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What I Learned About Language When I Titled My Novel The Book of Negroes

What I Learned About Language When I Titled My Novel <I>The Book of Negroes</I>

Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winner and bestselling author of The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill speaks as well as he writes. With engrossing, poignant talks on diverse topics such as channeling creative energy, censorship, racial identity and the craft of writing, Hill earns praise from every group he addresses. The Book of Negroes was recently transformed into a six-part mini-series for CBC, renewing interest in the book, and its title. Lawrence wrote about the controversy surrounding the title for Slate:

The title of my novel, The Book of Negroes, has undergone a series of changes since HarperCollins Canada published it eight years ago. The original name resurrects a long-forgotten British naval ledger used to document the exodus of 3,000 African Americans from Manhattan. These African Americans—their stories also form the subject of my novel—became known as the Black Loyalists because they served the British in Manhattan on the losing side of the American Revolutionary War. The Tories had enticed slaves to throw off their shackles and fight, promising freedom to any man or woman who would take refuge behind British military lines. But the British lost the war, so they rewarded the 3,000 Black Loyalists with free passage by ship from Manhattan to Nova Scotia (on the Atlantic coast of Canada) in 1783.

In 2007, shortly before the first printing of the novel in the United States, my American publisher (W.W. Norton & Co.) changed the title to Someone Knows My Name. I was told that American bookstores were reluctant to order a book with the word Negroes on the cover. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, where the Canadian title was translated quite literally to Het Negerboek, a small group of protesters of Dutch Surinamese descent was so outraged that they burned copies of the book cover in an Amsterdam park. When, back in the States, BET bought a six-part miniseries adaptation of the story (the first episode airs Monday), the network opted to use my original title, which persuaded Norton to re-release the book as The Book of Negroes. This back-and-forth made me wonder: What is it with the word Negroes? How has it come to be so incendiary?

The word Nigger—traditionally pitched with such venom that my father ordered me as a boy to ball up my fists and start fighting the instant I heard anyone use it—has made a comeback. It’s the title of comedian Dick Gregory’s autobiography, which sold more than a million copies, and a history tome by Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy. Hip-hop artists have ushered it back into near-respectability.

Negro, on the other hand, has moved from respectable to despised. The U.S. government removed the word from its census forms in 2014. For many, it suggests that the person so designated is a weak-kneed Uncle Tom with no self-respect as a black person.

It wasn’t always thus. For most of the 20th century, Negro was a neutral, respectful way to designate Americans of African descent. (Martin Luther King Jr. used it repeatedly.) Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1917. Three years later, Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” In 1928, W.E.B. DuBois received a letter from a high school sophomore who argued that “ ‘Negro’, or ‘nigger’ is a white man’s word to make us feel inferior.” He replied: “ ‘Negro’ is a fine word. Etymologically and phonetically it is much better and more logical than ‘African’ or ‘colored’ or any of the various hyphenated circumlocutions … a Negro by any other name would be just as black and just as white; just as ashamed of himself and just as shamed by others as today.”

In my own family, I saw and heard the word Negro used many times. My father’s Ph.D. dissertation, completed in 1960, was entitled Negroes in Toronto: A Sociological Study of a Minority Group. When he was named chairman of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 1971, the Globe and Mail newspaper ran a headline with these words: “Negro appointed chairman of human rights board.” However, by 1978, when my mother and father co-founded the Ontario Black History Society, the word Negro had quietly fallen to the wayside.

According to University of Baltimore law professor Michael Higginbotham, the beginning of the end of Negro coincided with the rise of the Black Power movement. (Think James Brown’s 1968 song “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”) As civil rights advanced, fewer and fewer people wanted to use a term coined by slave traders. As Higginbotham argues, Negro fails to establish parity between the people it connotes and other groups. “Black” and “African-American” are analogous to “White” or “Italian-American,” “but Negro” lacks specificity and stands apart.

Delivering the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X in 1965, the actor and playwright Ossie Davis said: “Nobody knew better than he the power words have over the minds of men. Malcolm had stopped being a ‘Negro’ years ago. It had become too small, too puny, too weak a word for him. Malcolm was bigger than that. Malcolm had become an Afro-American …”

It is never satisfying to define a person by race, and terms that purport to do so are bound to fail. This is because race itself is an absurd construct that places people of African heritage at the bottom of a social hierarchy. Yet we continue to innovate with language. We run in circles trying to do the impossible and find a term that will work: Nigger, Negro, colored, Black, Afro-American, African-American …

As we lurch forward, grappling with new terms in new contexts, we should at least be inspired by history.

The Book of Negroes is the best title for a novel and television miniseries about 3,000 people whose names and autobiographical details were entered into a British naval ledger by the same name. The document itself embraces the history of peoples of African descent as they moved from Africa to the Americas in slavery, and then threw off their chains to serve the British wartime effort in every capacity imaginable.

The story of the Black Loyalists is one of survival in the face of betrayal. Men and women, children in tow, came to live for years in ragged canvas tents on the southern tip of Manhattan. After being evacuated to Nova Scotia in 1783, some were enslaved or indentured in Canada. In Nova Scotia, many were never given the land they had been promised and were left to freeze or starve to death or to be hanged for trifling offenses such as stealing potatoes. The oppression in what should have been Canaan was too much to stomach: A decade after arriving in Nova Scotia, 1,200 Black Loyalists accepted a voluntary offer from British abolitionists to sail once more across the Atlantic, this time traveling free in a flotilla of 15 ships to found the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone in West Africa.

As it turns out, many of these so-called adventurers were not merely going to Africa: They were returning to the homeland from which they had been stolen at a much younger age. This astounding narrative of resilience is precisely the sort of story that we need to remember and lean on, in times good and bad. Largely absent from American and Canadian history books and classrooms, it deserves study. It deserves resurrection. Negro may well be an outdated word in contemporary speech, but it and “The Book of Negroes” have a central role in history and the fashioning of the narrative of peoples of the African diaspora who came to America in chains and chose to leave it, free.

Lawrence Hill/Slate/February, 2015