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"But there is sometimes room to use painful language to reclaim our own history."
June 22, 2011 7:00 AM   Subscribe

Heated Debates, Burning Books [Via NewYorker.com] The Canadian writer Lawrence Hill recently received the unsettling news that a Dutch political group would be assembling on Wednesday in Amsterdam to burn copies of his novel, “The Book of Negroes” (published in the Netherlands under the title “Het Negerboek,” and in the U.S. as “Someone Knows My Name”). So what exactly does this historical novel have to do with the Dutch?

Hill explains in an op-ed published in the Toronto Star that he was contacted by Roy Groenberg, who identified himself as the “Chairman, Foundation to Honour and Restore payments to Victims of Slavery in Suriname,” who wrote in a letter:
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.
Hill’s response, which should be read in full, is forceful and eloquent. He condemns the threat:
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.
posted by Fizz (46 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
So basically, the point of this thing is that tiny fringe groups burn books to get attention that would never have been available to them otherwise? And the author of this book decided that the best way to deal with such an attention-grabbing-by-a-fringe-group tactic was to write a big thing about it in the Toronto Star?
posted by craichead at 7:06 AM on June 22, 2011


What a shame they won't pause to read the book before burning it. But then I guess that would defeat the object for a book burner. Why let knowledge and facts get in the way of irrational hatred?
posted by londonmark at 7:09 AM on June 22, 2011


The leaders of the Spanish Inquisition burned books. Nazis burned books.

Forceful and elegant but logically flawed and rhetorically terrible.
posted by DU at 7:10 AM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


On the other hand, interesting that the US publisher had the foresight to change the book's title. Would using "negroes" in the title of a historical novel about slavery have been controversial in the States?
posted by londonmark at 7:15 AM on June 22, 2011


Well, we've got the internet and wikipedia now, so it's not like we need books anyway. And this author sounds suspiciously like an expert of some sort.
posted by happyroach at 7:15 AM on June 22, 2011


Holland a somewhat strange relationship with racism. They elected the openly racist politician Geert Wilders and routinely dress up in blackface to entertain their kids. (Which most Dutch people claim is race-blind rather than racist.) And then you get crazy book burning people like this.
posted by public at 7:17 AM on June 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


And the author of this book decided that the best way to deal with such an attention-grabbing-by-a-fringe-group tactic was to write a big thing about it in the Toronto Star?

Probably not a bad idea from a business perspective though.
posted by mattn at 7:18 AM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Would using "negroes" in the title of a historical novel about slavery have been controversial in the States?
I don't think so, or at least not among anyone who was paying any attention. But I could see the local mall Barnes and Noble not wanting to put the book in the window, because their poor employees would have to spend a lot of time explaining what it was to weirded-out passers-by. And as a publisher, you don't want to do anything that will keep a book out of the window of Barnes and Noble.
posted by craichead at 7:18 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Trolls. Don't feed them. Oops, too late.
posted by tommasz at 7:26 AM on June 22, 2011


Wait til they find out about The Polished Hoe.
posted by stinkycheese at 7:28 AM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Well, there are people who want to ban "To Kill a Mockingbird" because the use of "nigger" in the text makes it inherently racist, in their eyes.
posted by Phalene at 7:34 AM on June 22, 2011


Christ, what a bunch of aasooles.

I couldn't get through Book of Negroes myself, but good grief. Someone is missing the point completely.

This is what uncompromising adherence to a political notion gets you. It distorts your entire world-view.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:36 AM on June 22, 2011


How bizarre. Did Groenberg not even read the book?
posted by GuyZero at 7:40 AM on June 22, 2011


Just so I'm clear -- in order to burn the book, they have to buy it first, right?

