, is the juvenile behavior adults are exibiting far too frequently. You would think I dropped a stink bomb, or suggested everyone drink poison, from some of the responses I got. Especially since I had the nerve to suggest the combatants’ behavior was unprofessional, and you can accomplish a heck of a lot more by making friends with people. Rather than shouting in someone’s face and accusing them of something, whether it’s true or not. Someone was even surprised I thought writers should be held to a standard of professionalism. I’m not going to say this person had their opinion because we’re referring specifically to the Romance genre with RWA; because I don’t have a direct link to their thoughts. Still, if you’re doing something to make a living, that makes you a professional in my book. Meaning your public behavior should reflect that. If a lack of professionalism in the creative community is considered standard behavior now, then we deserve not to be taken seriously, no matter what kind of stories we write.

    I made the decision to go Indie shortly after starting my first book, because I knew I wouldn’t fit in with tradtional publishing. Nor did I wish to do so. It helps I’m getting old enough no one is allowed to mess with my values or standards. I know why I have those standards. I’m fortunate I have other skills which enable me to do much of my own production work, though the tools I use to do it, don’t come cheap. I used to work in the print industry, and have a bit of experience with POD, not to mention digital. Right now, I don’t have plans to produce other work than my own. However, I am forming an LLC production company, because my business does encompass more than my writing. Sometimes I surprise myself with ambitions I didn’t know I possessed. Who knows, maybe I’ll eventually move beyond self-publishing. Since I’m not the kind of risk-taker who jumps of actual cliffs, it hasn’t killed me yet.

  5. B&N did something idiotic? Oh my, say it isn’t so. I mean they’ve never….oh wait. *looks back at their recent marketing history, especially regarding eBooks/devices* Never mind. Their certifiably insane.

    There are plenty of good choices to showcase for black history month. Lot’s of black authors, or even black heroes in novels. The hero in Rothman’s Primordial Threat is a genius black scientist.

    I must say though, that even when given a good description of a character, I often envisage them quite differently. Take Gideon Oliver (Aaron Elkins) in the first book he’s described as “…a pretty big guy, you know. Six-one, six-two. Strong-used to box in college.” I don’t think they ever mentioned his ethnicity in any of the books (I can’t remember off hand), but in the TV show he was played by Louis Gossett Jr. While Gossett is a fine choice of actor and fits limited description (I think he’s 6’2″) and is fairly athletic, he’s decidedly not what I think of for the character. 6’2″ doesn’t seem all that big to me. When I think “big strong guy” these days, I’m thinking along the lines of say Larry Correia, who is over 6’5″ and looks like he “could pull the ears off a gundark.”

  6. Deary deary me.
    I can kind of imagine a sliver of perspective where that might have seemed like a reasonable idea – for a moment, if you didn’t think about it too long – but is the entire publishing/advertising world’s headspace jammed into that tiny sliver? The visible symptom is bad enough, but what it suggests about the underlying disease is really very disturbing.

  7. Such idiots! Seriously, like you say, there are tons of excellent African-American authors they could have featured instead of being a**es!

  8. Brava, Kristen. Thank you for standing up and speaking truth. Everything you said here…I agree.

  9. I totally agree, Kristen! Reading is essential to the human condition to build understanding across all genres and races. It helps us connect and communicate effectively in a world riddled with negative vibes. Reading builds empathy and we need all the books we can muster to continue to build that empathy. You have always been a great advocate for authors everywhere and every race, gender, genre and I am very grateful to have you in my life. I’m sure B & N will wish in hindsight they had taken a different approach to support and honor Black History Month. Clearly, this wasn’t it. Lots of Love, Kat.

    • rachelwordsmith on February 11, 2020 at 11:54 am
    • Reply

    Moby-Dick was the only one mentioned with a character of color. Ishmael the narrator was black if my memory is correct. If so, he should be on the cover. After all he tells the story in first person. Lost opportunity.

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