By Dr. Judith Misrahi-Barak
Associate Professor, Paul Valery University, Montpellier, France. Lawrence Hill. The Book of Negroes (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2007) ISBN: 978-1-55468-156-3
The Book of Negroes, published in 2007, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in 2008. It was also on the Giller Prize long list.
It was widely acclaimed and became a national bestseller in Canada. In previous works, Lawrence Hill had already focused on African-Canadians and the little known history of slavery and its aftermath in Canada.
The connection of Canada to slavery is often believed to be mostly in relation with the Underground Railroad, showcasing the positive side of Canada’s involvement in slavery and foregrounding the role of Canada as saviour and escape space for Africans held as slaves in the US, but sweeping under the carpet the worst aspects of slavery on Canadian soil. In an interview, Hill addresses this Canadian reluctance to face the totality of its history :
I love Canada and I choose to live here . . . but I don’t think it serves us to sugarcoat our history . . . I just wanted to dramatize and bring [this history] to the forefront so that we understand and appreciate it. And that’s not just that we were a haven for slaves along the underground railroad.
But, also, that we practiced slavery here, too. And that we brought these Loyalists to Nova Scotia and betrayed them terribly and treated them in the worst possible way. And this isn’t just black history. It’s Canadian history.
Hill’s earlier novel Any Known Blood (1997) spans five générations, from slavery times to the present-day, while his book of interviews Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada (2001) looks at Canadians of black and white parentage in the context of racial issues.
The Book of Negroes focuses on the life of one woman who survives the Middle Passage and slavery, escapes to Canada, travels back to Africa, and comes to play a major role in the abolition debate in England in the years that precede the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807.
The novel narrates the epic story of Aminata Diallo, starting in Bayo, her native village in Africa, where she is kidnapped by slave traders in 1756 and taken to Bance Island, one of the ports from where captured Africans were shipped to the plantations of the New World. It covers the horrors of the Middle Passage, Aminata’s struggle to survive, the years she spends on an indigo plantation in Carolina, and in Charles Town, Virginia. Her skills as midwife, as scribe, and her extraordinary will and determination are the keys to her survival.
Finding herself in Manhattan, Aminata becomes involved with the 3,000 enslaved Africans who sided with the British in exchange for the promise of land and freedom.
A slave could only be granted a passage to Canada if s/he was enrolled in ‘The Book of Negroes’, the official document kept by British naval officers. Hill focuses on another neglected aspect of Canadian history — the Black Loyalists and their treatment at the hands of the British in Nova Scotia.
Out of those 3,000 Black Loyalists were 1,200 Africans who, disillusioned with Nova Scotia, boarded ships and established the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone in 1792, in the first ‘back to Africa’ exodus.
The novel has a solid foundation in historical detail and documents : dates, facts, places, social customs and behaviour.
Fictional versions of historical figures like William Wilberforce, Granville Sharpe, John Clarkson or Alexander Falconbridge are seamlessly woven into the fictional plot.
It took five years to do the research necessary for the writing of the book, and Hill insists he got as much from the first-hand narratives written by former slaves like Olaudah Equiano, and by colonists like John Newton, the author of The Journal of a Slave Trader 1750-1754, as from critical and historical academic articles.
Part of the intertextual construction of the novel comes from direct references to published texts: Aminata becomes acquainted with The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) through Anna Maria Falconbridge, the wife of Alexander Falconbridge, a slave-ship surgeon turned abolitionist, and who helped establish the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone.
Falconbridge’s Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa, published in 1788, was one of the first abolitionist texts. His wife’s letters were published as Narrative of Two Voyages to the River Sierra Leone During the Years 1791-1792-1793. These texts and characters feature in Aminata’s diegetic progression.
The Book of Negroes derives its power from its response to the double tradition of slave narratives and neo-slave narratives.
Thanks to the work of academics such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., the original slave narratives written between 1760 and 1865 are now well-known.
The body of neo-slave narratives that started to be published by African-American writers in the 1960s has kept expanding, even when the civil rights period was over.
The definition given by Ashraf H. Rushdy of the term ‘neo-slave narratives’ is, to this day, held as a reference: ‘contemporary novels that assume the form, adopt the conventions, and take on the first-person voice of the antebellum slave narrative’ (Rushdy 1999: 3).
One can think of Ernest Gaines, Charles Johnson, Alex Haley, Margaret Walker and others in the 1960s, and, of course, Toni Morrison in the 1980s. Caribbean writers such as Dionne Brand, Fred D’Aguiar, Beryl Gilroy, Michelle Cliff, Caryl Phillips and others, launched a third wave of slavery novels in the 1990s, making the point that slavery is still to feature in our present-day discourse.
The Book of Negroes revisits once more the genre of the slave narratives and the slave novel and takes its place in the tradition. It is much more than “one more novel about slavery”.
Not only does it revisit a period and a genre, it also renews the genre of the neo-slave novel, which was itself renewing the genre of the slave narrative, thus signifying on both… The original slave narratives were first-person accounts of events that had been directly experienced by the enslaved Africans.
