In June of 2011, Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes, received an email from a group in the Netherlands letting him know that they were planning to burn his book. Their anger was over the title, stating that as descendants of those enslaved in the former Dutch colony of Suriname, they found the name of the book offensive. To show that they would not accept it, they planned a public book burning.
Hill, an accomplished Canadian writer who has tackled the issue of race in many publications, responded with an offer to sit down and discuss the reasoning behind the title and his book's place in history. But he never received a response to his offer, and on June 22, 2011, the group burned copies of the book jacket in front of television cameras.
Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book: An Anatomy of a Book Burning is Lawrence Hill's account of this incident and an overall look at the issue of censorship which he gave as the 2013 Henry Kreisel Memorial Lecture at the Canadian Literature Centre at the University of Alberta.
The Book of Negroes is one of my favourite books. Also titled Someone Knows My Name in the US and other countries, it is a novel that covers a vast amount of history and the world as it follows a woman, Aminata, who is taken from her home in West Africa, enslaved in the United States, given passage to Canada, heads back to Africa to live in a settlement in Sierra Leone, and finally, moves to London England. The title comes from an actual historical document titled The Book of Negroes, a historic British military ledger that allowed three thousand Black Loyalists passage on ships sailing from Manhattan to Nova Scotia.
This is a short book (under 50 pages) but it packs a punch. Hill looks at the issue with both a serious eye and a sense of humour. He has always been a person who has been outspoken about the issue of censorship and he was surprised to find one of his works in the midst of it. Hill looks at the history of slavery in the Netherlands and throughout the world, talks about the time he has spent in the Netherlands (which he considers a second home) and the environment and ideas in which the push for the censorship of books grows. He is a fantastic writer and this continues his accomplishment of writing about race in a frank and honest way that serves to open up the discussion further. He tackles the issue of censorship head on and makes a strong case for the freedom to read.
"I wouldn't want any book in a library or bookstore banned, pulled, removed, or burned. Period. We can hate them, dissect them, learn from them or praise them, but we need to leave books alone and let readers come to terms with them. We can teach young people to be aware and to be critical thinkers. But to believe that we can protect young people from the ideas in literature is self-delusional, in the extreme." p.15
You can read my review of The Book of Negroes: Illustrated Edition here.