I'm not sure of the use of engaging in a dialogue with someone who clearly hasn't read the book, nor even read a summary of it on Teh Wiki. But if it leads to the writer selling more copies of his excellent book -- to both trolls and to people genuinely interested in the subject itself -- more power to Hill.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:41 AM on June 22, 2011


On the spectrum, which is more offensive, Negro or colored? Because there have been recent works that have used "colored" in the title, and I didn't notice any discussion or uproar. And if I remember correctly, Negro is actually still used on Census forms, as it is the preferred race classification of some older African-Americans. So, no, I really doubt that this would be an issue in the States, but I could be wrong.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 7:44 AM on June 22, 2011


Groenberg's argument wouldn't recognize the value of the book itself. Reading the book is completely irrelevant to his point. He wants to eliminate certain words from discourse, except, apparently, when they are used by his own particular group. His attack on the book fits seamlessly into his own internal logic.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:45 AM on June 22, 2011


I knew Larry Hill when I was a little kid. He was my big brother's nicest friend ... and the first negro I ever knew (that's what we called them back then, also "colored"). I remember going to a Little League baseball game with him to watch his big brother Dan play. Yup. Same family.
posted by philip-random at 7:47 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Holland a somewhat strange relationship with racism.

Absolutely true. Why Groenberg should pick a fight with Hill instead of any number of more obvious candidates applicable to the Dutch context is very strange to me. (Or maybe he has, and I just don't know.)
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:52 AM on June 22, 2011


Groenberg's argument wouldn't recognize the value of the book itself. Reading the book is completely irrelevant to his point. He wants to eliminate certain words from discourse, except, apparently, when they are used by his own particular group.
I bet the logic actually went something like this:

"July 1st is an important anniversary, and people should pay attention to it. But nobody does. The newspapers won't even talk about it. How do we force people to take notice of this important event? I know! Book burnings get lots of attention! The newspapers always cover them! We'll burn a book the week before July 1st, and that will make people notice. Ok, here's a book with an offensive word in the title. That should do."

I don't think this was really about the particular book at all. It's about the publicity. At least, I think that was the point of the New Yorker article. And I wish we could all decide to cut this thing off by denying book burners the publicity they crave. But probably that's not going to happen.
posted by craichead at 7:58 AM on June 22, 2011


I'm not defending the book burning, but it's still all within Groenberg's own logic. If he doesn't want the word "negro" to be used in Dutch discourse, except in conversations about banning the word from discourse, then this book would be a perfect example of precisely what he doesn't want. If he wants to ban words, then he wants to ban words.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:02 AM on June 22, 2011


Why Groenberg should pick a fight with Hill instead of any number of more obvious candidates applicable to the Dutch context is very strange to me.

As craichead points out, it's all about the publicity. To pick a fight with, say, Geert Wilders, you'd have to join a pretty long waiting list of aggrieved parties including, for starters, more than one billion Muslims and most of Southern Europe. Not newsworthy. Burning the books of a bemused Canadian author, on the other hand...
posted by Skeptic at 8:08 AM on June 22, 2011


The leaders of the Spanish Inquisition burned books. Nazis burned books.

You know what else the Nazis did? Domestic chores.

That's why I'm giving up chores.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:17 AM on June 22, 2011 [9 favorites]


Phalene: "Well, there are people who want to ban "To Kill a Mockingbird" because the use of "nigger" in the text makes it inherently racist, in their eyes."

Oh, come ON.
posted by boo_radley at 8:25 AM on June 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Hill is going to become a fucking millionaire because of this- lucky prick.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:48 AM on June 22, 2011


...and Huckleberry Fin is now out in an expurgated version as well.

I don't think it can be fair to say "this book is controversial in Holland". It is objectionable to a small group of people in Holland, but not even a significant minority of the country.

S'like saying Harry Potter is controversial in America. To an (almost literally) handful of people yeah, but I'd wager more people complain about the bible. Why can't we see headlines: "The Bible, controversial in America"? That's crack me up.

I suspect leaving the title as is would offend a proportional number of people living in America. On the internet everyone is offended.

I wonder about the blackface in Holland. Condemning it out of hand as racist, because it has obvious racist roots in America, may be just cultural relativism rearing it's head. I can not pretend to know the culture enough to pass judgement on it. However, it may well not be engaged in in a racist manner and just as the dreaded C-word here has significantly less heat to it in England perhaps it is less dreadful in a Dutch context?
posted by edgeways at 8:51 AM on June 22, 2011


I'm not clear on something--is the Dutch translated title using words that possibly carry a greater impact in a Dutch context than the words 'The Book of Negroes' might in Canada? Direct translation or no, it could be that in Holland these words carry implications they don't elsewhere.

