Isaac Asimov’s Robots and Freed Slaves’ Names in Up From Slavery

A passage in Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery caught my attention the other night while I was reading it for my African-American Literature seminar:

After the coming of freedom there were two points upon which practically all the people on our place were agreed, and I found that this was generally true throughout the South: that they must change their names, and that they must leave the old plantation for at least a few days or weeks in order that they might really feel sure that they were free.

In some way a feeling got among the coloured people that it was far from proper for them to bear the surname of their former owners, and a great many of them took other surnames. This was one of the first signs of freedom. When they were slaves, a coloured person was simply called “John” or “Susan.” There was seldom occasion for more than the use of the one name. If “John” or “Susan” belonged to a white man by the name of “Hatcher,” sometimes he was called “John Hatcher,” or as often “Hatcher’s John.” But there was a feeling that “John Hatcher” or “Hatcher’s John” was not the proper title by which to denote a freeman; and so in many cases “John Hatcher” was changed to “John S. Lincoln” or “John S. Sherman,” the initial “S” standing for no name, it being simply a part of what the coloured man proudly called his “entitles.”

Washington doesn’t go into any more depth on his example of the former slave who chose “S.” as his middle initial, but that particular letter immediately reminded me of the “R.” at the beginning of Isaac Asimov’s humaniform robot:  R. Daneel Olivaw.  Was the selection of “S.” in Washington’s example a conscious or unconscious choice to signify the individual as being a former slave?  Also, did Asimov choose to the “R.” initial with a knowledge of Washington’s writing to serve as inspiration?  

I have heard that Asimov’s robots represent African-Americans, and Asimov was involved in the Civil Rights movement.  However, I do not have sources to backup these claims.  If that is true, the above passage may be a strong link between the political work of Washington and the SF/political work of Asimov.  I do want to return to this idea in the future, and if anyone has anything to add to this, I would be very much interested in hearing from you.

5 thoughts on “Isaac Asimov’s Robots and Freed Slaves’ Names in Up From Slavery

  1. I was browsing the internet, looking for some information that could add a nice touch to the graduation thesis I’m writing (I’m about to graduate in Foreign Languages and Literature and focusing my studies on the Anglo-American branch).
    My thesis is EXACTLY about how Asimov’s robots can be looked at as the metallic counterpart of human slaves: from what I’ve seen from his autobiographies, he stood for Civil Rights, but I wouldn’t describe him as really “active”.
    Anyway, I absolutely agree with this idea.. even though Asimov said (in “Robot Visions”):

    “I was determined not to make my robots symbols.
    They were not to be symbols of humanity’s over-weening arrogance. They were not to be examples of human ambitions trespassing on the domain of the Almighty.
    They were not to be a new Tower of Babel requiring punishment.
    Nor were the robots to be symbols of minority groups.
    They were not to be pathetic creatures that were unfairly persecuted so that I could make Aesopic statements about Jews, Blacks or any other mistreated members of society. Naturally, I was bitterly opposed to such mistreatment and I made that plain in numerous stories and essays-but not in my robot stories.
    In that case, what did I make my robots? -I made them engineering devices. I made them tools. I made them machines to serve human ends. And I made them objects with built-in safety features.
    In other words, I set it up so that a robot could not kill his creator, and having outlawed that heavily overused plot, I was free to consider other, more rational consequences.”

    Oh, but his robot stories say otherwise, don’t they? “The Bicentennial Man” is a perfect example of what W.E.B. Du Bois called Double Consciusness, for instance. And the list could go on and on…
    That’s what I am trying to demonstrate in my work: I’m glad I am not the only one with this idea.

    My best regards,
    Sara
    PS: Excuse my imperfect English, I’m not a native speaker.

  2. Dear Sara,

    Thank you so much for sharing this passage from Robot Visions and your suggestions about how we might read Asimov’s robot stories. Your research sounds very exciting. Where are you currently studying? Is your home department supportive of science fiction scholarship?

    Have you considered joining the Science Fiction Research Association (www.sfra.org)? The SFRA is a great organization to join to discuss your research with other people in the field.

    Also, your thesis or a chapter from it might be ideal for one of the SF field’s journals: Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, Journal for the Fantastic in the Arts, or Foundation.

    Very best, Jason

    PS: If you don’t want to reply here, you can email me at dynamicsubspace at gmail.

  3. Good evening Dr. Ellis, I’m not sure you received my email, so I’ll answer here…

    I will join the the SFRA with a print+electronic membership, and I would love to contribute, somehow… if it’s possible, with a small essay?
    Hearing some feedback from someone interested would be absolutely amazing and priceless!

    Thank you for the precious suggestions, I’ll also try and get in touch with the journals!

    Best Regards,
    Sara

  4. Dear Sara,

    I’m afraid that I did not receive your email, but I’m glad that you contacted me through my blog.

    The SFRA will begin 2013 renewals/new membership signups very soon. We are finalizing the pricing to accommodate price increases for the print subscription option. Stay tuned to sfra.org for updates on that.

    The way that I got started in the SFRA was by publishing book reviews for the SFRA Review, our official publication. To find out when new books are available, you should subscribe to the SFRA email listserv. You can signup for the listserv here: http://wiz.cath.vt.edu/mailman/listinfo/sfra-l

    If you already have a book in mind that you would like to review, you can contact our Fiction or Non-fiction Review editors by email (their email addresses are here: http://www.sfra.org/sfrareview).

    If you would like to contribute an essay, I know that the SFRA Review is also soliciting what are called “101” articles. These are discipline-specific introductory essays that introduce readers to the basic ideas, arguments, and important texts for a given subject. You can get a sense of these articles (and find out what has already been covered) by going here: http://www.sfra.org/sf101. If you have a 101 article in mind, please email Doug Davis about your idea (his contact is at the SFRA Review link above).

    There are other journals in the field that you might consider submitting your essay to, such as Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, the Journal for the Fantastic in the Arts, Foundation, and others. I have links to the major journals in the right sidebar–you might just have to scroll down the page a little.

    If I can offer any advice or answer other questions, please let me know.

    Very best, Jason

  5. Good morning, Dr. Ellis!

    Your advices are really, really helpful and priceless.
    I’m checking the SFRA site and waiting for the new memberships’ signups. For the moment, I already subscribed to the mailing list… I got my BA on wednesday 12/12, and I’m starting with Master’s Degree in January.

    I am also going to translate my essay from italian (my mothertongue) to english. Its title is: “Mechanical Slaves – Slavery and racial prejudice in Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series”.

    I’d love to submit it to SFRA first, so I’ll email mr. Davis, and the journals afterwards.
    I’m new to this all, and I don’t really know how it works.

    If I can, I’s ask you a very very important question. I live in Italy, and in my University there is absolutely no space for the study of Science Fiction.
    I would love to go to the United States at least for some months, so that I can improve my english and also experience how U.S. really are.

    Once again, thank you so much for your kind help!
    Best regards,
    Sara

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