The Book of Negroes
|The Book of Negroes|
|Publication date||January 18, 2007|
|Media type||Print (Hardback)|
The author has written about the title:
"I used The Book of Negroes as the title for my novel, in Canada, because it derives from a historical document of the same name kept by British naval officers at the tail end of the American Revolutionary War. It documents the 3,000 blacks who had served the King in the war and were fleeing Manhattan for Canada in 1783. Unless you were in The Book of Negroes, you couldn't escape to Canada. My character, an African woman named Aminata Diallo whose story is based on this history, has to get into the book before she gets out. In my country, few people have complained to me about the title, and nobody continues to do so after I explain its historical origins. I think it's partly because the word 'Negro' resonates differently in Canada. If you use it in Toronto or Montreal, you are probably just indicating publicly that you are out of touch with how people speak these days. But if you use it in Brooklyn or Boston, you are asking to have your nose broken. When I began touring with the novel in some of the major US cities, literary African-Americans kept approaching me and telling me it was a good thing indeed that the title had changed, because they would never have touched the book with its Canadian title."
Aminata Diallo, the daughter of a jeweller and a midwife, is kidnapped at the age of 11 from her village Bayo, near Segu in West Africa and forced to walk for days to the sea in a coffle with hundreds of strangers and a handful of people from her village. After several horrific months of voyage across the Atlantic Ocean she arrives in South Carolina where she begins a new life as a slave and her name is anglicized to Meena Dee. Because of her youth and intelligence she quickly learns English. A fellow slave named Mamed secretly teaches her to read and write after learning that she is Muslim, a religion she shares with his now-deceased African mother.
As a teenager Aminata privately marries Chekura, a young boy who made the crossing with her when she was sold into slavery. The two conceive a child whom Aminata names Mamadu, after her father, but the child is sold and eventually Aminata is too, to a Jewish man named Solomon Lindo who moves her to Charles Town. During the following 13 years she is only able to see Chekura once.
Aminata grows close to Lindo and his wife, who allow her to read and write openly. However Solomon also forces Aminata to pay him a part of any money that she earns through midwifery. After his wife dies of the pox Lindo takes Aminata to New York.
During the rioting at the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War Aminata is able to escape from Lindo. During this time Aminata works as a midwife and teacher, helping other black people to learn how to read. Proving that she served the British in the American Revolutionary War her name is entered in the historic "Book of Negroes" an actual historical document that is an archive of freed African American slaves who requested permission to leave the United States in order to resettle in Nova Scotia. Because of her ability to read and write as well as her fluency in two African dialects, Aminata is also hired to help record names in the book. While doing this work she is reunited for a few months with Chekura, who also served the British and plans to resettle in Nova Scotia with Aminata. They conceive a second child, but are separated again just before they depart for Nova Scotia.
In Nova Scotia, Aminata arrives in Shelburne and begins to work in the black community of Birchtown. She tries multiple times to locate her husband, who was sent ahead of her to Annapolis Royal, but is unable to encounter any news of him. She eventually gives birth to a daughter she names May. When May is a toddler a series of riots break out during which Birchtown is attacked and black men and women are lynched. After leaving May in the company of a white family for a few days in order to ensure her safety, Aminata returns to find that the Witherspoons have departed taking her child with her. Although Aminata is able to learn that the Witherspoons departed for Boston she is unable to find any further trace of her daughter.
Years later Aminata encounters John Clarkson, a young British naval officer recruiting black settlers to move from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone. Through Clarkson Aminata learns that the ship carrying her husband to Nova Scotia was lost at sea. Knowing that her husband is dead and her daughter is lost to her, Aminata decides to join the settlers in relocating to Sierra Leone.
Aminata eventually returns to Africa, along with over a thousand of other black Birchtown, Nova Scotia loyalists, passing ships carrying thousands of slaves bound for America. In Sierra Leone, they attempt to establish Freetown despite the strict rules of the British. Longing to return to her village in the interior of Africa, Aminata pays a slave trader to take her there. When she discovers she cannot trust him, she realizes that what is more important than returning home is to help free her people. As an old woman, she finds herself crossing the ocean one more time to England to present the account of her life so it may help abolish the slave trade. She is eventually reunited with her nearly twenty year old daughter, who cares for her until her dying day.
Awards and recognition
The Book of Negroes won the 2007 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the 2008 Commonwealth Writers' Prize. It was the winning selection for CBC Radio's Canada Reads 2009, in which journalist Avi Lewis championed the novel. Its French translation, titled Aminata, was defended by Thomas Hellman in the 2013 edition of Le Combat des livres, and won that competition as well, becoming the only title to date to have won both the English and French editions of the competition.