Black and white: Bloomsbury to change offending dust jacket
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?”
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.
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.