The Book of Negroes
|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"I used The Book of Negroes as the title for my novel, in Canada, because it derives from a historical document of the same name kept by British naval officers at the tail end of the American Revolutionary War.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 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."
Aminata Diallo, the daughter of a jeweller and a midwife, is kidnapped at the age of 11 from her village Bayo, Niger in West Africa and forced to walk for  to the sea in a coffle with hundreds of strangers and a handful of people from her village. Even before she is placed on the ship, she vows that one day, she will return. A boy her age, Chekura, has been forced to assist the slave traders in transportation of Aminata and the others, but is later sent abroad just like the rest. He becomes Aminata's unlikely friend. After several horrific months  of voyage across the Atlantic Ocean she arrives in South Carolina where she begins a new life as a slave. Her name is anglicized to Meena Dee. She is taken under the wing of a fellow slave named Georgia, who helps her learn English. Seeing her intelligence and potential, a fellow Muslim slave named Mamed secretly teaches her to read and write.
As a teenager Aminata manages to reunite with Chekura, and they sneak off to meet once a month. The plantation owner, Appleby, learns of the meetings and punishes Aminata by brutally raping her. Despite her owner's jealousy, the two slaves marry and conceive a baby boy. Appleby arranges for Aminata and her child to be sold separately to different owners, and so her child is stolen from her. Aminata is handed over to a Jewish man named Solomon Lindo who moves her to Charles Town, unaware of where her child may be.
Aminata grows close to Lindo and his wife, who allow her to read and write openly. However Solomon also forces her to pay him a part of any money that she earns through midwifery. After a few years, a smallpox outbreak kills Lindo's wife and his other slave's family. Shortly after, Aminata is once again reunited with Chekura, who has found out that Lindo helped arrange the selling of her child, who has since died. This ruins the relationship Aminata has had with Lindo. Attempting to win her over, 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 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 and plans to resettle in Nova Scotia with a now pregnant Aminata. However, just as they are both 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.
In Nova Scotia, Aminata arrives in Shelburne and begins to work in the black community of Birchtown. Soon after arriving in Birchtown she conceives a second child, a girl, whom Aminata names May. She tries to locate her husband many times, but there is no news of him, or the ship he was on. A white family employs her to help around the house. Over the next 3 years, she experiences the hardships of the Black Loyalists who endure cold winters, sickness and the hostility of white Loyalists, including the Shelbourne riots. The Blacks are not given the land or employment opportunities they were promised. As the riots become dangerous, she leaves May with her employers family for safety. Upon her return, she finds the family has left on a ship, and taken May with them. Many lonely and difficult years later, a man comes to the black Birchtown communities, promising a better land reserved for them in Sierra Leone, Africa. Through this man, Captain John Clarkson, a young British naval officer, Aminata learns that the ship carrying her husband to Nova Scotia had sunk, with all lives lost. With nothing left for her in Nova Scotia, she goes with Clarkson and the rest of her community, hoping for her childhood dream: to get back to the village where she was raised.
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 peoples. 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 married. She cares for Aminata 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.
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
- "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.