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Black and white: Bloomsbury to change offending dust jacket

January 22, 2010

For the second time in less than a year, Bloomsbury USA has been forced to apologize for putting a picture of a white girl on a novel about a black or brown girl. The cover of Jaclyn Dolamore’s debut YA fantasy novel, Magic Under Glass is to be reissued with a dark-skinned heroine.

Coming the week of Martin Luther King’s birthday, the Haiti earthquake and less than two weeks before Black History Month, the controversy highlights the continuing under representation of nonwhite figures in popular culture. But at the edges of this story lurk a number of prickly questions about race that people — black and white — may not quite be willing to acknowledge.

Bloomsbury’s apology follows a week of fierce online criticism from, among others, Kate Harding at Salon.com, teen blogger Ari at Reading in Color, and Justine Labarlestier, author of the YA thriller Liar, also published by Bloomsbury, which was the focus of an identical controversy last summer.

“Sticking a white girl on the cover of a book about a brown girl is not merely inaccurate, it is part of a long history of marginalisaton and misrepresentation,” Labarlestier writes on her website. “Publishers don’t randomly pick white models. It happens within a context of racism.”

Ari penned an “open letter” to Bloomsbury: “I’m sure you can’t imagine what it’s like to wander through the teen section of a bookstore and only see one or two books with people of color on them. Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don’t have covers with people of color?”

Bloomsbury's first cover for Liar

What, it’s impossible not to wonder, could Bloomsbury have been thinking? Is this vestigial racism? The company’s apology, which can be found at its online catalogue page for Magic Under Glass is one of those vague sorry-we-hurt-your-feelings kind of things.

If this is racism, though, it’s almost certainly institutional, not personal. I very much doubt anyone at Bloomsbury is a secret white supremacist. As Labarlestier says in an interview at Words of Colour, publishers believe that white readers won’t buy books with nonwhite characters on the cover. She points to the bestselling The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, as proof that a good book properly promoted will find plenty of white readers.

Aside from that, though I don’t find it mentioned in a quick survey of comment on the controversy, is the possibility publishers simply don’t believe black people read. At this late date, you would think the accolades and popularity of everyone from Toni Morrison to Walter Mosley, Octavia Butler, Sapphire and the late E. Lynn Harris would offer proof positive that blacks hunger to read about people like themselves. Duh.

While celebrating Bloomsbury’s apology and promise to change the cover of Magic Under Glass, Ari pledges to continue the battle against the “whitewashing” of book covers — as she should. Clearly, despite the election of an African-American president, we still have a long way to go on matters of race.

But, I can’t help mentioning that race is no longer a simple matter of black and white. Ari’s fight for more accurate representation of black and brown faces on book jackets (and similar struggles are waged in movies and TV) overlaps with the dawning awareness of an inevitable bi-racial future. While white people are always white, black people come in all shades. And it’s always been this way.

The second cover

For example, I have on my desk Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, the new novel by one of the world’s best writers, Maryse Conde. The cover art is a detail from Diego Velazquez’s 1618 painting, Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, which depicts a dark-skinned young woman with strongly African features.

Yet the heroine of the novel, Victoire, is a mestiza in the French Antilles, described as having “Australian whiteness to her skin.” Socially, culturally, economically and in every way that matters she is black. But she does not look black.

At first I was mildly annoyed by this inaccuracy, but the Bloomsbury affair set me right. The need to correct the lingering, perhaps unintentional racism addressed by Ari, Harding and Labarlestier outweighs — so far, at least –consideration of the bi-racial reality of much of the world’s population. Indeed, putting the picture of a woman who actually looks like Victoire on the cover of Conde’s novel would, in meaningful ways, misrepresent the story inside.

A final note: Everyone blasting Bloomsbury has been careful to hold Jaclyn Dolamore harmless for the hurtful dust jacket illustration, in essence saying “don’t judge the author by the cover.” Fair enough.

But let me point out that Dolamore is white — Labarlestier, too. There has been no mention in this controversy of the long and still-unsettled question of whether white writers have the right to appropriate black (or Asian or Indian or Latino) characters and stories. In the past, white writers have come in for some rough handling for taking on minority subject matter.

I’ve always believed that any writer should be free to write about anything he or she wants, so long as it’s done well. Perhaps the issue of cultural colonialism and appropriation is a thing of the past? No, I don’t think so, either. More likely, it’s been pushed aside in this case by the more pressing need to get black faces properly represented.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 22, 2010 2:32 pm

    Thanks, Chauncey Mabe, for clearing that up. I always thought the cover designers simply never bothered to read the book and therefore the misrepresentation. And if covers are based on the ludicrous idea that only white people read or whatever….well….that’s completely wrong and ridiculous. And racist.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 22, 2010 3:02 pm

    It is always a possibility that designers don’t read the book, but surely someone at Bloomsbury did. And surely they know by now that black people read books. The rise of popular African American fiction is over a decade old now. But old ideas die hard, even in people who don’t realize they still have them.

    • Candice Simmons permalink
      January 22, 2010 7:27 pm

      They are dying though. I think…Even if very very slowly…

  3. rachel permalink
    January 22, 2010 4:31 pm

    This is a very interesting issue, Chauncey Mabe. Like you said with the example of Maryse Conde it is more complicated than one originally thinks.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 22, 2010 6:15 pm

      Everything is one shade of gray or another. That’s a life philosophy masquerading as a maxim. However, black people and other minorities are right to be alert and wary, after 500 years of enslavement, exploitation, oppression and disregard. Go Ari!

  4. January 23, 2010 10:52 am

    Racism in the book industry Noo, Come on,,,NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
    Not here where intelligence and love of the written word is the key. Say it ain’t so .

