Lawrence Hill learned last week that a Dutch activist “ Roy Groenberg, leader of a group known as the Foundation Honor and Restore Victims of Slavery in Suriname “ objected to the use of the word “negro” in the title of the Hamilton author’s most famous novel, The Book of Negroes (published in Dutch as Het Negerboek).
Groenberg informed Hill in a letter that he intends to burn several copies of the book today in an Amsterdam park that contains a monument commemorating Dutch slavery and the struggle for freedom. The chilling publicity stunt has provoked strong reactions, most notably from the author himself. In an even-handed yet forceful op-ed in Monday’s Toronto Star, Hill wrote:
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.
Hill went on to discuss the fungibility of terms used to describe race, noting that “racial terminology will always fail, because it is absurd to try to define a person by race.” Describing the “kaleidoscopic evolution” of racial terminology over the past five decades, Hill concluded there are no easy answers:
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.
New Yorker blogger Ian Crouch has picked up on the story, comparing the burning of The Book of Negroes to a similar stunt perpetrated by radical Florida pastor Terry Jones, who torched a copy of the Koran earlier this year. In both cases, Crouch argues, totalitarian tactics are being used to scandalize the public. From The New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog:
[I]n Amsterdam, another small, passionate political group is using book-burning as a way of getting attention. The political motivations and desired ends are much different, but the means are precisely the same: spectacle, provocation, brutish and simple acts in response to complex issues.
Despite these similarities, though, the protest in Amsterdam does stand out as a rare example of a group with progressive political demands “ in this case, the recognition of the ways in which the Netherlands benefited from the slave trade and a call to end contemporary discrimination “ resorting to such an odiously reactionary practice…. Hill’s story, looked at more evenly, reminds us that attempts to control language by those who are eager to move society forward can be just as insidious as similar attempts by those who want to hold it back.