Barnes and Noble Celebrates Black History Month By Giving Frankenstein an Afro [UPDATED]

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If you’ve ever wanted to see what Frankenstein’s monster would like with an afro, you now have a chance.


In honor of Black History Month, Penguin Random House and Barnes and Noble Fifth Avenue have collaborated on a project to give classic novels what they refer to as “diverse” covers. AM New York reports that each title had “five culturally diverse custom covers designed to ensure the recognition, representation, and inclusion of various multiethnic backgrounds reflected across the country.”

The covers, known as the “Diverse Editions,” will be featured on the following titles: Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Emma, Frankenstein, Moby Dick, Peter Pan, Romeo and Juliet, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Secret Garden, The Wizard of Oz, Three Musketeers, and Treasure Island. According to a press release, the titles were chosen with the help of AI, which scoured hundreds of classic novels to determine whether or not the protagonists were explicitly described as white. Those who weren’t were given a little color on the cover.

AM New York notes that this project is “a part of a new initiative to champion diversity in literature.” While harmless, that could have been easily accomplished by promoting books written by non-white writers, or—more specifically—black writers, given that this is a Black History Month stunt.

The illustrations are lovely, but could have just as easily been deputized for classic black literature like Beloved, The Color Purple, Invisible Man, or Their Eyes Were Watching God. A modern illustration for Octavia Butler’s Kindred would have been killer. Instead, Barnes and Noble and Penguin resorted to JK Rowling-esque Well-I-Never-Said-Hermione-Wasn’t-Black type of logic to justify this puzzling celebration of black history. It would more effective to celebrate black history by actually celebrating the black people who contributed to it.

I suppose Dorothy with afro puffs will just have to suffice!

Update, 2:25 p.m.: Barnes and Noble Fifth Avenue is suspending the project.



It probably goes without saying, but AI is not a particularly good mechanism for identifying the race of characters. 

In The Secret Garden, Mary goes on a whole racist tirade because somebody thought she was an Indian, and how Indians aren’t fit to be anything but servants. In context there’s no way, from this speech, to conclude she’s anything but white. But because the book uses “native”—a term the AI clearly didn’t search for—instead of “Indian,” we end up with this mess of a cover.

Now imagine a little girl picking up one of these versions, because she thinks she might find a heroine who looks like her ... only to be smacked in the face with that little speech.