“The Book of Negroes” (2007), a book by Canadian writer Lawrence Hill, is known as “Someone Knows My Name” in the US, Australia and New Zealand, and “Aminata” in French. It is a work of historical fiction that follows the life of Aminata Diallo from 1745 to 1805. At age 11 she is caught by slave traders in West Africa and winds up a slave in the Thirteen Colonies. Like Odysseus or Dorothy, she spends most of the book trying to get back home.
WARNING: Massive spoilers.
Her life takes her through the present-day countries of
- Sierra Leone,
- the US,
- Sierra Leone (again) and
It is a super-duper slave narrative with everything thrown in:
- an innocent, West African girlhood,
- a slave raid,
- a three-month death march to the coast,
- a slave fort (Bance Island),
- the Middle Passage,
- a failed shipboard slave uprising,
- slavery on an indigo plantation in South Carolina,
- having your family torn apart for the profit of White people,
- secretly learning how to read,
- buzzards wheeling over the streets of Charles Town (Charleston, South Carolina) and the unmistakable smell of a slave ship coming into port,
- running away to freedom,
- Manhattan and its African Burial Ground,
- early Black New York,
- the (White) American Revolution,
- Black Canada: Nova Scotia and the Birchtown race riot between Black and White Loyalists,
- “Back to Africa” and the founding of Freetown, Sierra Leone,
- William Wilberforce and the British abolitionists fighting to end the slave trade.
And, of course, the Book of Negroes itself: a book containing a list of 3,000 Black New Yorkers who had helped the British during the American Revolution. The British promised them freedom and land and resettled most of them in Nova Scotia in 1783 – but without land! Of these, 1,200 went on to found Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1792 (soon to be joined by Jamaican Maroons). About 400 were like Aminata herself – returning to the continent of their birth.
From Freetown, Aminata tries to get back home to see her mother and father. But, at age 55, she finds that she is no longer young enough to walk for three months, much less avoid getting caught by slave traders.
Some characters are based on real people, like John and Thomas Clarkson, Alexander Falconbridge, Sam Fraunces, Thomas Peters and William Wilberforce.
Some of the English is very much from the 1900s, not the 1700s, like “never in a million years”, “community centres”, “heat wave”, “cause problems”, “pick our battles”, “front room” and “a complex man”.
Lawrence Hill has lived in Mali, Aminata’s homeland. His father is Black, his mother, White. Like Aminata, they came to Canada to flee US racism. His brother is Dan Hill, best known for singing the soft rock song, “Sometimes When We Touch” (1978).
Television: The CBC in Canada and BET in the US have made the book into a six-hour television miniseries starring Aunjanue Ellis (pictured). It debuts on the CBC on Wednesday January 7th 2015 and on BET on Monday February 16th.
– Abagond, 2015.
Update (2016): I saw part of the miniseries. The book is way better.
- The miniseries home page: BET, CBC.
- related films:
- Mali Empire – once ruled the part of Africa she is from
- The Transatlantic slave trade
- American slavery
- Notes towards a Black history of George Washington
- Black Canada: A brief history
- Back to Africa
- William Wilberforce