Literary Representations

Barnes & Noble pulled a “hold my beer” after the American Dirt fiasco and announced the Black History Month publications of some classic texts with the main characters featured as people of color on the cover. What I find most interesting about the story is at the end of this Slate wrap up, where it is revealed that: “The head diversity officer of TBWA\Chiat\Day [the agency behind the initiative] took inspiration from J.K. Rowling’s response to a black actress being cast as Hermione in the London staging of The Cursed Child.”‘

The inspiration made sense. In theatrical productions, especially small ones, casting actors from different races or genders than the source characters is common, sometimes to controversial effect and sometimes to no discernible effect.

One reason for this, particularly at the community theater level is that parts are cast based on who’s available. But even in big commercial productions, a decision might be made because a director wants to bring a specific talent into the show. Also, at all levels, directors and producers might make these decisions to make a statement. It should go without saying (but it doesn’t) that casting a role for a character described as white with an actor from another background, is generally okay but the reverse is not, given the art form’s history (and present) of exclusion, not to mention blackface.

This is extremely common with classic texts, like Shakespeare. Often, the director, producer or dramaturg will have to make adjustments around the casting, though. This just can’t be done with books, hence the very reasonable objection, highlighted in Slate, that “The project assumes that stories written by and about white people are somehow racially neutral and that you can just slap a black or brown face on them and declare them diverse. But just because a character isn’t described as having pale skin or golden hair doesn’t mean that their whiteness isn’t a part of their narrative.”

Unless you’re going to rewrite the books, making diverse covers just isn’t going to cut it. Seems like one of the reasons that the Barnes & Noble project was appealing is that, as with recasting and rewriting Shakespeare, you are operating in the lower-cost and rules-free realm of the public domain. Maybe a better alternative would have been to have published and highlighted a set of public domain classics from diverse authors. One would have to start planning now to execute this next February.

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