The Book of Negroes
|January 18, 2007|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
The Book of Negroes is a 2007 award-winning novel from Canadian writer Lawrence Hill. In the United States, Australia and New Zealand, the novel was published under the title Someone Knows My Name.
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"I used The Book of Negroes as the title for my novel, in Canada, because it derives from a historical document of the same name kept by British naval officers at the tail end of the American Revolutionary War.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 speaking in a deeply offensive manner if you were to use such words. 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."
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 during the war, her name is entered in the "Book of Negroes", a real document created to list the freed African American slaves who requested permission to leave the newly-created United States of America. Because of her ability to read and write as well as her fluency in two African languages, 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; they plan to resettle in Nova Scotia together and she becomes pregnant. However, just as they are boarding the ship, the two are separated and Aminata is arrested, as Appleby has put out a warrant for her as a run-away slave. The matter is resolved when Lindo appears in court, explaining the situation and simultaneously setting Aminata free. Aminata, once again trying to find her husband, finds another ship to Nova Scotia.
Aminata arrives in Shelburne and begins to work in the black community of Birchtown, where she meets Jason, a young fellow whom she listed in the "Book of Negroes", and Daddy Moses (the "Preacher"). Soon after arriving, she gives birth to a second child, a girl, whom she named May. Aminata finds work for white people in town, but after a few years relations between the black community and white community turn, and May is abducted by the Witherspoons, a wealthy white family that Aminata had worked for. She tries to locate her husband many times and learns that the ship carrying him to Nova Scotia had swept away to Bermuda and sank, with all those on board perishing. A young British naval officer named Captain John Clarkson comes to the black Birchtown communities, promising a better land reserved for them in Sierra Leone. Aminata helps Clarkson to gather people from the community, and eventually they all leave for a better future.
On her way to Africa, Aminata observes ships carrying thousands of slaves bound for America. In Sierra Leone, the black communities attempt to establish Freetown despite the strict rules of the British. History is repeating itself - despite Clarkson's efforts, Freetown is not the safe haven it was meant to be. It is located just a few miles from a slave trading centre, the very same one from which Aminata was sent for America. Clarkson offers to take her to London, where a group of abolitionists need a spokesperson against slavery. However, longing to return to her village in the interior of Africa, Aminata negotiates with a slave trader to take her there. It takes many years before he agrees. It is a difficult journey, especially since Aminata is no longer young. She is slowing the group down, and overhears the traders talking about how they will sell her back into slavery to get rid of her. After escaping to a nearby village and telling them her story, Aminata finally realizes what is more important than returning to Bayo is helping to help free other enslaved people. She takes Clarkson up on his offer. As an old woman, she finds herself taking a voyage one more time to England to present the account of her life, so it may help abolish the slave trade. She publishes her life story, speaks at schools and churches, and even meets the King and Queen. She is eventually reunited with her now eighteen-year-old daughter May, who has been working as a servant in London and managed to escape. Hearing of Aminata's book, she finds her in the home of Clarkson, and they recount to each other the missing years. May is now a teacher, and is herself engaged. She cares for Aminata until her dying day.
Real people and events
As mentioned above, the novel is based on a real document, the Book of Negroes. Many of the events and some of the people are likewise based on historical research. Wikipedia has articles on many of these. The Atlantic slave trade and slavery in Africa, the Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas on slave ships, and revolts onboard such as La Amistad, are all well documented. The main character is Muslim: the history of Islam in Niger gives context to this.
When the proponents of the American Revolution, the Patriots, won the war, many of those on the other side, the Loyalists, decided to leave what had been the Thirteen Colonies, now the United States, for a new home elsewhere in British America. Tens of thousands of these refugees came through New York City, where their evacuation was processed by the British Army, leading up to Evacuation Day on 25 November 1783. The Book of Negroes was created in order to ascertain which former slaves were eligible to leave; it was assembled by Samuel Birch, the namesake of Birchtown, Nova Scotia, under the direction of Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester. (For more background, see Dunmore's Proclamation, a 1775 promise by the royal governor of the British Colony of Virginia to grant emancipation (freedom) to slaves who left revolutionary masters.) The tensions between the black and white communities in Nova Scotia culminate in the Shelburne Riots.
Aminata's first owner, Appleby, is based on a business partner of Henry Laurens in one of the largest slave trading companies. Solomon Lindo, the Jewish indigo inspector, was an ancestor of Chris Blackwell (born 1937), the British-Jamaican founder of Island Records. "Daddy Moses" was Moses Wilkinson. One of Aminata's supporters in New York Town is Samuel Fraunces, owner of the Fraunces Tavern.
The naval officer who helped the community in Nova Scotia was John Clarkson, younger brother of the more famous Thomas, one of the central figures in the abolition of slavery in England and the British Empire. Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, along with other members of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, had incorporated the Sierra Leone Company, to resettle some of the Black Nova Scotians; Lieutenant Clarkson’s charge was to find volunteers. One of the Black Loyalist leaders he worked with was Thomas Peters; together they gathered a group of close to 1,200 who wanted to leave for better opportunities in Sierra Leone. After a harrowing transatlantic passage, the flotilla of 15 ships arrived in March 1792. This group, who became known as the Nova Scotian Settlers, established Freetown, the capital city.
Aminata's journey to London and her biography have precedents in the life stories of men such as Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano. Her daughter's time there as a domestic worker fits into the history of the Black Poor.
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.
In 2007, Canadian production company Conquering Lion Pictures announced it had acquired the film rights to the novel. In mid-2013 it was announced that the novel would be adapted into a miniseries of the same name, rather than the feature film originally planned.
Clement Virgo and Hill collaborated on writing the miniseries, with Virgo also directing. It premiered on CBC Television in Canada in January 2015 and aired on BET in the United States in February 2015.
- "Why I'm not allowed my book title", Books blog, 20 May 2008, guardian.co.uk
- Petrey, Whitney. "Slaves in Revolutionary America: Plantation Slaves in Virginia and the Charleston Slave Trade". Academia.edu. Retrieved 30 May 2016.
- Thomson, Ian (18 Feb 2009). "Surviving the Middle Passage: [review of] The Book of Negroes". Retrieved 30 May 2016.
- Clarkson, Clarkson’s mission to America, 1791–1792, ed. and intro. C. B. Fergusson
- "Prize-winning novel The Book of Negroes to become TV miniseries". Retrieved February 18, 2014.
- Harris, Bill (January 6, 2015). "Cuba Gooding, Jr. says 'Book of Negroes' works better on TV". Toronto Sun. Retrieved January 8, 2015.
- "Lyriq Bent, Cuba Gooding Jr. to Star in Book of Negroes".
- "Louis Gossett Jr., Cuba Gooding Jr. Star In ‘Book of Negroes’ Mini-Series for BET". Retrieved 4 February 2014.