Are Book Burners Always Villains?

The ethical quagmire of censoring “difficult” literature

I still vividly recall the CBC World at Six report on the 2011 event that was scheduled to occur in Oosterpark, Amsterdam. The report was on a planned burning of Lawrence Hill’s enormously popular The Book of Negroes, that is, its Dutch translation, by an activist named Roy Groenberg, leader of a group known as the Foundation Honor and Restore Victims of Slavery in Suriname. The burning did not take place, although Groenberg publicly burned a photocopy of the book’s cover. Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book: An Anatomy of A Book Burning is Lawrence Hill’s response to the provocation from Groenberg, received by email, from which he takes the title of this long essay. It is Hill’s coming to terms with the intention to burn his book and his working out of his relationship to such acts of censorship. Indeed, Hill seeks to do more in the essay than cast the event as merely one of censorship and instead seeks to make some kind of relationship with his provocateur, thus transforming him into more of an interlocutor in the essay. Hill’s response to the potential book burning aims to make sense of why the reception of his book based on its title might have triggered such a reaction in the first instance. But the essay is also a reflection on Hill’s work in anti-censorship circles and as an articulator for an anti-racist and socially just world.

The Book of Negroes was first published in Canada in 2007 and has reportedly sold more than 600,000 copies in Canada alone. Hill has won a number of major awards for the novel, and it has been widely celebrated as telling an important story and also crucially pointing readers to the actual history from which the novel draws its material. Indeed, I have had conversations with people who insist that each child in a Canadian school should have a copy of the book assigned as a part of their curriculum, demonstrating how precious the tale the book holds has come to be to some readers. The enormous popularity of the book on Canadian soil is evident both through its sales and especially in the aftermath of the popular book competition Canada Reads. In fact, the popularity and ubiquity of the book make the controversy over its title in the Netherlands an interesting intervention concerning why similar concerns or questions were not raised in the Canadian context, given the book’s far-reaching impact here.

In the aftermath of the Netherlands story one begins to wonder about what kinds of conversations Hill had with his Canadian publishers about the novel’s title? Did he and his publishers simply assume that Canadians would have no problem with the title, as appears to have been the case? Did they discuss the transposition of The Book of Negroes title from the actual 18th-century document to the 21st-century book as just one of several layers of authenticity underlying the novel? Did they think about whether black Canadians might be offended by the title? From all accounts, at least in Hill’s essay, it does not appear that he himself or his Canadian publishers asked any of the above questions. For me that might be the most interestingly untold part of this story—was there any consternation about the book’s title among its Canadian publishers?

It is intriguing, in light of these questions, that the U.S. publishers found the title of the novel a problem. Hill is clear that the American publishers themselves did not find the title offensive, but rather were concerned about how the title would affect sales. Therefore, Hill reports that, with little time to think through the problem of the title, he changed it to Someone Knows My Name for U.S. publication. Indeed, it is the question of sales that might be the most disappointing aspect of this entire sordid episode of a book-cover burning and the aborted book burning in Amsterdam.

Of course, publishers publish books to make money and writers write for their living, so the question of book sales is germane to both. However, I want to suggest that Hill’s quick fall for his U.S. publisher’s concerns about sales, given the title, reveals much about this story. What do sales have to do with good art? And if the title of the book held important historical, social, cultural, artistic and indeed ethical meaning, why change the name for sales? Would readers not eventually discover this important story regardless of initial sales? What role would critics and reviewers play in explaining the title? It is precisely at this point that a larger set of questions about the culture industries present themselves. If changing the title had more to do with sales than to do with the artistic, cultural and political impact of the title and the book and the kinds of conversations and education the original title could and might entail, why change it? Indeed, Hill does not fully address those kinds of questions in his essay.

The essay locates itself in a long tradition of correctly reminding readers about the multiple pitfalls of book censorship. But Hill is historically minded and thoughtful enough to not just produce anti-censorship arguments outside of other historical concerns. He presents the ethical dilemmas of racist literature as a backdrop to working out how he comes to his positions on anti-censorship. By recounting his family’s very active involvement in the civil rights movement in the United States and Canada, Hill plots the quagmire of censorship as ethically difficult terrain, but he does it in a smart and sentimental fashion. Indeed, it is the civil rights family narrative that makes Hill’s position on censorship a difficult and admirable one. He is forced to work out a thoughtful relationship to difficult literature, especially literature meant to demean and harm, alongside a position that does not call for its banning but rather for its vigorous intellectual and political engagement. Hill has been a part of such debates prior to his encounter with his Amsterdam interlocutor. Thus in some ways, given his thoughtfulness, it is surprising that he did not meditate on the relationship between titles and sales in his essay.

