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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

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Companies miss the mark

Companies+miss+the+mark

How imagery falls short in celebrating black history

There have been two notable instances of companies missing the mark in attempting to celebrate Black History Month. The first came when Barnes & Noble decided to put new book covers featuring illustrations of black characters on several literary classics whose authors and characters are white.

Barnes & Noble designed covers for novels like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Peter Pan,” “The Secret Garden” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” to name a few. While Barnes & Noble quickly canceled the campaign before it was rolled out as a result of the backlash it received, why didn’t Barnes & Noble simply feature books written by black authors in the first place?

Reimaging fictional characters who are probably written and meant to be white as people of color is absurd. The only logical decision to make should’ve been to highlight and celebrate black authors and black fictional characters.

For years, high school teens have had to read the same group of books written by white authors with seemingly little to no advancement in diversifying the catalogue. Barnes & Noble should’ve taken the initiative to take the step toward including classic books by black authors. The intention behind honoring black culture and black history isn’t to ask companies to replace white fictional characters and pretend they are black, but instead to include their black counterparts whom history often forgets.

“Redesigning” white characters and making them black is distasteful, and it lets white authors maintain the hold of prestige of mainstream classics.

Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison are just a few black authors whose works are overshadowed or overlooked compared to the white authors of the canon of popular novels assigned to students in elementary and high school. And even though Barnes & Noble now features books written by black authors on the main page of their website for Black History Month, the damage has been done.

Adding to the disappointment associated with the Barnes & Noble fiasco is OneUnited Bank’s decision to release a debit card featuring abolitionist Harriet Tubman making the Wakanda salute on a debit card. According to The Washington Post, the company’s intention was to design Tubman making the American Sign Language (ASL) sign for “love,” but many on Twitter didn’t see it that way. I would suggest searching for it and seeing the debit card for yourself, but it is just in bad taste. It’s tacky and obscene. Ironically, OneUnited is the largest black-owned bank in America.

While the painting used on the debit card was done two years before “Black Panther,” the Wakanda salute is based on the ASL sign for “love,” and this portrayal of Tubman is a mockery of an incredibly significant and courageous black hero and icon.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#cecece” txt_color=”#000000″]“The intention behind honoring black culture and black history isn’t to ask companies to replace white fictional characters and pretend they are black, but instead to include their black counterparts whom history often forgets.”[/mks_pullquote]It adds salt to the wound in the aftermath of the delay of Tubman’s likeness on the $20 bill. Her representation on the debit card is the result of a severe lack of respect for Tubman and her contribution to history.

Nobody said it was okay to present Tubman, who escaped slavery and helped so many others escape to freedom, as making a pop culture gesture from a movie. It’s not funny and it doesn’t make sense. Had Tubman not been made into a caricature, it would have been a very powerful statement to depict her on the debit card seeing as though her presence on our currency has been postponed and, quite frankly, deprioritized. Having Tubman on our currency would have been monumental, and she certainly would have been more than deserving of it given her stance in history. But to make light of her resistance and fight for freedom by showing her making what appears to be the Wakanda sign is disconcerting.

Of course these are just two instances that I’ve seen in which companies have fallen short in commemorating Black History Month, but they weren’t the first. Sadly, they probably won’t be the last.

Last year, Adidas and Ben & Jerry’s both released their own questionable products to observe the month. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t companies that are creating products and marketing campaigns that are respectful and well-executed. It’s just to say that Barnes & Noble and OneUnited should pay attention to how other companies have succeeded in observing Black History Month.

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