Slavery's Painful Story
Reviewed by Afra Kavanagh
The title of Lawrence Hill’s latest novel invokes the historical “Book of Negroes,” pages of which are photographically reproduced on the inside of the book’s cover. These archival pages carry the weight of the history they inscribe, the list of the black Loyalists who were evacuated by the British from New York to various ports in Nova Scotia as a result of the American rebellion in the late eighteenth century. But the details of the Negroes thus recorded produce an ironic effect; the names reflect the owners (not the slaves) and the vague descriptions reflect the British government’s inattentiveness to the blacks as people. The novel’s historical underpinnings can be found in the sixty-seven works Hill lists for further reading, in the acknowledgements and in “A word about history,” and a similar irony emerges here. This is a fictional work about a people who were robbed of their histories, their homes, and identities. The Book of Negroes is the story of Aminata Diallo; told feelingly by one, it is a recuperation of the lost history of many.
Aminata embodies the otherness of the blacks who were the victims of the slave trade. She describes her journey as an abducted eleven-year-old from her native Africa to a South Carolina plantation, then to New York, Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone and finally to London where as an old woman she becomes involved, as the “face” of the campaign, in the British movement to abolish the slave trade (though not slavery). Hill breaks up the linear narrative into four parts and introduces each part with a chapter narrated by the older Aminata in London. Aminata’s death is imminent at the end of the novel, but she will die having fought for her people’s freedom using the tools of the west, public opinion and the law. She has found her stolen daughter and witnessed the British Parliament pass the bill to abolish the trade in slaves in 1807.
Aminata indicts all Europeans, Africans, and others—Christians, Moslems or Jews—who played a role in the establishment and perpetuation of the slave trade with her detailed descriptions of the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery. Shealso reveals how the British failed to keep their promises to freed slaves either in Nova Scotia or in Sierra Leone, and reaffirms the humanity of these people who were tied to a land but not of it. She details how they created a culture and found joy even after losing their language, their will to resist, and in some cases the will to live. She becomes a storyteller, learns to read and write and tells her story as part of that affirmation, making the place created by the narrative a kind of home. She acknowledges those who came before her and created awareness of the abysmal living conditions of the slaves, figures such as Olaudah Equiano whose diary was published in 1789. Their diaries form a continuum along which stretch stories of dashed hopes, failed resistance, and longing for home. Hill’s book also belongs to that continuum as evidenced in his claim that he “would never have written The Book of Negroes without the work of the diarists, memoir writers and historians who went before” him, and by the fifty-seven sources he drew from.
As narrator, Aminata dominates the narrative, and her voice and spirit drive it; however, her character is not typical of her time or gender. Accomplished and uninhibited, she evokes such respect and loyalty in the people she meets that the reader feels that she leads something of a charmed life despite the horrors that she has endured. As well, her motive for abandoning the trip to her birthplace, which signals the beginning of her resistance, is vaguely rendered. And finally, her unlikely discovery of her daughter in a London crowd threatens the integrity of the narrative. But the novel is redeemed by the ironic cast of Aminata’s narration of her encounters with historical figures and the hypocrisy of the whites. It is worth noting that some of the awkwardness produced by Hill’s departures from historical accuracy is acknowledged by him; he cites artistic reasons for his choices.
The novel brings forward the irony of the fact that in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the issues of equality and human rights continue to preoccupy our writers and artists. Indeed, these causes are as urgent today as they were two hundred years ago. Like a number of recent works about slavery and its history, such as Edward O. Jones’ The Known World and Dionne Brand’s In Another Place, Not Here, Hill’s novel questions our complacency in the face of the alienation and despair of blacks in America and mocks our deluded belief in the success of our efforts to secure human rights for all humans.
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MLA: Kavanagh, Afra. Slavery's Painful Story. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 8 Mar. 2014.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 141 - 143)
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