Burning 'The Book of Negroes'

BlogHer Original Post

Canadian author Lawrence Hill won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize in 2008 for a book that has recently received more attention and controversy for its title than its content. 

A Dutch group called the Foundation Honor and Restore Victims of Slavery in Suriname has threatened to burn Lawrence's The Book of Negroes, claiming its title is "insulting to the black community." Made up of descendants of slaves in the former Dutch colony of Suriname, the group claims that the use of the archaic term "negro" to describe people of African descent is "a real shame." 

But is it wrong if it's used to illuminate stories that deserve to be more widely told? And even so, is burning a book ever an appropriate way to state a political or personal opinion? The author -- and many others -- say yes, and no. 

The actual Book of Negroes is an historical document in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., holding records of all African-American slaves who were sent to Nova Scotia after fighting for Great Britain in the American Revolution. Black Loyalist has the full text here. When the promise of freedom and opportunity there did not come to pass, more than 1,000 returned to Africa after a decade, many settling in Sierra Leone. Lawrence's book tells the story of one of these women who comes to America and then to Canada before returning home. 

But what of the word "negro"? Although widely considered offensive and demeaning, and now rarely used, should it be entirely abandoned in written and spoken language in all circumstances? Is the use of a word as offensive as part of the historical or literary record as it is when used as a racist term or outright slur? 

Some countries sidestepped that issue in the case of Hill's book by renaming it outright. It was published in the United States, Australia and New Zealand as Someone Knows My Name, and Aminata in Quebec. It was, however, directly translated as Het Negerboek in the Netherlands

Lawrence says that the title is a descriptor and an essential reflection of history and the story he sought to tell, nothing more. And regardless, and perhaps more importantly in this context, he says that book burning is unacceptable in any circumstance. He told Canada's CBC's Metro Morning:

"I wasn't looking to be sensational or provocative when I called it The Book of Negroes. I called it The Book of Negroes to bring attention to a long-forgotten historical document and a long-forgotten migration. There is no defence to burning a book. It's a hateful act designed to intimidate…It's something that stifles dialogue and the notion of the freedom to read and to write."

He expanded on these thoughts in an editorial written for The Toronto Star, saying that even painful language must be acknowledged and claimed. 

I tell my own children that no single word is entirely out of bounds. One must simply know the heft of each word, and use it appropriately. If that means employing discretion around archaic or racist terms, so be it. I don’t use “Negro” in day-to-day language...But there is sometimes room to use painful language to reclaim our own history.

His father would have called himself a negro then, Hill said, but he would not today, and nor would he refer to himself that way, now or ever. 

Nancy Kline's 2008 review in the New York Times spoke to the book's theme of reclaiming language, and therefore identity: 

In “Someone Knows My Name,” as in the slave narratives that inspired it, language is power. The slave owner marks the bodies of those he owns, but when the enslaved take possession of words, spoken and — especially — written, they move toward freedom. The young Frederick Douglass’s master knew this, admonishing his wife that if she taught Douglass how to read, “there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.”

Some words can hurt, and indeed have, over the centuries of racial, cultural, and civil degradation of various groups the world over. But there is, as Hill says, equal and opposite strength in holding the worst slurs to the light, as people and language evolve. Setting them on fire for real may make a statement, but it doesn't mean they never existed, or that even though we choose not to use them for their previous purposes, that they cannot be examined today. Whether it's claiming them for ourselves, rather than having them cast upon us, or simply in the interest of not repeating that negative history? It's possible to see them, even to speak them, and then put them aside.  

And sometimes, as Hill says, they are better taken back and recast by thinkers and writers who can seek to put them in their proper places, even if that means on the cover of a (thankfully) unburned book. 

Contributing Editor Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites. Her photos are on Flickr.

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