Robert Hampton, American Renaissance, February 10, 2020
Barnes & Noble tried to blackface our literature last week with “diverse editions” of 12 classic works. The covers all had images of non-whites to represent the title characters, all of whom have always been white. The titles were Alice in Wonderland, Moby Dick, The Secret Garden, The Count of Monte Cristo, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Emma, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Treasure Island, Frankenstein, The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Romeo and Juliet. Many titles had several “diverse” variants. One Juliet is very dark, another is tan and wearing a hijab, and a third might be Hispanic or Asian — or even white. With the exception of the one-quarter-black Alexandre Dumas, all the authors were white.
Barnes & Noble was clearly trying to curry favor, but blacks gave the company no credit.
Another version of literary blackface….eye… https://t.co/uF1u8uEfv8
— LL McKinney (@ElleOnWords) February 5, 2020
This…feels like a fail. You put me on the cover to make a buck but I’m not in the pages? Promote INCLUSIVITY instead and back non-white authors, howbowdah. https://t.co/8isEfbTjKZ
— Bethany C. Morrow (@BCMorrow) February 5, 2020
Slapping brown people on classic books, some of which are problematic, isn’t diversity.
We ain’t even gonna talk about the metaphor of the black man on the cover of Frankenstein. https://t.co/lv3lFlw5bG
— Seressia Glass aka Mallery Malone (@seressia) February 5, 2020
Barnes & Noble scrapped the project and apologized: “The covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard.”
— Barnes & Noble (@BNBuzz) February 5, 2020
Barnes & Noble claimed it “harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to scour close to 100 classic titles, revealing in classics such as Alice in Wonderland, Romeo and Juliet, The Three Musketeers, and The Wizard of Oz the protagonist’s race or ethnicity had not been specified.” This is crazy. In The Secret Garden, the main character is a white girl growing up in colonial India. The contemporary illustrations for Alice in Wonderland clearly show a white girl. Romeo and Juliet is set in 16th century Italy. Even Dumas’ adventure novels take place in overwhelmingly white 17th century France. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wizard of Oz, also wrote that “the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians.” He is not likely to have had a black girl in mind when he thought up Dorothy.
Bad luck for Barnes & Noble. Other companies have been praised for blackfacing white characters. There’s a mixed-race Cratchit family in FX’s 2019 adaptation of A Christmas Carol and a black Javert in the BBC’s new Les Misérables. Nearly 30 years ago, Warner Brothers distributed a version of Robin Hood, in which black actor Morgan Freeman played a completely invented character, Azeem Edin Bashir Al Bakir, who becomes Robin Hood’s indispensable sidekick.
A few people recognize that putting blacks in these roles is artificial. As black actress Thandie Newton noted in 2017, “There just seems to be a desire for stuff about the royal family, stuff from the past, which is understandable, but it just makes it slim pickings for people of color.”
Producers may just throw in black characters anyway. The Spanish Princess is a recent series about the life of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catharine of Aragon. Co-producer Emma Frost told IndieWire that she ignored historical consultants who told her blacks in Tudor England are a “stark anachronism.” “Even I knew just from basic research that that wasn’t true.” She cast blacks anyway.
It is the fashion to claim the West was always diverse, and multi-culti casts are just being authentic. “The excuse has been used that it’s not historically accurate, and that’s just not true,” says black actor David Oyelowo, who plays Inspector Javert in the new Les Misérables. “If you are an actual genuine student of history — and not just coming from an ignorant kind of purely white lens in relation to European history — you’d know that people of color have been in France, in the UK, all over Europe, for centuries, and not just as slaves.”
IndieWire writer Hanh Nguyen agrees: “[W]hile historical records and artwork have shown plenty of black, brown, and Asian faces through centuries of Western history, that same diversity has been largely absent in history class and on the screen unless it takes place after the 1950s.”
Critics raved over the speckled casting in the 2018 film, Mary, Queen of Scots. “Even in the 15th century, Europe had migrants from what is now known as the Middle East, as well as Asia, India, Sub-Saharan Africa, and more,” wrote critic Yolando Machado. “Casting talented actors like Gemma Chan, Adrian Lester, and Ismael Cruz Córdova — the latter plays an unapologetically queer character, another important aspect of representation often lacking in historical films — shows a heightened sense of awareness and creates a more realistic world.”
Black actor Adrian Lestor, who plays a lord in the movie, claims this represents “what Britain would have looked like at the time.” The film’s director, Josie Rourke, ultimately doesn’t seem to care about historical accuracy. She said she “was really clear, I would not direct an all-white period drama.”
The BBC has cast many non-white actors in anachronistic roles. Perhaps the most absurd is a black actress playing Margaret of Anjou, the French wife of Henry VI, in The Hollow Crown. But BBC writer Hanna Flint claimed this made the production more historically accurate. “A multiracial Britain existed before revisionists and colonialist apologisers began white-washing books and tomes.” Educational cartoons produced by BBC in 2017 showed black Romans living in ancient Britain. Prominent classicist Mary Beard called the cartoons “pretty accurate” because Roman Britain was supposedly multiracial.
The popular hip-hop musical Hamilton turned the Founding Fathers into blacks and Hispanics. King George III was the only white character. Some casting calls for the musical specifically sought only non-white performers. Producer Jeffrey Seller, said this was “essential.” “Hamilton depicts the birth of our nation in a singular way,” so “we will continue to cast the show with the same multicultural diversity.”
Amazon’s adaption of the Lord of the Rings will include non-white actors. The SPLC called the original films “Eurocentric,” so this is perhaps why the follow-up Hobbit films awkwardly included non-whites. The Netflix series The Witcher turned an explicitly pale-skinned redhead into a dark-haired mulatto.
Given all this racial alchemy, why did Barnes & Noble’s “diversity editions” fail? If Margaret of Anjou can be black, why not Tinkerbell? My guess is it’s because casting blacks in historically white roles is ridiculous but it gives blacks jobs, whereas a black Captain Ahab is simply ridiculous. It’s also because non-whites love to yell about race and put whitey on the backfoot, even if whitey was well meaning.
What’s far more insidious is the claim that there have always been non-whites in the West. The implication is that since they have always been here, why not let in more? It also means whites that if whites can’t have a homogeneous past, they certainly can’t have a homogeneous future.