But American marketing decisions aside, let’s return to the main event. The email from Amsterdam is one less interested in the art of the novel or even the story of the novel and one more characterized by what the title signifies about unreconciled histories of black peoples’ enslavement and the still lingering evidence of such histories in the Netherlands and beyond. Indeed, the desire to burn the book is framed through the unreconciled histories of Dutch involvement in the African slave trade. The place where the copies of the book’s covers were eventually burned in the park is freighted with symbolic historical significance—“next to a monument commemorating the victims of Dutch slavery.”

Indeed, this is a war of symbols between author, publisher and Roy Groenberg. But it is important to suggest that Groenberg was probably not just speaking for himself. The admirable aspect of Hill’s essay is his attempt to complicate his response to Groenberg’s provocation by thinking seriously about the desire to burn the book and the ways in which he and Groenberg might agree on a number of issues pertaining to post-slavery black life. It is such openness on Hill’s part that makes me term Groenberg his interlocutor and not merely an antagonist.

Since Hill takes seriously Groenberg’s intervention, he is forced to work out why such a response to his book might have been possible in the first instance. To be clear, Hill remains throughout the essay a staunch believer in anti-censorship practices. Nonetheless he must wrestle with the fact that the Dutch, like white Canadians, have sought to downplay their role in transatlantic slavery, if not attempt to make it disappear altogether. Indeed, Canada’s feat of submerging its relationship to and its benefits from transatlantic slavery deep in the national consciousness has been so successful that raising its spectre almost always seems in bad taste. For the Dutch it is the same, but with overseas colonies and a figure such as Zwarte Piet, the Christmas “dark face” figure who scares bad children, the deep involvement of the Dutch in one of the most horrific abuses of human history rears its head at least once a year, not to mention the many formerly colonized arriving at the doors of the “motherland.” Hill declares an intimate and ongoing commitment to both the Netherlands and Canada, recounting his many trips and, importantly, his first trip to the Netherlands as a young man. Thus he feels the shock of Groenberg’s intervention as emotionally surprising, given that he thought conversation and debate would be more suited to the national temperaments of both places. But it is indeed the tangled and unresolved histories of slavery and contemporary anti-black racism that complicates how texts are received, valued and understood to be representative or not of various communities. It is precisely because Hill’s novel entered into a field where contestation over a very limited set of black representations is available that, in my view, his novel elicited such a response in the Netherlands.

Having to resort to burning a book as a form of protest says something about a group’s ability to be heard in other contexts. This is not to say that book burning is fine, but rather to point to the different ways in which different communities have access to intervening in the public sphere and having their views accorded some space for consideration. From the persistence of Zwarte Piet to a Dutch magazine’s reference to pop star Rihanna as a “niggabitch,” to black people being beaten up and arrested for protesting Zwarte Piet, the field of black or rather anti-black representation in the Netherlands is one that is already saturated with negativity. Indeed, it seems safe to venture a guess that, much like in Canada, I doubt that the Dutch publishers would have given any thought to how black and other non-white Dutch people might have responded to the title when acquiring the rights to publish the book. In such cases do writers have to think through these minefields for themselves? Hill’s essay, by taking Groenberg seriously, begins to approach such a question.

When I see the words Het Negerboek on the page as a non-Dutch reader and speaker, but as someone who has lived all my life in the zone of the Americas, the first association I make with it visually is “nigger.” To my eyes there is something in those letters that speaks a history of concealment of the ways in which language has been central, if not foundational, to the unmaking of black peoples’ humanness. Unlike Roy Groenberg, I believe such words must remain with us, not buried, because I think those words act as reminders of the terrible things we have done and continue to do even when the words have been banished. The ideas behind those words can still get a Trayvon Martin shot to death. It is precisely why in my own scholarship I have come to use the term “global niggerdom” as a method of signalling the ways in which forms of global anti-blackness now circulate, making little difference from one country to another in how poor black people are housed or policed, what kind of employment (if any) they have access to and so on. Different countries, same conditions. Groenberg’s protest, faulty as it was, draws on a similar impulse even if we would disagree on political methods.

Hill’s response in Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book opens more questions for me than it resolves. Once the discussion is routed back to Canada, one begins to ask whether Canadian publishers even imagine a black reading public the way that the American publishers did. Are Canadian publishers too steeped in the myths of a Canada that is not troubled by the legacy of transatlantic slavery to imagine such a reading public? What kinds of conversations are editors, publishers and book marketing people having with their writers about these kinds of concerns in the Canadian marketplace? Are there any people working at such levels in the Canadian publishing industry who understand and have the expertise and professional respect to raise these questions? And, again, why did black Canadians not respond similarly to their Dutch kin? Is it that black Canadians do not think that their concerns could be heard? Is it that such a startling black Canadian success as Hill’s is so seldom witnessed that making such a noise might seem embarrassing?

It seems to me that the issues opened up are far beyond the ones of censorship, as important as that is. The issues all strike deeply at book publishing in Canada, black communities and an imagined public that appears not to include black people as readers.