By Lawrence Hill
I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time. I didn’t really know what it was about, but ever since it won Canada Reads in 2009, I’ve known it would be worthwhile read.
Did you know that Hill was not allowed to publish it under its original name in the United States? My American readers will be able to find the book under the title Someone Knows My Name. Which, is a good title too, but not nearly as accurate as The Book of Negroes.
Hill titled the novel after an historical document by the same name. The Book of Negroes is the book in which the British wrote the names of freed slaves – Africans and their descendants – during the evacuation from the 13 Colonies to Nova Scotia after the Americans finally defeated their British overlords and gained their independence. In the novel, Aminata Diallo, the main character, is one of those who speaks to each person, verifies their status in service to the British and writes their names in the book, thereby securing them passage out of New York and away from the danger of being dragged back into slavery.
The book is not just about the Book of Negroes, however. The book follows Aminata’s life from the moment she is captured outside her village and shipped to America, through her life to old age, which finds her in London, presenting her life story to British abolitionists.
This is the kind of book that makes me angry. Ashamed. Hypo-aware of my own white privilege. It does this beautifully, however, not by villianizing the slave traders and Americans as a whole – though there are certainly specific characters that can be described as nothing but villainous – but by presenting the issues in all their complexity and simplicity at once.
There was one theme, thread throughout the book which, every time Hill brought it to the surface, he brought tears to my eyes at the same time. It was the theme of home. Much of the book is centered around Aminata’s longing for, striving for home. A number of times, she finds a map of Africa, but instead of seeing towns and villages, something that might point her towards her own home, all she finds are sketches of elephants and bare breasted women, a startling misrepresentation of the place that Africa is.
(No wonder so many still consider Africa all one place, as opposed to countries and villages rich with their own life and culture.)
I have never had to wonder where home is. True, my family chose to leave their home in the Netherlands sometime just after World War II and come to Canada. But, they were never leaving a home behind; they were traveling to a new place in order to create a new home. Two generations later, Canada is a chosen home, not a forced one, and I never have to wonder at where I came from.
I wish the telling of Aminata’s story could reverse it. I wish a book could change the world.