You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is my new title for banned book reviews and news roundups.

From a previous banned book news roundup:

Conservative groups who believe in and fear the so-called gay agenda accuse the American Library Association of suppressing books with pro-hetereosexual themes. But 99% of books in libraries implicitly or explicitly endorse heterosexuality, so what’s really going on? Sounds to me like the groups are upset with the ALA for refusing to recognize, catalog, and shelve their religious tracts as literature.

Apparently it’s a widely-held belief in anti-gay Christian conservative circles that the government — particularly the jack-booted thugs who run public libraries and schools — foists pro-gay literature on young readers while hiding from them books promoting normal heterosexual values, as indicated by this article claiming California has banned all books that may reflect poorly on gays from public schools.

In South Carolina, the Kershaw County School District has banned a book from two high schools after parental complaint.  Here’s the author’s response to the school district.

All is forgiven, Harry Potter … if parents are still trying to get your books banned, it’s not our fault!

Good news: Richland, Washington school board reverses itself, un-bans The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

“My name is Nick. This is my friend. His name is Jay. Jay has a big house. See his house.”  Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for dummies, as imagined by Roger Ebert.  Does the trend of dumbing down books like The Great Gatsby, or changing offensive words in books like Huckleberry Finn to make them less controversial, fall into the same category as banning them?  In my book (so to speak) it’s at least closely related.


In my last banned book post I mentioned a recent book-burning in The Netherlands, where a group protesting The Book of Negroes … apparently objecting to little more than the word “negro” in the title … burned several copies.  I decided to read the book myself.  Here’s my review:

The Book of Negroes
by Lawrence Hill

(published in the USA as Someone Knows My Name)

I learned of this novel while doing research on a favorite area of study, the banning of books.  A group of political activists in Amsterdam recently burned copies of The Book of Negroes, objecting to the title.  The news article explained that The Book of Negroes, a novel about the slave trade in the Americas and Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, takes its name from the original “Book of Negroes,” a historical document listing the names of blacks who served the British during the American Revolutionary War and who were resettled along with other loyalists in Canada after the British defeat.  Well, I ask you, with an introduction like that, how could I not read The Book of Negroes?

I’m a white American who went to public school during the 1950s and 1960s, which is another way of saying I know almost nothing about slavery in America.  Our textbooks barely mentioned it.  White baby boomers learned what little we know from watching Roots back in the 1970s.  I didn’t get around to reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin until last year.  I didn’t know American blacks fought on the side of the British during the Revolutionary War until I read M.T. Anderson’s historical novels The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party and Volume 2: The Kingdom on the Waves.

The Book of Negroes/Someone Knows My Name is the fictional autobiography of Aminata Diallo, who, at the age of nine, is abducted from her African village by slavers, marched to the coast, and shipped to South Carolina where she is sold to an indigo planter.  Partially literate when she is abducted, she fully learns to read and write through the kindness of a older, educated house slave.  She’s sold to an indigo inspector who teaches her the ins and outs of business and bookkeeping and eventually takes her to New York City where she escapes, just as Americans begin to revolt.  She, like many other free and escaped American blacks, serves the British during the war, then is resettled with other black and white loyalists in Nova Scotia.

British abolitionists enlist her to help with a plan to resettle black loyalists in Sierra Leone; she returns with them to Africa.  As an old woman, she travels from Sierra Leone to London with her abolitionist sponsor to testify before Parliament, playing a central role in the British decision to outlaw the slave trade.  Along the way she is beset with injustices and outrages: her original owner rapes her, her first baby is sold, she’s separated from her husband, her second child is abducted by a white family, she’s forced to hide from runaway slave catchers employed by her first and second owners, she is betrayed by the British and her fellow Africans again and again.

Despite the piety and florid language, I was enthralled by Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  I devoured the Octavian Nothing novels and pray for additional volumes.  I started The Book of Negroes/Someone Knows My Name with the same level of enthusiasm, but after a few chapters it faded.  Aminata is too successful in overcoming the betrayals, debasement, and cruelty of slavery.  Certainly, a few slaves educated themselves and reclaimed ownership of their lives, but Aminata is practically a 19th century Oprah, and frankly not believable.  Her story, despite the horrendous injustices of slavery present on almost every page, is relentlessly upbeat.  This is not to say that Lawrence Hill’s novel is ever less than a good read; it is just a bit too positively educational for my tastes.

