Friday, August 19, 2011

The Book of Negroes by Lawerence Hill (2007)

My lovely Aunt Charlotte loaned me a copy of Canadian author Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes [published in the US as Someone Knows My Name] (2007) an embarrassingly long time ago, and it just recently floated up to the top of my pile. Even though I had heard so many good things about the book, it was hard to make myself pick up what I imagined had to be a very sad and upsetting story of slavery. I was right that Hill's novel is sad and upsetting, but it is also moving, occasionally uplifting, and a surprisingly energetic read.

Hill gives us the first-person story of Aminata Diallo, who at the start of the book (in 1802) is an older woman, without any family, who was brought to London by abolitionists who want her to testify before Parliament in their fight to outlaw the slave trade. As part of her work with the abolitionists, Aminata decides to write her own life story, and that is the book we are holding in our hands.

Aminata starts with her life in a small African village with her parents. When she is 11 and walking home with her mother, a midwife, from assisting with a birth in another village, the two of them are attacked and Aminata is taken by the slave traders. The novel takes us through Aminata's brutal three month march to the sea, chained to other captured Africans, the putrid and deadly sea voyage, and her eventual purchase as a "refuse slave" by the owner of a South Carolina indigo plantation.

Through a series of coincidences, providence, and her own strong personality and aptitude for languages, Aminata survives these ordeals, learns both black and white English, and learns how to read and write. She also, at the age of 15, has a baby boy with a young man named Chekura who had been her companion since the long march in Africa. Chekura ends up on a nearby plantation and is able to sneak away once a month to visit Aminata. As with many slaves, their family is broken up.

I don't want to give away too much of the book, so I'll just say that through more coincidence and bravery, Aminata ends up with her freedom in New York City, and ultimately works with the British Loyalists during the Revolutionary War. The British promised freedom to any slaves that worked for them, and after the end of the war, Aminata is asked by the British to help them register all the blacks that served the Loyalist cause in "The Book of Negroes" so that they can be transported to Nova Scotia.

As you might imagine, things are not much better in Canada. The land promised to the former slaves is never given. They are forced to live in a separate town miles from the white settlement where they work, and when jobs become scarce, lynch mobs and arsonists attack the black settlement. A group of British abolitionists organize an exodus of former slaves to settle back in Africa in Sierra Leone, and Aminata Diallo, who by this point feels she has nothing to lose and who wants to see her home village again, decides to go.

This is obviously an epic and sweeping book that covers a lot of time, a lot of events, and a lot of countries. Keeping the entire narrative tied to the first person experiences of Aminata and allowing us to view these unimaginable actions on an individual scale allows the book to sink deeper than a birds-eye view of the topic. And Hill does a wonderful job with Aminata. Her narrative is straight forward and unflinching, very physical, pragmatic, and intelligent. She is a character that you admire much more than you pity.

The Canadian section of the book and the move to Sierra Leone was the part of the slave story that I wasn't that familiar with. The Book of Negroes is a real document (actually one of the most detailed and comprehensive archival records of individual slaves), and Hill definitely did his research -- there are dozens of recommended books for further reading at the end of the novel. Reading a story about slavery, showing all the horribleness of humanity, is never a fun endeavor, but Hill gives us something new in The Book of Negroes and something that we shouldn't look away from.

1 comment:

Italia said...

This is a really good novel by a great Canadian author. Unfortunately, once again the forces of 'political correctness' have forced a stupid decision with the title of this work. This book was published in Canada as "The Book of Negroes." There is great significance to that title as explained by Lawrence Hill in interviews and in the "acknowledgments" section. It is just really pathetic that a title change was done for the American edition.