The Book of Negroes - Lawrence Hill
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The Book of Negroes
About the Book
Alternative Title: “Someone Knows My Name”
a Canadian novelist, essayist and memoirist
Published in 2007
A work of historical fiction inspired by the document called the “Book of Negroes,” a list of Black Loyalists who fled New York for Canada during the American Revolutionary War.
The story of Aminata Diallo, who makes this same journey after she is captured by slave traders in Africa and brought to America.
The story begins in 1745 in West Africa, where Aminata is captured in her hometown of Bayo at age 11 and marched to the coast in a coffle—or a shackled string—of slaves.
She and thousands of other African slaves are boarded onto ships bound for the Americas. Aminata’s months-long crossing details the horrific conditions aboard slave ships.
In America, Aminata is sold into slavery and is taken to an indigo plantation in South Carolina. While enslaved, she becomes known for her midwifery skills, learned in childhood from her mother.
In secret, Aminata learns to read from a fellow slave and her literacy skills later prove instrumental to her emancipation. After her baby is sold and Aminata refuses to work, she is sold to a Jewish couple, the Lindos, who teach her arithmetic.
In return for her loyalty to the British crown during the American Revolutionary War, Aminata is granted freedom and enlisted to enter the names of other former slaves into the naval ledger, the “Book of Negroes,” before their journey by ship from New York to Canada.
While free, Aminata faces discrimination and hardship in Nova Scotia, where she helps to settle the Black community of Birchtown.
When settlement in Sierra Leone is offered to “free Blacks,” Aminata fulfills her dream of returning home in a back-to-Africa odyssey alongside 1,200 other former slaves.
She searches for her hometown and helps to found the new colony of Freetown. But a desire to help free her fellow Africans brings Aminata to England where her story—the narrative of her life, which she writes in her final years at the turn of the 19th century—becomes a galvanizing document for the white-led abolitionist movement.
It is this theme of migration — both voluntary and involuntary — that dominates the book and unifies its plot.
Throughout her life, Aminata recognizes the hypocrisies involved in slavery and sees how such hypocrisy diminishes all people’s ability to live ethical lives.
Again and again, Aminata encounters promises and proclamations that appear to be well-intentioned, but in each case she watches as those pledges are abandoned, reversed, or simply fail because the economic, political, and material temptations of slavery consistently overpower ethical intentions.
Lawrence Hill wrote the novel in the tradition of slave narratives, using the language and tropes of the genre.
As a work of historical fiction, The Book of Negroes incorporates actual events and figures into its fictional plot and characters.
Aminata’s story is told for the sake of being told and to explore the historical record in a literary way.
In other words, her intention is to provide meaning and purpose to her life. She also gives voice to those who lived alongside her but were unable to record their own stories.
The novel depicts an aspect of history that has gone unnoticed or been silenced in both the historical record and contemporary culture.
The title of the book refers to the British military ledger, the “Book of Negroes.”
It documents the identities of some 3,000 Black Loyalists who were granted passage to Nova Scotia from New York in 1783. In the novel, Aminata’s name is entered into the book.
In most English-speaking countries, the novel carries the original Canadian title. The American edition was also slated for publication under the original title. However, given sensitivities toward the term “Negro” in the United States, the publisher felt the title would not be well-received.
The title Someone Knows My Name was substituted just before the cover went to print. The book was also published as Someone Knows My Name in Australia and New Zealand.