  5. RA Rycraft permalink
    January 23, 2010 12:42 pm

    Knowing a little bit about the publishing industry – it is my observation that there is often a disconnect between what the author writes and what ends up on the cover – inappropriate symbols, erroneous descriptors, ridiculous images – so I’m not at all surprised by Bloomsbury’s “faux pas.” I’m with you, Chauncey, that the covers represent institutional rather than personal racism. And your discussion is a timely one given the attention media (particularly NPR) gives to the idea that the US is evolving toward a post-racial society. We’re going to be researching and evaluating the idea in my Spring critical thinking & composition course. The discussion in your blog is a welcome addition to the material my students will examine as they evaluate the issue.

    Thanks, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 24, 2010 12:33 pm

      Thanks for the contribution to this discussion. I believe we are moving toward a post-racial society, but that movement is piecemeal and slower than we’d like to think. That’s why seemingly minor dust-ups like this one are worth thinking and talking about.

  6. January 24, 2010 7:26 am

    I agree with Chauncey, it is institutional not personal. The trouble is people run the institution it self. There lies the problem. Racism is not a good thing and comes in many ways. I do not believe we are even close to a post-racial society. In a capitalist society, racism is existing because it is win and make money at all costs. The the democracy steps forward and says, hey wait a minute. It is a ongoing battle. We as a society have just scratched the surface.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 24, 2010 12:43 pm

      You are right on the money — it’s a continuing struggle, we’ve just scratched the surface. It can be discouraging to contemplate contemporary examples of what we might call benign racism, but it’s important to take heart by considering how far we’ve come, and in how short a time. Those of us who can remember the ’60s, and the Civil Rights Movement, do well to remind our younger friends. I well remember when my school, in Southwest Virginia, was integrated. 1964, I was in the second grade. Throughout the ’60s I kept up with developments in the struggle for black equality by reading newspapers and national magazines. I remember when the Freedom Riders, Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney were murdered in Philadelphia, Miss. I remember Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington, and later his assassination in Memphis. Today a black man sits in the White House, and last summer a black man was sworn in as mayor of Philadelphia, Miss.

      We have far yet to go, but let’s take heart by remembering how very far we’ve already come.

      • Candice Simmons permalink
        January 25, 2010 1:57 pm

        You are right, Chauncey Mabe. I marched in NYC over the Yasef Hawkins incident. I remember being sent home early from work because of the Rodney King incident (NYC wanted to evacuate the streets because they feared major uprisings that never happened). I never thought our country would elect an AFrican American president in my lifetime.

        I’m so glad we did though. Makes me proud to be an American. And positive that we shall overcome some day. Soon.

      • DeeBishoff permalink
        January 25, 2010 2:50 pm

        Makes me proud to be an American as well Candice and believe also we shall overcome but unfortunately, don’t believe it will be soon. There are still too many evil racists out there. There have been many changes in my lifetime but many more yet to come.

  7. Marla permalink
    January 24, 2010 8:16 pm

    Yes, we should take heart by remembering how far we’ve come and your excellent summation in making this point is well received! Frankly, I will never understand why people are afraid to embrace someone from a different culture. It’s a chance to learn not only about other people, where they come from, their history, but it’s always an opportunity for us, as human beings to evolve into a better species.

    After all, somehow I think this is the point to all the suffering and grieving and yes, the joy too – that we experience. The fact is that people still stand in judgment of others with different skin colors and this seems to run deep within all races. And personally, the fact that twice, twice, not once, but twice Bloomsbury USA (yet, it’s still upsetting, despite the apology) has “a picture of a white girl on a novel about a black or brown girl”, is appalling and it should be to everyone who loves literature.

    I wonder what Jaclyn Dolamore and her family and friends thinks of the debacle? It’s shameful. Yes, hopefully this country is in a post-racial age. But I can tell you from personal circumstances, it still has a long, long way to go. I also wonder, one day, when affirmative action programs will hopefully no longer be necessary, when someone new will be in the minority and how will they be treated? Let me get back to the point of this particular blog, if a book is written by an African-American author and the characters are African-American, the cover should be accurately portrayed, end of story.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 25, 2010 11:49 am

      Interestingly, neither of the authors in the Bloomsbury scandals is black. Both are imminently Caucasian, though their heroines are black or brown or bi-racial. That brings up a whole different set of questions and problems about cultural colonialism, appropriation and exploitation that is being ignored in favor of the primary quest to get more black faces on the covers of books.

      A new book addresses many of the issues you raise. It’s called How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America, by Karen Brodkin. I haven’t read it (yet), but it’s getting widely and favorably reviewed. You can see one such review here: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0SOR/is_1_61/ai_61908763/

  8. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 25, 2010 2:59 pm

    I’ll have to check it out!

  9. Marla permalink
    January 25, 2010 9:08 pm

    Thank you very much for this link, Chauncey. I will check it out ASAP.

    Your blog is top-notch and I certainly didn’t mean to sully it with one major incongruous comment. I’m currently lowering my head in shame at the realization of my inner ignorance by the assumption of the race of these authors. I finally got the courage to join your blog and this is my first response? I shoulda done better! I’m down-trodden in paralyzing fear of making another utterly inept comment. However – I’m also hoping that I’ll get over myself soon.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 28, 2010 2:02 am

      Not to worry. If you can’t make a fool of yourself on a blog, then what where can you? I mean, isn’t that what blogs are for?

      • Marla permalink
        February 1, 2010 2:26 am

        Thank you. I wonder if one can go into therapy for blog related transgressions?

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