Is the title of Fox’s new series sterilising slavery?

Did bestselling novel The Book of Negroes really need to be renamed, asks Sarah Churchwell

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In 2007, Canadian writer Lawrence Hill wrote an award-winning, bestselling novel that he called The Book of Negroes. In Canada and Britain, it was published under that title, but in the US, Australia and New Zealand, it was called Someone Knows My Name, to avoid the controversial word “negroes.” The story of a fictional slave, Aminata Diallo, who is kidnapped from her village in Africa and sold into slavery in the Americas before escaping to freedom in Canada was recently adapted into a TV miniseries; American producers restored Hill’s original title, and with it some of his outrage. Now Fox UK has again chosen the antiseptic title for its airing of the series. But the controversial name was, in some sense, the point.

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Hill’s fictional account was inspired by an actual register called The Book of Negroes, created in 1783 by American and British officers at the end of the American Revolution. (And while we’re on the subject of renaming, as an American, may I ask the British to please stop calling it the “American War of Independence”? No one renames the French Revolution the “French War of Independence”.) The British had persuaded a number of former slaves to join their forces in exchange for freedom in Canada, where loyalists were resettled in Nova Scotia; some were sent to the West Indies and back to England; and others eventually migrated to Sierra Leone, where they established Freetown.

After the Treaty of Paris, the newly formed United States tried to claim back from the British all “property”, which they argued included escaped slaves. The British refused, creating a register of 3,000 Africans who had travelled under their protection to Canada. The British did not permit any Africans who weren’t listed in the register to travel. It was an early effort, however compromised, to protect black people who’d escaped from slavery. (White people, needless to say, travelled freely across the border.)

Americans kept a copy in the American National Archives, and the British Book of Negroes survives in the National Archives at Kew. Every record unwittingly captures the degree to which “negroes” were considered a different order of being, a sub-category without the full humanity of white people. Each African was described, in the days before photographs or biometric records, in ways that were meant to be identifying, but are hopelessly, insultingly general.

Hill reproduced a photograph of one page of the ledger in the endpapers of his novel, which reveals the helpful information, for purposes of future identification, that Peter Bean, 32, was “a Likely fellow”. George Black, by contrast, was a “Stout fellow”, while his wife Betsy was an “Ordinary wench”. Their son William was a “Fine boy”. Calling it The Book of Negroes was a symptom of the register’s failure to differentiate, or even acknowledge, the humanity of the subjects it recorded, even as it sought to protect them, and this is the point Hill was making in using the phrase to title his novel.

To be fair, the phrase “Someone Knows My Name” has its own political history. It clearly echoes James Baldwin’s groundbreaking Nobody Knows My Name, a collection of essays from 1961 that remains a landmark work of civil rights. But on its own, the new title seems insipid, even coy: surely most audiences won’t recognise the allusion out of context, and why should they?

It’s no accident that we use the word “deracinated” to mean something not just uprooted but so far out of context it is unrecognisable. By the same logic, there’s a reason why names are so important in the history of American slavery. Slaves were renamed by their white owners, usually with the slave-owners’ name (to claim ownership, while reinforcing the myth that institutional slavery was a “paternal” system).

This is why Malcom Little decided to become Malcolm X and Cassius Clay to become Muhammad Ali: as Ali famously said, he was rejecting his slave name. In a similar way, Hill was trying to tell the truth about a painful history, to tell an uncomfortable truth about the way the Americans, British and Canadians alike treated the Africans in North America in the 18th century.

History shouldn’t be whitewashed – and I use that word advisedly. The decision to replace The Book of Negroes with Someone Knows My Name is akin to the choice to publish a new US edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 2011 that replaced the loathsome word “nigger” with the word “slave”. This is certainly less offensive, and that was precisely Twain’s point. He didn’t want slavery to seem polite, or to suggest that Southerners were respectful to its victims. They weren’t. “Negro” and its nastier derivatives are rightly viewed as unspeakable words because they arose from an unspeakable system. It is a truth Lawrence Hill was speaking when he wrote The Book of Negroes, and it is one we should all remember.

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Someone Knows My Name continues 9pm Sundays on Fox