Anyways, burning books is stupid.
posted by Hoopo at 8:51 AM on June 22, 2011


This is going to be one of those: oh well they're both arseholes isn't it?

Lawrence Hill provides no reasons why he feels that the use of the word 'Negroe' is justified in that article. He says that word use is dependent on context, on understanding the 'heft' of a word and that no should be out of bounds (I'd disagree but bygones).

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.

So you can use words like 'Negroe' so long as you remain sensitive its weight and have a damn good reason for using that word. What reasons does he give?

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.

And

Racial terminology will always fail, because it is absurd to try to define a person by race. ... I like to imagine what people will be saying, instead of “Negro”, “Black” or “African-Canadian”, in 50 years. -- I read this as meaning that racial terms change, what you find offensive now won't be in future so using 'Negroe' is justified because all terminology is an artificial and inaccurate tool.

Also, implicitly, 'this is a history of the Black people so time appropriate terminology should be used' and 'this book is important enough to get away with using mucky language'.

So really really really weak reasons: okay there's a book involved that Black people put their name in at the time but there was no other way to describe that book?; of course language changes but that is not a way of sidestepping it's current use and the implications of the words you use (he's a writer for Pete's sake, is he going to stop writing because one day his words won't be understood and so his books are already meaningless?); and that a word was used at the time does not justify its current use (push that logic through and all history books covering the American Civil War should be have time-appropriate racial slurs).

Honestly, that article felt more like a blurb of the book ('oh I has done RESEARCH') than anything substantial. Better still, there's a worrying undercurrent that because Black people used to be called 'Negroes' now that's the identity they, as a whole, are stuck with. It's History of the Negroes and that's the only history that's allowed, anything else is being politically correct.

And the book burning? Great publicity; bad statement.
posted by litleozy at 8:54 AM on June 22, 2011


He went ahead and did it.

About 30 people showed up - mostly creole people with Surinam ancestors.
posted by DreamerFi at 8:54 AM on June 22, 2011


Wait til they find out about The Polished Hoe.

Wait til they find out about Nigger. Or Nigger.
posted by FatherDagon at 8:54 AM on June 22, 2011


But I could see the local mall Barnes and Noble not wanting to put the book in the window, because their poor employees would have to spend a lot of time explaining what it was to weirded-out passers-by.

"The Book of Negroes. No, it's...it's not a directory. What? No, it's really not a spotter's guide. Have you....have you ever been in a bookstore before?"
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 8:57 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Would using "negroes" in the title of a historical novel about slavery have been controversial in the States?

It was probably mainly because Americans don't know about the original Book of Negroes and so the context would have been lost on them. Something like the way The Madness of George III was retitled The Madness of King George for the US market.

Phalene: "Well, there are people who want to ban "To Kill a Mockingbird" because the use of "nigger" in the text makes it inherently racist, in their eyes."

Oh, come ON.
posted by boo_radley


Eponysterical! Cite.

Also of note: Use of word 'Negro' in 2010 census draws criticism

I couldn't find a recent poll that asked people about all the terms "Black", "African-American", "Negro" and "colored". Most recently Gallup found little difference in the acceptability of the first two (majority: "doesn't matter"), although a small plurality preferred "African-American".
posted by dhartung at 8:57 AM on June 22, 2011


So really really really weak reasons: okay there's a book involved that Black people put their name in at the time but there was no other way to describe that book?

The book she had to enter her name into was literally called "The Book of Negroes"
posted by Hoopo at 9:06 AM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


So really really really weak reasons: okay there's a book involved that Black people put their name in at the time but there was no other way to describe that book?

No, there is no better way to refer to it than by the name it was actually called.

(push that logic through and all history books covering the American Civil War should be have time-appropriate racial slurs).

