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Book Review: The Book of Negroes

by John Shields

Nyack Mayor John Shields

THE BOOK OF NEGROES, by the Canadian writer Lawrence Hill, refers to the names of enslaved Africans recorded in THE BOOK OF NEGROES, who sided with the British in the American Revolution in exchange for freedom.  The novel traces the history of Aminata Diallo; captured and enslaved in Bayo (Africa), sent to the South Carolina, escaped to New York, then to Nova Scotia, back to Africa and then to England to join the abolitionist cause.”

Do not trust large bodies of water,” warns Aminata, ” and do not cross them,” she says. “If you dear reader have an African hue and find yourself led toward water with vanishing shores, seize your freedom by any means necessary. And cultivate distrust of the colour pink. Pink is taken as the colour of innocence, the colour of childhood, but as it spills across the water in the light of the dying sun, do not fall into its pretty path. There, right underneath, lies a bottomless graveyard of children, mothers, men. I shudder to imagine all the Africans rocking in the deep. Every time I have sailed the seas, I have had the sense of gliding over the unburied.”

Hill thus sets a theme of pathos and suffering of the Africans kidnapped and shackled in ships to be sold into slavery in the colonies where soon a Revolution for freedom from Britain is won. This irony is a leitmotif throughout the book. In Aminata, Hill, creates a character of heroic proportions. Just before coming to the “toubabu’s” land when told she belongs to the “buckra,” she replies “I belong to nobody..” Thus, she maintains her pride and identity even in enslavement.

We, with Aminata, hold hope as she fights the challenges of escaping her slavery and going to New York, where she faces further racism and oppression. Britain promises freedom and a move to Nova Scotia for those who join with the British and become Loyalists.

Aided by Sam Fraunces (of the tavern fame), Aminata escapes to Nova Scotia and out of the clutches of the Americans. Yet, the move to Nova Scotia further entrenches these Loyalists in oppression. Aminata’s story is not only one of human suffering and hope, and some triumph, but also an alternate view of the American story.

The colonists fight ended in a new country founded on the democratic values that are our heritage. It also set the stage for a Civil War, years of oppression, and the institutionalized racism that is also our heritage.

Readers: THE BOOK OF NEGROES BY LAWRENCE HILL, HarperCollins, 2007, published in the United States as SOMEONE KNOWS MY NAME (And soon to be a movie of that title).

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