The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill is a fictional account of the life of a woman who is captured and enslaved as a young girl and sent to America to work on a southern indigo plantation.
This is, of course, an old story that we know all too well. But in Lawrence Hill’s capable hands we traverse this dark period of history through the eyes of a woman who recounts her brutal life story from enslavement to freedom.
What is clear, from the moment Aminata Diallo is captured and brought to the New World is that nothing in her life will ever be easy. As a black woman, whether enslaved or free, there is no place she can go that will ever truly grant her the freedom she seeks. Even when she finally escapes to New York then Nova Scotia , Freetown and finally London, she is trapped as much by whites as she is by blacks and by freedom as much as slavery.
What I find interesting is that Lawrence gives us a character who is taught to read and right. Aminata is fully literate and has a passion for language and stories. It’s clear that the moment she speaks that her literacy makes her different even within her own community. She sounds like a ‘learned, educated woman’ which she is. In the end her ability and desire to be a ‘storyteller’ to tell her own story is her humanity and her freedom.
When she is brought to London by a group of abolitionist to ‘tell the story’ of slavery, to show that blacks can be educated, they insist on writing her story so that it can be used as a weapon in their fight to abolish the slave trade. Aminata knows that the only one who can tell this story is her. As witness to her life she owns her tale and won’t allow anyone to take this from her.
This reminds me very much of Chimananda Adichie’s TEDX talk where she tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.
The Book of Negroes reminds me of the importance of telling stories and the importance of listening. It’s a worthwhile read just as Chimananda’s talk is worth a good listen.