The Book of Negroes: pages 1-162
Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, set in the 1700’s, begins in a small village named Bayo in West Africa where a young girl is abducted by European slave owners. She is forced to walk for months from her village to the sea, where the story moves onto a slave ship, and eventually to a plantation in South Carolina. The Book of Negroes is not just a novel that deals with the past prejudice toward African Americans, nor is it simply an educational novel about slavery. Diving much deeper than this, the novel takes a look into the personal struggles of one powerful woman of colour.
Her name is Aminata Diallo.
She is only eleven years old at this point in the novel, although this doesn’t hinder the fact that she has already endured more than a lifetime of struggles. Imagine you are abruptly separated from your homeland, taken from your reality, stripped of your culture and dignity. Now imagine being forced to walk in a line, chained to strangers for months, and then thrown onto a filthy ship. As a reader, this is exactly what has gone through my mind while following the beginning of this young girl’s journey. It’s chilling. Told from Aminata’s point of view, we hear her first-hand experience fighting against emotional, sexual, physical, and mental abuse. While doing so, she expresses her story with a very despair, intimate, yet faithful tone.
There are only a few times in the novel where Aminata has broken down and shown the despairing side of things, with one being after fellow captive, Fanta, unleashes a psychological blow on Aminata. Aminata shares, “Sadness had been welling inside me during three moons overland and more than one moon in this stinking [white man’s] vessel, and now it burst. Tears shot from my eyes […] I had nothing to do but appeal, as I hadn’t in a long, long time, to God”(Hill, 86). It amazes me how strong Aminata is throughout her journey across the ocean, and keeping her feet firmly planted about what the believes, she does so with copious amounts of bravery.
However, it is Aminata’s sheer bravery that makes me question Hill’s motives behind attributing the most strength and power to the most innocent character. She is the youngest one on the slave ship — there are no other children her age — yet she seems to keep a better strung mind than anyone else. As a reader, I take this knowledge and make the assumption that this is why Aminata has been chosen by the Abolitionists in London to share her story. She stands out among the rest and I think by creating such a character, Hill has left the reader with the ability to fill in some important blanks.
Of the first one hundred sixty-two pages, the line which I find resonates the loudest is, “On that slave vessel, I saw things that the people of London would never believe. […] there are men, women and children walking about the streets without the faintest idea of our nightmares,” because Aminata is sharing that, if it weren’t for people like her telling her story, people today would never realize the full extent, and gruesome details, of slavery. She continues, “They cannot know what we endured if we never find anyone to listen. In telling my story, I remember […] all those who never found a group of listeners, and all those who never touched a quill and an ink pot”(56-57). This passage really amplifies Aminata’s protrusion and strength as a character. Not only has she cut herself away from slavery, and shows great courage in telling her story, but she has the ability — that not many others do — to put her words onto a page.
When examining the novel further from a reader’s perspective, right away I can identify that the European ideology of the time — during the Transatlantic slave trade of the eighteenth century — was based on a glutton to expand economically and territorially. Because of this, European leaders decided that they could enslave people from Africa to help colonize the “new world” and to give themselves good economic potential. There is, of course, another very prominent ideology of the time as well which is racism.
We do not love this text today because we have this same ideology, but because we now have the opposite. We are learning to honour those who were treated inferior, and that’s why The Book of Negroes is deemed “a masterpiece”(The Globe and Mail, 2007) in our contemporary society of fiction. The society in which works of historical fiction like this are popular is one that is empathetic to the victims of the past, and one that seeks change for the future. I hate to say it, but there are still sections of humanity that practice the same ancient ideology. This is why Hill has implied his audience to the people who want to see this change, become educated and hopefully spread the knowledge that is missing from so many people’s minds.
Below is an effective book trailer from LawrenceHill.com
Hill, Lawrence. The Book of Negroes. Trade pbk. ed., Toronto, HarperCollins, 2007.
“The Book of Negroes (Book Trailer).” LawrenceHill.com, uploaded by Vimeo, 2016, Accessed 25 July 2017.