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.