Dear Sir Lawrence Hill, I Plan to Burn Your Book

July 22nd, 2011

Cities of Migration asked author Lawrence Hill to comment on the threat in the Netherlands to burn his internationally-acclaimed novel, The Book of Negroes (also published in the USA as Someone Knows My Name).

Photo Credit: Lisa Sakulensky

A man emailed me last week to say that he will bring his followers to a public park in Amsterdam on June 22 and burn Het Negerboek, which is the new Dutch edition of my novel The Book of Negroes.

Roy Groenberg, a Dutch man of Surinamese descent who called himself “Chairman, Foundation to Honour and Restore Victims of Slavery”, wrote:

“We, descendants of enslaved in the former Dutch colony Suriname, want to let you know that we do not accept a book with the title ‘The Book of Negroes.’ We struggle for a long time to let the word ‘nigger’ disappear from the Dutch language and now you set up your ‘Book of Negroes’! A real shame! That’s why we make the decision to burn this book on the 22nd of June 2011. Maybe you do not know, but June is the month before the 1st of July, the day that we remember the abolition from the Dutch, who put our ancestors in slavery.”

Burning books is designed to intimidate people. It underestimates the intelligence of readers, stifles dialogue and insults those who cherish the freedom to read and write. The leaders of the Spanish Inquisition burned books. Nazis burned books.

My novel has appeared in various translations but this is the first time it will be burned. In most English speaking countries it carries the original, Canadian title but in the USA, Australia and New Zealand it is known as Someone Knows My Name. In Quebec it was published as Aminata. The Norwegian title derives from the American. I am not yet sure what the Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew or Portuguese editions will be called. With Canadian film maker Clement Virgo, I have recently co-written the screenplay for the film adaptation of the novel, but I have no idea what the movie will be called when it comes out.

Mr. Groenberg wants to eradicate racially offensive language in The Netherlands. He led an effort to get the Dutch to stop using the term “NegerZoenen” (which translates loosely as “Negro kisses”) used to describe a popular chocolate treat. Mr. Groenberg and his followers – I hope there will not be too many applauding, when he burns my book next to a monument to slavery and freedom in a beautiful park in Amsterdam – are also disturbed by the Dutch participation in the slave trade.

During a publicity tour in Europe last month, I was welcomed and fed by the members of a group of Dutch people of Surinamese origin who invited me to talk about my novel and its history. They reminded me that Holland did not abolish slavery in its colonies until 1863 – the same year, coincidentally, of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. On the same tour, I visited the Middeburg Zeeland Archives to inspect the original records of Dutch slave ships. The Middelburg Commercial Company alone sold 270,000 Afrricans into slavery in Suriname in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Netherlands, like Canada, has its own history of slavery and Mr. Groenberg and his followers have a right to their arguments.

Racial terminology will always fail, because it is absurd to try to define a person by race. In North America we have witnessed a kaleidoscopic evolution of racial terminology over the last 50 years. When my own father, Daniel Hill, was appointed a chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 1973, the Globe and Mail ran a headline saying “Commission appoints Negro chair”. He was born in 1923 and proudly called himself a Negro for most of his life, but you can be sure that he would not be using the term today, if he were alive. And our own grandchildren are sure to laugh at the terms currently in use, such as Black and African Canadian. When they are running the country, they’ll bring their own terms into play. I like to imagine what people will be saying, instead of “Negro”, “Black” or “African-Canadian”, in fifty years.

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. To this day, I still cringe at the sound of “Nigger” or “Nigga” in hip hop lyrics. But there is sometimes room to use painful language to reclaim our own history.

Black people have been in this country for more than 400 years. The first massive wave of Black migration into Canada took place in 1783, when 3,000 Black Loyalists who had served the British on the losing side of the American Revolutionary War had their names entered into the British naval document known as “The Book of Negroes” and were transported by ship to Nova Scotia. They came to Canada having been promised freedom, autonomy, land and provisions. Many met with slavery, segregation, land shortages and an anti-black race riot in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. Such was their hardship that ten years later, 1,200 of them accepted a voluntary offer from British abolitions to set sail once again, leaving Halifax in 1792 to found the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone.

Housed in the National Archives of the UK, “The Book of Negroes” offers details — physical descriptions, names, ages, children, spouses, former slave owners, ships travelled on and so forth – about the Black Loyalists, some of whose 18th century travels spanned Africa, the United States, Canada and Great Britain. I named my novel “The Book of Negroes” because my heroine, Aminata Diallo, must have her name entered into the historic ledger before she is allowed to flee Manhattan for Nova Scotia.

Rather than flinching from a document that addresses the history of African people, Mr. Groenberg and his followers should put down their matches, respect freedom of speech, and enter into a civil conversation about slavery, freedom and contemporary language. On that subject, Canadians and the Dutch have much to learn from each other.

Note: On June 22, 2011, Roy Groenberg did burn a photocopy of the cover of the novel. The publisher states there are no plans to change the title.

Copyright Lawrence Hill 2011

Lawrence Hill is the author of seven books, including the novel The Book of Negroes, which won the 2008 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario and can be visited at www.lawrencehill.com. His opinion piece about the burning of The Book of Negroes first appeared on June 21, 2011 on page E-1 of the Toronto Star.

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