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Booker prize urged to consider name change over slavery link
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Booker prize urged to consider name change over slavery link

The Radio 1Xtra host Richie Brave has said the Booker prize should consider changing its name because of its links to enslavement.

Brave’s legal surname is Booker and his ancestors were enslaved by the founders of the company that originally sponsored the prize.

“I hope that Booker will start asking themselves some questions around the name,” he told the Guardian. “That name was inflicted upon us. As an organisation, you have a choice to change your name to something different.” He said he “personally wouldn’t want to retain a name that’s associated with that”.

On Tuesday organisers altered the wording of a piece about the prize’s original sponsors and its links to enslavement after Brave criticised it on X. He highlighted that the brothers George and Josias Booker were described as having “managed nearly 200 enslaved people”.

“Josias & George did not ‘manage’ my family,” Brave wrote. “They enslaved them. Thats why we STILL have their last name. They were enslavers, not ‘managers’.” The piece was subsequently edited to say the brothers “enslaved” nearly 200 people.

Brave said he was furious upon seeing the original wording. “Don’t attempt to sanitise the horrors of slavery,” he said.

The piece on the Booker prize website, which was first published in 2020, explains the history of Booker McConnell, the company that sponsored the prize between its establishment in 1968 and 2002.

In 1815, Josias Booker left Liverpool for what was then British Guiana, where he enslaved people on a cotton plantation, Broom Hall. His brother later joined him. When the British parliament voted to abolish slavery in 1833, the brothers received £2,884 – which the Bank of England estimates to be equivalent to £285,836 in 2024 – in compensation for 52 formerly enslaved people.

The brothers founded a trading and shipping business, Booker, in 1834. The family’s holdings were passed on to a partner, McConnell, in the 1880s, forming the Booker McConnell company.

“When we’re not having the correct conversations, or we’re not using the correct language, not only are we dishonouring people’s ancestors but we are retraumatising people who already feel the trauma as a result of what happened in their families historically,” Brave said. “So yes, fine, this is generations ago for me, but I still feel the effects of slavery now. I see the socioeconomic effects on my family. And these things hurt, it isn’t just me being a little bit upset. This is traumatising. This is traumatic history.”

Brave publicly thanked the prize organisers for editing the site. He said he was “really appreciative” that they had reached out to him to talk. “I think this is the beginning of a very long conversation that attempts to start righting the wrongs that have happened historically,” he said.

The piece on the Booker site states that a “more substantial account [of the prize’s history], written from the point of view of a Guyanese historian, will follow”.

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In a statement, the Booker prize said: “A descendant of people enslaved by the Booker brothers in the 19th century contacted us on social media yesterday about an inaccuracy in a description of Booker’s history on our website. We appreciated his getting in touch and fully agree with his point about the importance of language.

“We have updated the article accordingly and apologise for the distress caused. As the article also explains, further research into this important history is in progress, which we will share once it’s complete. This research will contribute to any future thinking. The Booker prizes are committed to excellence in literature and mindful of the conditions for justice. We will continue to reflect on the ways in which we represent this to readers everywhere.”

The prize’s connections to slavery have been highlighted before, most prominently when the 1972 Booker winner, John Berger, used his acceptance speech to announce his intention to “turn this prize against itself” and donate half of his winnings to the British Black Panther movement. Booker McConnell was still the sponsor of the prize at the time.

In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, the American novelist Kiley Reid said that when she was longlisted for the Booker prize in 2020, interviewers asked her how she felt about her book being nominated for an accolade that had historical links to racism. “I’ve never seen white authors being asked the same question,” she said. “On the one end, it didn’t feel completely fair. And on the other, every university I’ve ever taught at has a racist past. It’s everywhere.”

The Booker and International Booker prizes are now funded by a charitable foundation, Crankstart.

Source: theguardian.com