They were thus based on facts, direct testimony and a direct appeal to the sensitivity of the prospective readers, in the context of the pre-abolition period.
People in Europe needed to be made aware of the horrors of the slave trade and of slavery, and the abolitionists encouraged slaves and former slaves to write and publish their life stories, even if it meant some ‘guidance’ was introduced.
Thus, if those first-hand accounts were foregrounding personal experiences, they were also, as Robert Stepto puts it, ‘full of other voices’ (Stepto 1991: 3), the voices of all the other enslaved Africans who did not have the possibility to publish their life stories, and the voices of all the abolitionists who used the African authors as mouthpieces. Contrary to appearances, those narratives are polyphonic.
These issues of authorship, authenticity, amanuensis and more generally speaking and voice, are evoked by Hill when he has Aminata, at the end of the book, declare to the abolitionists that she will write the story of her life, ‘[w]ithout guidance, thank you very much’, adding: ‘My life. My words. My pen. I am capable of writing’ (Hill 2007: 455).
Aminata Diallo does narrate the story of her life, from her enslavement to her liberation, and this is very much in keeping with the conventions of the slave narrative, no doubt about that. And yet, Hill organizes the narration in ways that reinvent the tradition.
Two elements particularly can be underlined: the fact that certain aspects are foregrounded in ways they would never have been in slave narratives or novels, and the circular diegesis making heavy use of the differences and articulations between story-time and text-time. As regards the first element, about twenty pages are devoted to Aminata’s childhood in Bayo, her African village, where she learns the skills of a midwife (‘catching babies’) from her mother.
Some eighty pages then focus on the march to the sea after she was kidnapped by the slavers and separated from her people.
Three months (‘three revolutions of the moon’) are necessary for the coffle to reach Bance Island and board the ships that are going to take the Africans to the American plantations.
This is not a period that slave narratives generally develop, but in The Book of Negroes, it is a moment of its own, perceived through the eleven-year old child’s consciousness and mediated through the adult narrator’s voice.
The other aspect that is generally not focused on in slave narratives nor in slave novels is the episode that brings Aminata close to the Black Loyalists fleeing slavery to Canada, as well as the exodus back to Africa and the settlement of Freetown in Sierra Leone in 1792.
It constitutes a fourth of the 470 pages of the novel, and takes Aminata almost back to her birthplace, Bayo. This enables the first-person narrator to reflect upon the person she has become, after years spent in slavery or working with white abolitionists:
[…] I wondered just who exactly I was and what I had become, after more than thirty years in the Colonies. Without my parents, my husband, my children or any people with whom I could speak the languages of my childhood, what part of me was still African? (Hill 2007: 386)
One recalls that the original slave narratives are drawn towards freedom, towards the moment when the slave becomes again a free man or woman.
This is also the case in The Book of Negroes, but in a more complex way since the novel begins at the end: the aged narrator opens the narrative by saying ‘I seem to have trouble dying’ (Hill 2007: 1) and explains the role she is playing in London, in 1802, alongside the abolitionists.
It is only in the second chapter of Book One that the analepsis goes back to Africa, in 1745. Four chapters covering the period 1802-04 in London intersperse the narrative — London in 1802, 1803, 1804 and the concluding chapter, at the end of Aminata’s life.
Such an organisation of the time scheme fuels the work towards the theme of freedom (Aminata ends up in London) as well as the freedom of organizing one’s own text. Instead of a linear and chronological narrative, Aminata’s voice and presence form the centre of consciousness and organize the text as she wants and not dictated by anyone.
What is absolutely compelling in The Book of Negroes is the way Hill combines his highest respect of the literary tradition of slave literature with a certain disrespect that allows him to reach the complete freedom of his narrator and of his text.
What emerges out of a text of enslavement and alienation is a text of emancipation and freedom, dispensing with the obsessions attached to slavery novels, regenerating the whole genre through the way narratives are reorganised, references claimed, influences appropriated. Aminata is a unique epic character, completely endearing, completely compelling, and she stays with the reader long after this wonderful read is over.
According to the country you live in, you will not be buying the same book, at least not under the same title and not under the same cover.
The Book of Negroes was published at the same time and under the same title in Great Britain, India and South Africa, but was published as Someone Knows my Name in the USA, Australia and New Zealand. After the book won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, The Guardian asked Hill to write a blog about the title change.
Even if the American title was imposed on him, the writer explains how he came to accept, even respect, the choice of the American publisher:
. . . In urban America, the word “Negro” has become viscerally rude. . . .
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.
Probably another instance of the complex relationship between constraint and freedom. We can only be glad that the book, by changing its title, will be read more widely.
N.B. : Bibliographical references to this article appears in THE ARTS JOURNAL Volume 6 Numbers 1 and 2 (2010).
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The editor of THE ARTS FORUM Page, Ameena Gafoor, can be reached by E-mail at: [email protected] or on Tel: 592 227 6825.
For guidelines for Submission of Articles to THE ARTS JOURNAL see: http://www.theartsjournal.org.gy
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