More On Language (And Less On PC-Culture)

Several years ago I read a fantastic book by Canadian author Lawrence Hill called The Book of NegroesThe book is about a woman named Aminata who is kidnapped from her home in West Africa and sold into slavery in the United States. When the Revolutionary War breaks out, she escapes captivity and helps the British by serving as a midwife and teacher during the war. As a reward for her service, Aminata is granted safe passage to Canada and settles in Nova Scotia as a free woman. Her story continues as she faces discrimination and various forms of hardship in her new country, attempts to reunite with her daughter and husband, and eventually returns to West Africa in search of her home.

The title of the book is derived from an actual historical document called “The Book of Negroes.” It was a book in which the British documented the names of the 3,000 so-called “Black Loyalists” – slaves who fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War and were subsequently resettled in Nova Scotia. It’s a fascinating and little known slice of history that is honoured in Hill’s book.

As I mentioned, I read the book several years ago but only recently learned that it has a different title in the US. Instead of The Book of Negroes it is called Someone Knows My Name. Apparently Hill’s American publisher was concerned about releasing a book with the word “Negro” in the title and so it was re-branded for American consumption. If there was ever a time to rage against PC-culture now would be it. In a recent article, however, Hill resists this temptation. Though he is likely confused and a little bothered by the name change (again, Hill didn’t invent “The Book of Negroes” it is an artifact of its time and central to the story he is telling) I was so impressed by his recent article in Slate where instead of lambasting whatever “political correctness” stripped his book of its intended title, he did something much more compelling and infinitely more satisfying. He asked the following: What is it with the word Negroes? How has it come to be so incendiary?

What followed was an overview of the history of the word, a discussion of how its meaning has shifted over the years and across contexts, and a look into the debate over whether the word should be condemned or embraced by the contemporary black community. As someone who believes in the power of language – coincidentally I had just written about that very topic – I was so interested by this article and enjoyed its nuanced take on how a single word can provoke different reactions.

A second thing I appreciate about the article. When it was first published, the article was titled “What I Learned About PC Culture When I Titled My Novel The Book Of Negroes.” I wasn’t a fan of the title.

So of course I was really pleased to see that Slate later changed the title. I have no idea why they did (maybe others felt similarly?) but it doesn’t matter. The new title is a much better reflection of the article’s content and I’m glad the correction was made.

I won’t re-hash the article here as I am not qualified to add anything to Hill’s discussion of the history and significance associated with the word “Negro.” But I urge you all to read it for yourselves. Trust me, it will be a much more enriching experience than yelling at each other online about “PC culture.”

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