The Book of Negroes: To Hell & Back

I always began the same way. Unrolling a map of the world,
I would put one finger on a dot I had drawn to represent my village

of Bayo, put another finger on London and say: “I was born there,
and we are here now, and I’m going to tell you
all about what happened in between.”


And so it was how an elderly Aminata Diallo, the female protagonist in Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, always began to retell her life story to her daughter’s students during her Friday morning tales.

What happened “in between” is a soul and heart-wrenching saga. It begins when 11 year-old Aminata is captured by slave traders and brutally torn from her African village one day in 1745.

During the next three months she is marched on a grueling trek to the coast of West Africa, branded, sold into slavery and imprisoned on a slave ship that carries her and hundreds of her fellow Africans on a harrowing journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

Sustained mainly by her courageous spirit, intelligence, memories of her loving parents in their African village of Bayo and echoes of their stories and precious life-long lessons, Aminata witnesses unimaginable horrors during her ocean crossing at the height of the 18th century Atlantic slave trade.

Everywhere I turned, men were lying naked, chained to each other
and to their sleeping boards, groaning and crying. Waste and blood
streamed along the floorboards, covering my toes.

A seamless blend of historical fact and fiction, Lawrence weaves an intricate tale of human joy and misery that, at various points in his novel and in almost the same breath, evokes in the reader a potent mixture of hope, pathos, anger, burning indignation and despair.

Like a solitary cork bobbing and buffeted in an ocean current, when she reaches America, Aminata is used, re-sold numerous times and swept from one emotional abyss to another. Caught up in the last days of the American revolutionary war and between claims of southern plantation owners versus British loyalists, Aminata describes the humiliation.

I despised the Americans for taking these Negroes, but my greatest
contempt was for the British. They had used us in every way in their war.
Cooks. Whores. Midwives. Soldiers. We had given them our food, our beds,
our blood and our lives. And when slave owners showed up with their
stories and their paperwork, the British turned their backs
and allowed us to be seized like chattel.

In spite of the profound pain and unfathomable losses in her life, Aminata finds a way to move forward. It is this paradoxical clinging to life, light and the flickering hope of freedom in the face of crushing odds and, at times, impenetrable darkness that propels the reader head-long into the novel and to its compelling conclusion.

No doubt The Book of Negroes will ensure Lawrence an honored place in the pantheon of contemporary Canadian fiction writers, now and for many years to come.

Photo: eir@si


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