The Book of Negroes, 2nd instalment: pages 163-278
The building blocks, if you will, of literary fiction are the archetypal characters, situations and symbols. These common plot formulas are shared between a multitude of other works and are used in Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes. As I have read two thirds of the way into this gripping story about a young woman working against the oppression of the society in which she lives, I have noticed a few archetypal characters who show their prominence to the reader.
In the beginning of this section, Aminata has been sold to her new owner, Soloman Lindo, and she lives with him, his wife, and another Servant named Dolly. I feel that Dolly takes on the archetype of the “loving motherly figure” toward Aminata because she is there for her when she is new to the New York society, meanwhile caring for her. In the novel, Aminata reminisces about Dolly, “She had fussed over me like a mother, cooking my meals and cleaning my clothes […] Dolly had been unbelievably proud to see me reading and writing”(Hill 215). This mother figure is seen quite often throughout literature and I feel as though I especially can relate Dolly’s archetypal presence to Mother Nature herself.
An archetypal situation that is prevalent throughout many stories is the forbidden love of the “star-crossed lovers.” In The Book of Negroes, I can refer this archetype to the story of Aminata and her husband, Chekura, who have tried endlessly throughout the novel to be together. Whether it be that they are in the possession of different slave owners, or that they are forced to work in separate places, there is a part of the universe that doesn’t want their relationship to persist. In the novel, Chekura returns to his wife after years of separation and when asked how long he could stay, he responds, “Just tonight. But I might be able to come back once or twice in a month or so”(219), although so far, he never has. In this story, human destiny isn’t so much controlled by the stars themselves, but by oppressive leadership. Wouldn’t you much rather blame astrology?
This archetypal situation of “forbidden love” is best recognized in literature as the story behind William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It can also be seen in other works such as Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights between characters Catherine and Heathcliff, or even in Greek Myths between Orpheus and Eurydice.
The character which I have noticed shows the basis of a heroic archetypal figure — that, in some form or another, comes about in almost every story — is Aminata. Now, I know what you’re thinking, she neither brash nor daring, like a common hero figure is. Although, she is brave, quick-whitted, and intelligent. One may ask: but how does this make her the archetypal hero of the novel? Well, Aminata uses her talents of intelligence and bravery to escape her owner, Soloman Lindo, in New York all the while seeking vengeance for her own freedom. While doing so, she lives without an owner (or master) and volunteers to teach English to other coloured slaves at a local church. She is told by Lieutenant Waters, “‘You speak English very well. I’ve heard of you,’ he said. ‘You tech the Negroes in the chapel. You’re the one they call Meena'”(270). She may not be saving masses of people, but she is helping to create the building blocks that will carry the Africans up through their rise against oppression.
Aminata’s literacy skills are not the only thing she has going for her as a hero, for she also has midwifery skills that lead her to become a hero to many women in her African community in Manhattan. Being the calm, intelligent leader that she is, Aminata reminds me of Athena, the Greek Goddess of wisdom and intelligence. They both show heroic endeavours not driven with brute force, but with gentile intelligence and bravery.
I think that with Aminata’s strong will to fight for herself and learn new things, she’ll prevail as a hero in the later chapters of the book. I’m excited to see what comes next in her far-from-typical heroic journey.
Hill, Lawrence. The Book of Negroes. Trade pbk. ed., Toronto, HarperCollins, 2007.