Kudos to Lawrence Hill for tackling dialect, which he does well.  Few modern writers would have the balls to try it.  Aminata, being the paragon she is, is fluent in three versions of English: Gullah, the “yes massa” language slaves use when speaking to whites, and the King’s English.  She also, inexplicably, retains the two African languages she knew when she was abducted at the age of nine, and I had a particularly hard time swallowing that.  There are, unfortunately, a few lapses, with modern phrases creeping  jarringly in, as when Aminata tells another black woman, “Nice try.”

Overall this is a very well-written book, and it helps tell a story too few of us know, a story shamefully absent from our history books.  I particularly appreciate the list of recommended reading Lawrence Hill includes in his afterword, because slavery-related material  — particularly the stories told by the slaves themselves — is still hard to come by in the United States, and I mean to learn more.

Back to the thing that caught my attention in the first place: book burning and banning.  Yes, this book has been literally burned.  It has also been retitled to make it more appealing to American readers, something I consider a form of censorship.  Why anyone would object to the original title of this book is beyond me, unless the very word “negro” has become so radioactive it cannot be used in polite conversation.  Sadly, that appears to be the case.

When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was banned in many American states, the stated reason was that it would fan the flames of abolition, but the unstated reason was its unflattering depiction of whites.  That is certainly true of this novel … after reading it I am distinctly uncomfortable with my white heritage.  Of the many stains on white mens’ souls, slavery is one that can never be scrubbed away.

© 2011, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.


5 thoughts on “You Can’t Read That!

  • Paul,
    I think your discomfort with your white heritage over the issue of slavery is unwarranted. Historically, slavery was the curse of civilization, regardless of race. Anthropologists confirm that it was found throughout the world long before Europeans crawled out from the swamps, bogs, and the rocks at Stonehenge. While not universal, it was the norm of social and economic behavior and organization. In short, our white ancestors inherited it.

    I’m not trying to justify their acceptance of slavery, but attempting to explain it in historically valid terms. What were the circumstances then prevailing? Culturally, it was part of their heritage and, therefore, hard to break.

    Now this is critical to the issue. It was against this background that our white ancestors, specifically white European Protestants, who largely ended slavery. I am also including 19th Century American whites as part of this group. Together, their role in effectively ending slavery is an historical fact.

    I’m descended from solid European peasant stock, and I can assure you, peasantry was a form of slavery, except it wasn’t called that. Also, none of my ancestors ever owned slaves and a few died in our Civil War fighting for the North.

    Where is the stain in all that?

  • Slavery remains the Great Obscenity of American history, along with the slaughter of millions of people already living in the new world by the various invaders. Yes, I know that’s what conquering nations do. And, yes, I know slavery has existed almost as long as history. But it’s the perpetuation of the after-effects of slavery in the form of poor education, racism, inequality, and class oppression that we should be ashamed of and that we should be working tirelessly to overcome.

    I, too, am proud that my great-great-grandfather fought on the side of the Union and was given a medal by President Lincoln himself. But that doesn’t obliterate the blot on American society that shames us in the face of the world. It’s not that the rest of the world is doing any better; Lord knows slavery exists in many countries and in many forms. It’s that we, who have based our government on one of the most perfect and beautiful documents in history haven’t managed to do any better. People of color — and, for that matter, a lot of people of non-color — remain among our poorest and least educated citizens. Why can’t we do better? It’s beginning to look as if the real final frontier is in our own backyards, in our own towns and cities and schools. Shouldn’t we be setting the example for the rest of the world?

  • Dick, everything you say is true. I recently read about the Vikings who in the course of things enslaved white people they captured, even other Vikings. We all did it, sure. But I’ve been reading and reviewing banned books for over a year now, and in the case of every book touching on black slaves’ experiences in the USA, one of the main reasons the books were challenged or banned was the books’ presentation of whites in all their awfulness. That can only come from shame, and I’m glad I’m still capable of it.

  • Re: the after-effects of slavery. I agree with Reliza’s point that we need to do better. Fortunately, things are getting better, especially since 1964, but we still need to improve.

    Also, may I recommend “Time on the Cross” by Fogel and Engerman. While Fogel and Engerman have been severely criticized, much of their analysis has been basically substantiated, although it is not worth an academic’s career to publish. Such is the price of P.C. Read it and make up your own mind.

    Finally, Paul, are you arguing that we are collectively tainted for the “sins of our fathers” ?

  • Not exactly, Dick, it’s more that I know in a different time and place I would have been just like everyone else. Judging by the number of black Americans named Woodford I meet, some of my ancestors certainly were!

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