Teaching “The Book of Negroes” Part I: Race, Names, and Identity

Posted by Jasmine Wong on February 11, 2015

It always amazes me how good literature has the capacity to expand our understanding of our world, challenge our memory of history, and grow our thinking about human nature and human experience.

As someone who works with educators, I love to see how bringing great stories grounded in lived experiences into classrooms can begin conversations, spur questions, and help students make connections between themselves, the lives of others in the stories they read, and the world around them.

One story that has this capacity to grow and challenge us is Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes. For the past six weeks, Facing History and Ourselves Toronto Office Director Leora Schaefer and I have been watching the CBC’s mini-series (which will remain streamable from the CBC website for years to come) with our teacher colleagues, and it got us thinking about how we would frame an approach to this novel, and what Facing History teaching strategies, questions, and resources could extend the learning in the classroom.

book of negroes

Framing the Approach

Facing History and Ourselves' Scope and Sequence approach to historical case studiesThe way we approach the study of a difficult historical moment – whether through history or literature - is always grounded in what we call our Facing History and Ourselves Scope and Sequence, in which we look at the individual and society, explore concepts of membership and how “We and They” develops in society before examining how these concepts develop in historical case studies of mass violence. Following this examination into history, we ask who, and how we judge and remember individuals and events in history — and what the legacies are in our world today. We end by talking about what it means to make positive choices - to choose to participate, as an act of remembrance for past atrocities and as resistance to future atrocities.

Contracting

The conversations that students have in Facing History classrooms are often deeply personal, connected to difficult histories, and raise questions that challenge contemporary injustice. To prepare for those conversations, start by contracting for a safe space. In a recent Facing Canada blog post, teacher Ariel Vente writes about the importance of contracting using a classroom moment that really struck me. Also check out dducator Jason Monteith's post about establishing a safe classroom, which has been popular on our blog.

Beginning with Identity and Society

Names are a part of our identities, and a central theme in Hill’s The Book of Negroes. Through names, people make connections to one another's identity. But what's in a name? I would invite students to explore this question by responding to and discussing the following quotation from 20th century American writer and critic Ralph Ellison:

"Through our names we place ourselves in the world."

I would ask students to take five minutes to write freely about their names (first name, last name, nickname, entire name).

  • What immediately comes to mind when you think about your name?
  • What does your name mean to you?
  • How do people in other communities respond to your name?

As students read The Book of Negroes, I would ask them to connect their free writing to the importance that names play throughout the novel. Using the Big Paper teaching strategy, I would ask students to have silent conversations on three quotes:

  • “That, I decided was what it meant to be a slave: your past didn’t matter; in the present you were invisible and you had no claim on the future.” – Aminata, The Book of Negroes
  • "The use of names was a way of bringing back every thing someone could remember about a person. The strength in a name is something that has always made me wonder at the abstraction of the design, the ability of a name to bring back every single memory you have of that person is far more realistic and specific and much more comprehensive than a still photograph which captures a specific moment in time or single event or a generalized image that may or may not be moving for all who have connections to that time." - Maya Lin, architect of the Vietnam War Memorial
  • "A slave should have no sense of himself that was separate from the self the master wanted him to have. Thus it was that no black had a name of his own. He was given the surname of his owner, no matter how many owners he might have during his life. A Negro has got no name. My father was a Ransom and he had a uncle named Hankin... I was first a Hale; then my father was sold and then I was named Reed. Without a name of his own, the slave's ability to see himself apart from his owner was lessened. He was never asked who he was. He was asked, 'Who's nigger are you?' The slave had no separate identity. He was always Mr. So-and-so's nigger."- Julius Lester, To Be A Slave

     

    BigPaper4

Through their personal reflections and through a guided class discussion, I would have students consider how these three quotes connect to each other, how they connect with the identities of the characters in the novel, and how the quotes connect to their own feelings about names, identities and our relationship to the world. These conversations will serve as a foundation for conversations about membership in society, our universe of obligation, the moral and historical universe of slavery, and its legacies as students continue to read and study on.

Continue the classroom journey with me on Teaching The Book of Negroes (part 2) next Wednesday - subscribe to the blog and stay tuned!

What resources do you use to teach about names and identity? Comment below!

Topics: Identity, "The Book of Negroes", Strategies, Lesson Ideas, English Classroom, Literature

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