Written by Marilyn Herbert
Book burning is a most significant form of censorship. There is evidence of book burning dating back to the Bible, to ancient China and Egypt. And, as we sadly know, it continues today. According to German writer Heinrich Heine, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”
So what are we to think of the recent book burning threat by Roy Groenberg, a Dutchman of Surinamese descent who is the leader of a group known as “the Foundation to Honour and Restore Payments to Victims of Slavery in Suriname”? If Groenberg goes ahead with his plan, today he will burn Lawrence Hill’s award-winning book, The Book of Negroes, solely for the use of the word “negroes.” Groenberg probably hasn’t read the novel, or he would know on the simplest level that “The Book of Negroes” was the title of a real document that listed the names of black Loyalists who were being taken by the British from the U.S. to Canada for safekeeping in the days surrounding the American Revolution.
The author deliberately chose this title to emphasize and discuss an event that became a sad one in black history. Unfortunately, in this era of political correctness, the opportunity is there to “correct” things out of existence. How are we to reflect on our history if we rewrite it to suit our perceived sensibilities? In my opinion, we would be doing an injustice to all those who suffered the real injustice of slavery.
In a thoughtful response published by the Toronto Star, Hill himself responded to the Dutchman’s 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.”
If you have not read The Book of Negroes, I would urge you to do so. It is an important book whose chief value is educating readers. Hill includes little-known information about slavery: the role of the British in settling blacks in Canada, the establishment of Freetown in Sierra Leone, the presence of black African slave traders, and the power and powerlessness of the Abolitionist movement. He portrays the black African and American-born slaves with dignity and respect, and the reader has a deeper understanding of this profound historical event. Why burn that perspective?
Without a backup story, past events and details can be challenged and changed. This is happening in many subject areas—just ask any Holocaust denier. It is up to readers everywhere to stand up against ignorance and prejudice of every kind. It’s easy to whip up a frenzy of hate; it’s much more difficult to turn it into knowledge and understanding. In The Book of Negroes, Hill’s protagonist, Aminata, asks the profound question of how to end the vicious cycle of human greed and grief. “Who’s to blame for all this evil and who started it?”
Thank you, Lawrence Hill, for trying to answer that.
Click here to order the full-length Bookclub-in-a-Box discussion guide for The Book of Negroes, including sections on historical background, author information, themes, symbols, and more.