Last summer, walking in Little Jamaica in Toronto, I picked up a copy of a community newspaper with a cover image of protesters overseas burning the cover of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes.
Book burning: it’s a headline-grab alright. It certainly captured this reader’s attention.
I’d been wanting to read this volume since it was published — and that intensified with every longlisting, shortlisting and win — but the idea of it having inspired such controversy secured my determination.
The author’s response to this event and consideration of the “kaleidoscopic evolution of racial terminology” appears here.
I thought the American title, Someone Knows My Name was a beautiful title, and hadn’t realized it was chosen to avoid controversy (also in Australia and New Zealand).
The Book of Negroes was a British military document, which recorded the names of black loyalists who sought to leave Manhattan for Nova Scotia after they had escaped slavery by serving the British in the Revolutionary War.
And so, the novel is named for a “living, breathing document”, as the author describes it, with over-large pages of names and descriptions and details.
The author likes to imagine there is a novel for each of the 3,000 men, women and children whose names are entered in this ledger, but that his, the novel of Aminata Diallo’s life, is the first to appear as The Book of Negroes. (HarperCollins video here)
Aminata Diallo was stolen from her family and village and sold into slavery when she was eleven, young enough to continue to dream of going home.
She survives the voyage to the coast, the journey across the ocean, the process of being sold and inducted into plantation life and indigo production, and much more. (That you can gather from reading the publisher’s blurb, but I’ll not spoil anything else.)
“How is it that some ordinary people go through the worst things imaginable and still keep on going, don’t lost their minds, don’t become murderers or suicidal, don’t become so embittered that they can’t love life anymore; they keep on trekking;I think that’s a miracle of human nature.”
Aminata is that miracle; Lawrence Hill is the author who tells stories that have been forgotten, seeking to answer this question, whose answer eludes him.
The Book of Negroes begins with an older Aminata telling her own story. So readers know that she has survived, though not what she has endured.
Only a few pages later, however, and Aminata is a young girl, living in Bayo (in present-day Mali, although Aminata only views her village as “home”).
She is struggling to cope with the political dynamics in the village, frustrated by her dislike for a particular woman there, Fanta.
“‘You must learn respect,’ Papa said.
‘But I do not respect her,’ I said.
Papa paused for a moment, and patted my leg. ‘Then you must learn to hide your disrespect.'”
These early scenes of Animata’s childhood are vitally important, to Aminata and to the reader, who needs to understand the sense of home and identity that Aminata carries with her always. It is not only advice which she will recall later (and perhaps cast aside); it is her source of strength.
Just as the “pungent, liberating smell of mint tea has always brought me back to my childhood”, the reader understands that Aminata hearkens back to her life in Africa in the many moments of determination and resistance that populate this novel.
Survival is a difficult business, but just as her relationships with her mother and father were at the heart of her young life, Aminata makes crucial connections as she moves through her new world.
“‘Pockmarks on your face a good thing, chile.’
‘You need something to ugly you up. You’re like a flower now, and that ain’t good.'”
In the context of these relationships, there is much kindness and love and beauty that seeks to balance that cruelty and devastation of slavery.
Although it’s clear to see that this novel could be read for educational purposes alone (on a rare occasion, the dates and details almost feel like a professor’s notebook, and there is an impressive and enticing appendix of recommended resources), it is an engrossing and engaging story.
One might read it simply to learn, for as the author says: “To confront our own history is healthy.” But there is a breadth of emotion herein, including some hearty laughter.
There is also some beautiful writing, phrases which manage to capture age-old ideas in a fresh voice. For instance, the view that Aminata has when near the slave market: “Five of them looked like they would not regret the closing fist of death.”
When the illustrated edition was published (2-minute HarperCollins trailer here), I was immediately smitten, but I read the paperback first and I am glad.
It took Aminata a long time to piece together the complicated journey that she took, to be able to trace her routes visually after she was stolen, and I would not have wanted to have a map in front of me for this first reading. But for a second? Absolutely.
The Book of Negroes is a story worth re-reading.
Have you read this? Would you re-read? Or, are you yet to meet Aminata?