Black literature’s importance goes far beyond a shallow marketing scheme. For centuries, the Black literary imagination has been synonymous with resistance.
CW: This essay mentions sexual assault
It’s Black History Month, and white people are doing what they do best — profiting off of Blackness and being disingenuous. Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble recently announced that they will be selling a line of classic novels with “covers promoting diversity” just in time to cash in on those celebrating Black History Month. But Black Twitter does what it does best — point out hypocrisy. And in less than 24 hours of the “diverse covers” plan hitting the internet, Barnes & Noble announced that they had scrapped the project that essentially dressed up white books in Blackface in an attempt to exploit Black and Brown people’s desire to be represented in media.
According to an article in AM New York, the original project called for “five culturally diverse custom covers designed to ensure the recognition, representation, and inclusion of various multiethnic backgrounds reflected across the country. The new covers are a part of a new initiative to champion diversity in literature.” The project’s creator used AI to determine which books didn’t explicitly describe characters as white as a way to select which books could be included in the doomed collection. The Secret Garden, a story of a white girl born in colonial India who terrorizes her Indian servants, passed the AI test. Sounds about white. Black literature’s importance goes far beyond a shallow marketing scheme. It’s deeper than artificial intelligence.
For centuries, the Black literary imagination has been synonymous with resistance. During American slavery, whites in many colonies enacted laws forbidding enslaved people to learn to read or write. These laws also made teaching an enslaved person a crime. This legislative effort came to be to uphold the institution of slavery and keep Black people dependent on whites.
Despite the potential for severe punishment, some enslaved people were determined to not only read but to tell their own stories. Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery but escaped after being sexually assaulted and threatened with separation from her children. In her book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs writes about how she subverted and ultimately beat a system meant to destroy her. Imagine another enslaved person getting their hands on this book and being inspired to run… or riot.
J. Edgar Hoover, former Director of the FBI, had similar fears when he targeted “Black extremist bookstores which represent propaganda outlets for revolutionary and hate publications and culture centers for extremism.” You read that correctly. The United States government was threatened by Black bookstores. More specifically, FBI agents conducted investigations to “determine the identities of the owners; whether it is a front for any group or foreign interest; whether individuals affiliated with the store engage in extremist activities; the number, type, and source of books and material on sale; the store’s financial condition; its clientele; and whether it is used as a headquarters or meeting place.” Again we see Black literature and Black people gathering around images of themselves in media as an existential threat to the American empire.
I doubt that “classic” books with diverse covers would get this same reaction from the FBI. Giving a child a book that shows a representation of them on the cover only for them to read the book and not find themselves or their culture in the pages is violent. This bait and switch tactic upholds harmful power-structures by not-so-subtly teaching children that they’re merely a cool costume and not worthy of their own unique stories.
Recommended: WHITE PEOPLE NEED TO STOP COLONIZING FICTION
And while Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble received much-deserved backlash for their “diverse covers,” we are in Black book Renaissance in which Black authors, Black bookstores, Black book clubs, and Black book swaps have proliferated. Calling out those who uphold white supremacy in any form is important and necessary. Centering Black people who are doing the work to make our world more equitable beyond aesthetics is also important and necessary.
Here are just a few people and organizations who are making Black literature more accessible:
Noname’s Book Club – The rapper turned librarian launched Noname’s Book Club last year and currently has 6 chapters across the U.S., but she encourages book club members to start their own unofficial chapters wherever they are. The online/IRL community uplifts BIPOC voices by choosing to read and discuss two books a month written by authors of color. The Club is raising money through Patreon to send their monthly picks to prisons in select cities.
Well-Read Black Girl – Well-Read Black Girl (WRBG) is a book club turned literary festival based in Brooklyn, New York. WRBG provides a vital space for Black women readers and writers to connect and grow in conversation.
Free Black Women’s Library – The Free Black Women’s Library, is an interactive Black Feminist mobile trading library that features a collection of 2000 books written by Black women. The library is committed to centering and celebrating the voices of Black Women in literature. This mobile library pops up monthly throughout Brooklyn, New York. Since its creation, the Free Black Women’s Library has expanded to other cities, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Detroit
Livre Cafe – This online community/IRL book club is dedicated to the global representation of Black people in literature. In addition to monthly book picks, Domonique (Livre Cafe’s founder) writes great reviews and features guest reviewers.
Good Books ATL – Founded and curated by me and my mama, Good Books ATL is an online + pop-up Black book shop. My mom raised me on Black books—reading Black authors, reciting Black poems, and genuinely thinking Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou were my aunties. Good Books marries our two loves—books and Black folks. From Toni Morrison to Tupac Shakur, we pay homage to Blackness through literature. We’re a mother-daughter duo. We’re an online and pop-up book shop. We’re so excited to be here. Good Books is our love letter to our community, to Blackness, to you.
Katie is the co-owner and curator of Good Books ATL, an online + pop-up Black book shop. She wants her life to be a love letter to Black women and girls.