Monday, May 14, 2012

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Last summer in Nova Scotia I was at a dinner party and the conversation turned to books.  A friend asked if I'd read The Book of Negroes.  I was a bit taken aback at the political incorrectness of the title.  It turns out that publishers in the United States, Australia and New Zealand were as well, as the book was released in those countries under the alternative title of Someone Knows My Name.   Whichever title you prefer, it's a great read.

The novel tells the story of Aminato Diallo, a former slave who finds herself in London working with abolitionists to outlaw the African slave trade.  She tells the reader, "At times I still panic when surrounded by big white men with a purpose.  When they swell around me to ask questions, I remember the hot iron smoking above my breast."  This, of course, is a reference to when she was branded like an animal by the men who stole her from her life in Africa and shipped her to America to be sold to the highest bidder.

Aminato (known as Meena) was only 11 years old when she was kidnapped, but she already had special skills that made her valuable and enabled her to survive.  Her mother was a midwife and had taught Meena how to "catch babies."   Her father was a Muslim jeweler who (reluctantly) had taught his daughter how to read and write in Arabic.  Her parents had different native languages, and Meena could speak both.  Meena's abilities were put to use by the toubabu (white men) during the horrific voyage from Africa to the United States.  Meena survived by sheer determination, telling herself that she needed to live to become a djeli (a storyteller).

Meena finds herself on a plantation where she lives with Georgia, an American-born slave.  Meena's facility with languages again comes in handy as she learns both English (the language of the slave traders) and Gullah (the language of the slaves used in day-to-day conversation and in the communications system up and down the coast known as the "fishnet").  Meena struggles to understand her new life, wondering, "Does he [the plantation owner] own me at all times, or only when I am working for him?  Does he own me when I sleep?  When I dream?"   The years pass, and Meena is sold by the plantation owner to Solomon Lindo, a Jew who feels that he can relate to the slaves because he, too, is an outsider.  Meena's world does change for the better, as helping Lindo with the books for his indigo business is a step up from working in the fields with the threat of a whip over her, but she still yearns for freedom and to return to her home.  Eventually Meena escapes from the bondage of slavery, but her life is still a daily struggle for survival.

Meena's story takes us from Africa to the United States to Nova Scotia (that was a surprising connection!) back to Africa and finally to England.  The title of the book comes from Meena's work with the British when she is hired to maintain a list of Negroes who have proven themselves eligible to accept the British offer to be moved to Nova Scotia where they could live free.   In this "book of Negroes," Meena writes how the people obtained their freedom, how old they were, and where they were born.  Meena loved the opportunity to create a record of these people, envisioning how someone later might find a reference to a relative in this book, much like finding a reference to a relative who came through Ellis Island.

The Book of Negroes is a narrative-driven page turner.  Meena turns out to be quite a compelling djeli.  To me, it wasn't only the tale of an incredible woman, but a story about the importance and power of literacy.   It's not your typical summer beach read, but I'm betting that if you pick it up, you won't want to put it down until you've come to the end of the story.  








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