Whilst cancel culture has been badged on celebrities that have said something offensive or inflammatory in the past, often when they were young and stupid, seldom have I seen cancel culture done on works of literature. Essentially, cancel culture is a medium of boycotting someone (now something) we disagree with for a past misdemanour or an opinion we don’t like. Yet, this month was the first time I had seen “cancelling” enacted on a work of literature. This reiterates a time when Britain actually banned books. One such example being when Penguin were taken to court over D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, accused for being too sexual.
Moreover, books like To Kill a Mockingbird being taken off US school curricula, ironically the go-to text of the 20th century about racism is by a White person (but that’s another conversation). The fact of the matter is I thought book boycotts were something that didn’t happen in this country, well not in my lifetime anyway, nor my parents’ life time. That when we disagreed with something we dismantled it point by point. Another example would be David Irving who has also published books and in 1996 took historian Deborah Lipstadt to court for calling some of his statements and writings, “holocaust denial”, in her book Denying the Holocaust (1993).
But it was on a sunny May day when I happened to get a text from Criminology’s @paulaabowles with a link to a Huffington Post article calling for Amazon to pull a text from circulation. The text on display, was a collectable edition of And Then There Were None. The title on display is the original, then Ten Little Niggers. Over time it’s had many titles and is now called And Then There Were None. Obviously, the original title is overtly racist and its imagery plays up stereotypes of Black people, very much in the style of blackface minstrelsy, something that was on BBC TV until 1978!
However, studying Creative Writing as a Black student (of which many of my modules were English Literature), I think the reaction to this article is emotional; impulsive; and rather quite unnecessary. On my degree, there were books that I would call racist texts, including Dracula (Stoker), The Island of Doctor Moreau (Wells) and Heart of Darkness (Conrad). The use of the slur on this book has sparked outrage amongst Black writers and activists. But what they are doing is putting modern values onto a text that was published in a time when the British Empire still held weight.
Before Indian partition; before independence movements took hold; before the Suez Crisis, and my family’s countries’ calls for independence – not until 1966 (Jamaica) and 1974 (Grenada), both within living memory for many people.
I suppose it is rather ironic that some of my favourite books ever written could in fact be labelled racist. As a boy, I read Enid Blyton. Now, I critique stories such as Noddy for its racist leanings. We all read Dr. Seuss as children, an antisemite. Do we have to cancel him as well? I love Cat in the Hat. Tolkien’s depictions of the orcish peoples in Middle Earth can be interpreted as a disdain for racial mixing. The Carlomens in C. S Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy (my favourite Narnia book) are most definitely based on colonial stereotypes of Arabs, and their interactions with King Lune and his Archenlanders are very much reminiscent of “Anglo-Europe and The Rest.”
Whilst I get the idea to take this book off Amazon, does that mean there is going to be a movement to go after authors who could by today’s standards be deemed racist? Not even alive to defend themselves. I question, that if we cancel these kinds of books, does this allow people to forget? The N-Word is not nice but people are not reading this academically, in the context that it comes from a bygone era. As early as the start of the Second World War when colonial sentiment was still valued around the world.
If we “cancel” it, is this simply picking and choosing what is / isn’t offensive enough? Despite their sentiments, I still read Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. In cancelling this collectors item Ten Little Niggers, we are picking and choosing what is offensive. This is everything that’s wrong with woke culture. It works until it doesn’t. I find it short-sighted that supposedly “woke” activists want to get rid of a text that could well be studied under decolonisation movements, not cancelled in hindsight of modern values.
This is one of the moments I find cancel culture and workness so toxic; I’m certainly one of those people that would read these sorts of books so I can learn about how different parts of that society thought about other races
This campaign against Amazon is impulsive, in an age where many are quick to anger without forethought, particularly in countries like Britain and the US which have selective memories about their history. We criticise the Nazis for book burnings and their propaganda machine, but have we looked outside recently? The moment we censor literature, is the moment we censor learning, particularly as books like this are historical fingerprints to an era where racial thinking ran brigand. A racial thinking born in colonial times, lending its ear to many issues we see today, including White Supremacy, ethnicity award gaps, stop and search and White Privilege.
Are we going to stop people reading The Jungle Book, or stop kids watching pretty much every Disney animated film made between 1939 and 2000? I could make a chunky list of problematic books and films but they allow us a doorway into history. History is facts (sort of) and facts don’t care about your feelings. Dickens wrote about what he saw (more social history than fiction). Books allow us to see how different peoples may have thought and felt about other peoples of the time. That there is a reason why Black soldiers were excluded from the victory parades in 1918 (for example).
The cancelling is a metaphor for a country that is denial of its past and present. As someone who grew up going to school being called nigger, as someone who was monkeychanted, I do not agree with cancelling this book. It allows people to forget how the British Empire won the war on race, sorely evident in the texts on university degrees. I feel these antiracism activists have acted brashly (this time) with no forethought about context, study, or history, since I believe if the British Empire was taught (especially racial thinking), we would not even be having this conversatioin.
But to be frank, when I see antiracism activists accepting MBEs and condeming stuff like this (trying to be “woke”), I think to myself are they this ignorant or simply, do they not care? And more importantly, how dare they speak for me