The problem with black faces and books

written by Anti-Racist Parent editor Tami Winfrey-Harris; originally published at What Tami Said

[Editor's note: Sorry for the late post today!]

Why would a young adult (YA) book about a black girl with features that reflect her African ancestry and hair that is short and natural have a young, white girl with keen features and flowing tresses on the cover? Folks around the Web (Read this great summary at Chasing Ray) are asking that question about the US release of Australian author Justine Larbalestier’s latest book, Liar, a thriller about a teenage pathological liar.

The answer, according to Bloomsbury, the book’s publisher, is certainly one we’ve heard before: Black faces don’t sell, particularly dark ones framed by nappy hair. Beauty sells and black faces are not beautiful. In a post about the controversy on her Web site, Larbalestier mentions a positive review of Liar that brands Micah, the protagonist, “ugly,” though there is nothing in the book that describes her as such. Apparently, it is her blackness and nappiness that offends.
The author (who, btw, is white) writes in her post about fighting for a different book cover and losing the battle. Though several images of young girls were considered, and not all of the faces were white, none actually resembled the protagonist. Larbalestier is disappointed, not just with her experience, but with the fact that this cover bait-and-switch is not uncommon:

Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them4 Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.” Read more…

It is not just black girls whose faces are deemed inadequate, Trisha at The YA, YA, YAs points out:

My first reaction to the Liar cover controversy: That’s shameful. An eye-catching cover, to be sure, but to use the picture of a white girl who blatantly does not match the narrator’s description at all? So. Wrong. Even more so now that I’ve had a chance to read the book.

My second reaction to the Liar cover controversy: Well, hell, it’s not as if it’s unusual for Asian-American characters to have their race obscured on book covers. Granted, not whitewashed like this, but hidden nevertheless. This might sound really callous and I sincerely don’t mean to diminish the importance of the original discussion or of Bloomsbury’s deplorable actions, but there you go. Read more…

I was once a young, black girl with a voracious appetite for books. I still love them and I try to instill a bit of that bibliophilia in my nieces and nephews. Books are so powerful. They can uplift, teach, entertain, save…There is a reason that books and the ability to read have historically been withheld from oppressed peoples. Books can damage, too. If I hand a copy of Liar, with its cover that implies black physicality is “less than,” to a young, black girl, already struggling with her self-worth because of a society that is still race and gender-biased (and because, you know, that’s what teens do), –what will that do?
My first instinct is to call for those of us who believe in anti-racism to boycott books with cover art that disrespects people of color. But what good would come of that? Soon, publishers would be saying that books featuring protagonists of color won’t sell even when their covers are emblazoned with acceptable-looking white folks. And also, authors like Justine Larbalestier, who actually makes an effort to write inclusive books with characters of color (see below), will suffer. That’s not fair. It seems the best thing we can do is what we are doing now. Talking about the inequity loudly so that everyone can hear, and writing to publishers to let them know that we notice what they are doing and we don’t like it. And here is the important part–all this talking, complaining and taking to task can’t be done solely by parents of color, or parents of children of color. We desperately need the voices of white allies–those good people who publishers think find black faces distressing and off-putting. We need you to be vocal. but here’s the other thing–we need you to actually buy good black literature, and literature featuring other people of color, for yourselves and for your children. We need to prove to the publishing industry that they are wrong for thinking the worst about people who read and buy books.
Larbalestier concurs:

But never forget that publishers are in the business of making money. Consumers need to do what they can. When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you? If you were upset by the US cover of Liar go buy one right now. I’d like to recommend Coe Booth’s Kendra which is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Waiting on my to be read pile is Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, which has been strongly recommended to me by many people.

Clearly we do not live in a post-racist society. But I’d like to think that the publishing world is better than those many anecdotes I’ve been hearing. But for that to happen, all of us—writers, editors, designers, sales reps, booksellers, reviewers, readers, and parents of readers—will have to do better.

While visiting Larbalestier’s blog, be sure to read her wonderful post, “Why my protags aren’t white.”

I’ve been asked a few times why none of my protags are white given that I am white. (So far that question has only come from white people.) I thought I’d answer the question at length so next time I get that particular email I can direct them here.

I don’t remember deciding that Reason, the protagonist of the Magic or Madness trilogy, would have a white Australian mother and an Indigenous Australian father. I don’t remember deciding that Tom would be white Australian or Jay-Tee Hispanic USian. But I made a conscious decision that none of the characters in How To Ditch Your Fairy would be white and that Liar would have a mixed race cast. Why?

Because a young Hispanic girl I met at a signing thanked me for writing an Hispanic character. Because when I did an appearance in Queens the entirely black and Hispanic teenage audience responded so warmly to my book with two non-white main characters. Because teens, both here and in Australia, have written thanking me for writing characters they could relate to. “Most books are so white,” one girl wrote me. Read more…

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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