[American Readers please note: The title of this book, written in Canada, comes from the title of an actual ledger in which the names of black slaves were written, as they were removed by the British from post-Revolutionary America and resettled in Canada. Lawrence Hill’s book was renamed Someone Knows my Name for American publication, because the word “Negro” has such a different history there, and as Hill says, “just wouldn’t fly.” If you find the title disturbing, please read Hill’s own explanation about the names, in Why I’m not allowed my book title, in the Books Blog of The Guardian.]
In thinking of reviewing The Book of Negroes, I hardly know where to begin. Or no, that’s not quite it – the feeling I have when I contemplate this task is, “How do I dare?”
There are some books you just don’t feel qualified to do any sort of assessment on. I mean, this book follows an eleven year old girl from when she was kidnapped from her village by slave traders in Africa, right through until she’s an old woman who has gained her freedom and is now addressing British parliamentarians about the evils of slavery.
And here I am, a first-world white woman who has faced discrimination for being female, but still has never faced anything like that in my life or my history. I will never look at myself in the mirror and say, “My great-great grandparents were slaves.” But several of my friends could conceivably do that. One of them, in fact, is writing a book about her own family history.
So I read The Book of Negroes with a little bit of awe, feeling like in some way I was treading on sacred ground, and dare not presume too much.
But at the same time, it was simply a great story. It’s about a fictional character, Aminata Diallo, yet Lawrence Hill researched the stories and writings of several other slaves with similar histories. He also researched writings that described the slave trade from the points of view of slavers, parliamentarians, and others involved in some way. So this is as authentic a tale of this person’s life as you could possibly get. And I devoured it in huge non-stop chunks of time.
I learned several things that I hadn’t contemplated or been aware of before. I had known that the slaves were taken from many different parts of Africa and many different language groups, so I somehow pictured them in my mind as being very, very alone. Coming across on the slave ships (what horrible things, which Hill shows very graphically in this book), being sold, working for white masters – I had seen them as being really isolated. Undoubtedly many of them were, but I hadn’t realized the extent to which they were able to comfort each other, form communities, and keep surreptitious track of each other, even in the conditions imposed on them by the white masters.
While their situation should never have happened in the first place, to see what strength and resilience they had in the face of it all was heartening. (After the way these people survived what they did, any bloody racist in North America who can dare to say people with African ancestry are somehow “inferior,” even today, deserves to be boiled in oil and eaten by crocodiles. And is very, very, very stupid, not to mention utterly blind and wicked. And would be too feeble and weak ever to survive a life such as those slaves lived.)
Yet the losses and indignities were still terrible, and sometimes as I read what Aminata lost, gained, lost again, and endured throughout her long and heroic life, I simply couldn’t imagine how anyone would have survived. Yet she constantly and doggedly continued on, bolstered always by the memories of her parents and the wisdom she had learned from them in just eleven years before losing them.
Lawrence Hill has done something wonderful here. You learn so much about the lives of the slaves, both those wrenched from Africa and those born in slavery in the Colonies, and you learn a great deal about the human spirit and what it’s capable of and can accomplish. But you don’t just learn – you get to read an inspiring and well researched and well written story.
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