The Book Burning of Negroes

Long-time readers of this blog (at least, those that memorize everything I say) may remember two salient details. The first is that I am a big fan of Canadian author Lawrence Hill. His books explore race and racial issues through a Canadian and mixed-race lens, so it’s perhaps no surprise that I am such a fan. The other thing that you might remember is that I think book burnings/bans are possibly the dumbest thing of all time – not only because they don’t work, but because they usually accomplish the exact opposite of their intent, and make more people likely to read the book.

And so it seemed as though this news item was tailor-made for me:

A Dutch group is threatening to burn Lawrence Hill’s award-winning novel The Book of Negroes, because they oppose the use of the word “negro” in the title. The Canadian writer’s novel, which traces the life of a slave girl, was recently published in the Netherlands, where a group that represents slavery victims has threatened to burn the book if its title isn’t changed.

This week, Hill received a letter from Roy Groenberg, the leader of Dutch group Foundation Honor and Restore Victims of Slavery in Suriname. “We, descendants of enslaved in the former Dutch colony Suriname, want let you know that we do not accept a book with the title The Book of Negroes,” he said in the letter.

For those of you that haven’t read this book, you should. Hill is a master of the written word, and his skill is on full display in this particular book (which is hailed as his magnum opus, but I think he’s capable of better), in which he takes the narrator’s chair for the coming-of-age tale  of a young African slave girl. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to speak from a complete lack of personal experience (when’s the last time Hill experienced menarche?), but he pulls it off convincingly.

Besides the fact that the book is well-written, it’s also historically relevant. It chronicles the nascent and developing abolition movement in Canada, the United States, and England. It documents (fictionally) the foundation of the country of Sierra Leone, thought of as a refuge for freed slaves. It puts context around a period of history that has many myths built around it.

And these idiots want to ban the book because they don’t like the title:

“We struggle for a long time to let the word ‘nigger’ disappear from Dutch language and now you set up your Book of Negroes! A real shame!” Groenberg’s group plans to burn the book on June 22 just over a week before July 1 — which marks the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands.

This is the same mindset of people who would ban the book ‘Moby Dick’ because children would see a naughty word. First off, The Book of Negroes is an actual physical document, from which the novel gets its name. The title is not incidental – it references both the historical document and the people who are the focus of the story. Slavery abolition is the entire purpose of the novel, and to have an anti-slavery body object based on something like a naughty word in the title, one has to wonder whether they’ve actually read the damn book.

But of course, banning a book doesn’t prevent people from reading it. Especially in this day of instantaneous transfer of information, burning a book is simply raising a flag that says “We are ignorant” and “We are out of touch with reality” at the same time. If people in the Netherlands wanted to find a copy of TBoN, they could simply go to Amazon or any number of other online bookstores. Banning the book is therefore futile. Burning the book may have some kind of psychological satisfaction for the protesting group, but it is an outmoded and meaningless gesture.

Book bans also draw attention to the work in question. In this particular case, I have to confess I’m sort of glad for that. People should read this book, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s excellent. And while I can sympathize with those who don’t want to see racism spread through their country, objections to racist language should be based on fact and reason, not knee-jerk reactions based on poor understanding of language.

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  1. Curt says

    The irony of book burning in this day and age is a thing of pure beauty!
    I would probably not have even heard of this book (generally I rarely stray from the sci-fi/fantasy section) and yet because of these unfortunately confused activists, you have written this post and informed me of the book which made me immediately interested. Thus, I Googled; “Kindle Store, Lawrence Hill” and five seconds later I own the book. Ain’t technology fun?

    As for the subject matter, history should never be censored, ever. To do so is to do a disservice to the suffering of others.

  2. says

    I don’t have a Kindle, smartphone, tablet, or other device suitable for electronic book reading, but I do have a wish list on Amazon, so the next time I’m feeling a bit spendy I’ll be buying The Book of Negroes. Thanks for the suggestion, I’ve been meaning to increase my reading of current Canadian authors.

    Also, I’ll be in the Netherlands from July 1 through July 15 – when I land at Amsterdam on July 1 I expect to be rather jet-lagged, but I’ll keep an eye out for celebrations or other events to mark the anniversary of the abolition of slavery there. According to Wikipedia, every July 1 there’s the Keti Koti festival at the National Slavery Monument in Oosterpark in Amsterdam. My schedule will be a little tight, but I might have time to check that out.

  3. says

    Ha, small world strikes again. I’ll be in Nijmegen until at least July 8, so it’s extremely unlikely we’ll be anywhere really near each other, otherwise I’d offer to buy you a drink (alcoholic or otherwise, your choice). The offer stands anyway, I’m enjoying your blog too much to let a few dozen kilometres in Europe get in the way.

    I strongly suspect the Amsterdam park referenced by the CBC and quoted in your subsequent post was Oosterpark, and probably within sight of the National Slavery Monument; I don’t know if there’s some irony in there or not.

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