A Book Review: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (2007) is a fictional exploration into the life of Aminata Diallo as a young Black girl to her life as an elderly woman. This exploration begins at the onset of the Abolition period in Europe and details her account in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Hill’s construction of Diallo’s story is useful for analyzing debates around scholarly discourses of human trafficking and colonialism. In this regard, Diallo’s active resistance to ascribed identities suggest that Black peoples, especially Black women, were more than just passive bodies that were to be dominated and exploited.

Diallo’s first-person, non-linear[1] narrative begins and ends in London, England, 1802. The story is divided into quarters, which are respectively entitled Book One, Book Two, Book Three, and Book Four. Readers might assume that the novel acquires its main title from these sections; however, the title of the book is derived from an actual 1873 British Document.[2] Hill’s engagement with other historical documents is quite useful for the accurate portrayal of Black identity in Canadian and world history. However, the level of language acquisition by Diallo is open to discussion. Overall, Hill does an excellent job in introducing general audiences to such narratives.

The novelist’s, Lawrence Hill, personal website describes his literary works as “touching on issues of identity and belonging” (Hill, n.d.). The Book of Negroes is an extension of these themes. For instance, throughout the story there are references to land, home, or returning to homeland, and this theme of home is intrinsically connected to the land, which tie back into the discussions surrounding colonialism. These themes are further presented when Diallo describes her initial voyage on the water in Book One. Diallo prompts the reader with her fear of dying while at sea. But this fear of dying on the water is the inability to be buried on the land with her ancestors. Aminata Diallo states “Let them do what they would with my body—on land” (Hill, 2007, p. 78). In Book Four, Diallo also elicits this same theme when she says, “I found myself hoping that when my time came, I would be laid gently into the earth. Neither ocean waters nor rum would do for my grave” (Hill, 2007, p. 626). Throughout the story, Diallo has a desire to return to her homeland. Unfortunately, those who surround her, especially the Abolitionists, struggle with understanding why she has a desire to return to such a place since her experiences in the slave trade originated there. This desire to return to the homeland, however, can be translated into a desire to find a sense of belonging through the search for identity.

Diallo’s quest is similar to the author’s own pursuits for a sense of belonging and identity. In a MacLean’s article entitled “Black + White equals black,” Hill explains that his works are a development of self, or his “own sense of blackness [and] connection to the black diaspora” through his characters and creative writings (Hill, 2001, p. 20, column c). Throughout The Book of Negroes, Diallo constantly positions herself in an attempt to fit in to various situations and locations, yet she is never seen as a fully belonging from the perspective of other characters. This sense of not belonging becomes more prominent when she describes her journeys and states, “And now, finally back in Africa, I was seen as a Nova Scotian, and some respects thought of myself that way too” (Hill, 2007, p. 538). This challenge to belong, however, is confronted when Fatima, a Temne woman, speaks back to her. Fatima says to Diallo, “You have the face of someone born in this land, but you come with the toubabu [the white people]. You are toubab with a black face” (Hill, 2007, p. 551). It becomes evident that for some bodies and beings who possess certain traits and privileges, like being able to read, write, and speak like the toubabu, it does not always mean belonging, especially for Diallo. Similarly to Diallo, Hill writes in the MacLean’s article mentioned above, “I found that race became an issue as a result of environment factors…gradually my environment started talking to me and making me aware that I could never truly be white…learning that I wasn’t white, however it wasn’t the same as learning that I was black” (p. 18). Both Hill and Diallo share this quest for belonging and identity especially when their environments speak back to them.

As a fictional book that has a foundation on historical accounts of the Slave Trade and migration of Black peoples, Hill also situates the book and its themes of identity and belonging within the larger context of Black women’s roles in migration and history. With this story, it becomes evident that Black peoples, especially Black women, were not just passive bodies to be dominated and exploited. Narratives such as these seek to challenge dominant discourses within Canadian or world history. As a novel, it is geared toward a general audience. However, I would go further to suggest that this book be included in high school history curriculum. With high school Canadian and world history classes focusing on exploration and domination of lands, very rarely does a high school student engage with the history of the individuals who played a prominent role in building such countries, including those voices and stories of individuals most often hidden—voices and stories of Black women. By contributing to these historical gaps, The Book of Negroes contributes to the dismantling of dominant discourses about Black identity, which too often erased the identity of individuals.

 

 

REFERENCES

Hill, L. (2001, Aug 27). “Black + White equals black.” MacLean’s Canadian Weekly Newsmagazine. Retrieved from http://www.lawrencehill.com/black_plus_white_equals_black.pdf.

Hill, L. (2007). The Book of Negroes. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Hill, L. (n.d.). “About Lawrence.” Lawrence Hill. Retrieved from http://lawrencehill.com/about-lawrence/.


[1] From my perspective, this book progresses in a non-linear manner. Culture might account for this difference in opinion on life pathways. The book begins when she is a child and ends in her elder years. My Anishnaabe culture teaches me that life begins as an infant and ends as an elder, and that this is pathway lies on circle. Diallo’s pathway to her elder years is circular since the story begins while she is still a child and ends when she is an elder. Hence, it is non-linear.

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