If that book is, say, reprinting letters written by participants of that war, then yes, absolutely.

If you want to live in a bubble, hiding from all the uncomfortable truths of the past, then be my guest. But please don't suggest that anyone else should all be forced to do the same.
posted by CaseyB at 9:10 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


So really really really weak reasons: okay there's a book involved that Black people put their name in at the time but there was no other way to describe that book?
----
The book she had to enter her name into was literally called "The Book of Negroes"


Yeah I was going to say, there may be times and places to be circumspect in your language, but honestly, avoiding the actual historic name used would be more weak-willed, wishy washy tripe then anything else. And the relative merits of the book aside, it seems like a reasonable title for the thing.
posted by edgeways at 9:13 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, I really wish they'd kept the title "The Book of Negroes" in the US. That's an amazingly powerful title. Personally, I don't ever want to forget that my ancestors were once counted only as a name and a dollar value in an annual ledger -- and yet they rose above it.
posted by lesli212 at 9:17 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hope they don't find out about How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired.
posted by dobbs at 9:27 AM on June 22, 2011


I think burning books had a more significant effect on the spread of knowledge and expression pre-Guttenberg.

Nowadays? We've got books coming out of every orifice. C'mon, Sarah Palin wrote a book, Sarah Palin!
posted by Slackermagee at 9:42 AM on June 22, 2011


There are only two things I can't stand in this world. People who are intolerant of other people's cultures... and the Dutch.
posted by davidmsc at 10:14 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


It was probably mainly because Americans don't know about the original Book of Negroes

According to the author, Canadians draw a blank on this as well.

That may be changing. The Child Jones (fifth grade graduate!) was discussing the Black Loyalists during the revolution.

I can tell you for fact that I had never heard of them when I was her age.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:14 AM on June 22, 2011


mainly because Americans don't know about the original Book of Negroes

Okay, I'll bite. What is the original Book of Negroes?
posted by Rash at 11:22 AM on June 22, 2011


Rash-

Look up
posted by Hoopo at 11:37 AM on June 22, 2011


C'mon, Sarah Palin wrote a book, Sarah Palin!

Wellllll.... when you say "wrote"
posted by edgeways at 11:58 AM on June 22, 2011


People keep saying don't feed the trolls. OK, fair enough.

But, if you can put the trolls on a treadmill and dangle a carrot in front of them and then hook that baby up to a generator and power a small community, is that such a bad thing?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:16 PM on June 22, 2011


Book burning gets a bum rap, but when I finished high school me and my friends went out to the forest and burned our school books, cooked marshmallows, drank whiskey and reminisced about our favourite moments from the past 7 years. Then we broke into the agriculture farm at the school and let the goats loose and put them in a classroom. It was probably one of the greatest nights of my life.
posted by smithsmith at 2:36 PM on June 22, 2011


litleozy: So really really really weak reasons: okay there's a book involved that Black people put their name in at the time but there was no other way to describe that book?

It's a multilayered, poignant, historically accurate title for a novel with a Black protagonist who actually works on the original document titled The Book of Negroes, and a narrative arc that breathes life-stories into the names inscribed there. I enjoyed the novel very much.

Historical accuracy can be ugly and offend modern sensibilities. That's the nature of the beast. Whitewashing the ugly bits wherever they appear just furthers ignorance.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 3:22 PM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wikipedia:

The Document:

The Book of Negroes is an important historical document which records descriptions and information on those African American slaves who fought for the British Crown in the American Revolution. African Americans escaped to the British during the Revolutionary War becoming the first settlement of Black Canadians, in addition to settlements in Africa and several islands in the West Indies. The document was recorded in 1783 and is the only one which recorded Black Americans in a large, detailed scope of work.

Wikipedia:

The Novel:

...Years later, she finds freedom, serving the British in the American Revolutionary War and having her name entered in the historic "Book of Negroes." This book, an actual historical document, is an archive of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the United States in order to resettle in Nova Scotia, only to discover that this new place becomes one that is also oppressive and unyielding...
posted by ovvl at 7:10 PM on June 22, 2011


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