It's 1802 and Aminata Diallo, now an old woman, sits down to write her life story at the request of the Abolitionists in London. Abducted from her village in West Africa at the age of eleven and marched in a coffle (a string of slaves) for three months before reaching the coast, Aminata survives the voyage to America and ends up sold to an indigo plantation owner in South Carolina. She describes herself as lucky, because compared to the tragic circumstances and end of so many other black slaves, Aminata manages to survive using her wits, her skills as a midwife, her ability to pick up new skills quickly, and her strength of character.She witnesses many horrors and sorrows, and experiences them as well, that make her ponder the human nature and the hypocrisy of religions, even her own. Yet through it all surprisingly she does not succumb to anger or hatred; she wants only to be together with her husband, Chekura, their children, who are all taken from her and her homeland.
When Britain surrenders to the rebels they keep their promise to the Black Loyalists - in a way. With a certificate proving they have worked behind British lines for at least a year, they can sign their name in the Book of Negroes and be given passage to a British colony. Most are sent to Nova Scotia, including Aminata. She may have escaped the American slave owners but she hasn't escaped the prejudice, fear and hatred with which the blacks face everywhere they go. The opportunity to return to Africa - the dream she's always had - comes her way, but if she ever wants to see her home village of Bayo again she'll have to make a deal with the devil.
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out of all the books I have read about slavery this novel is by far the greatest. This book is going straight onto my "favourites" list. The Book of Negroes is a powerful story on many fronts: it's a very human story, sympathetic, honest, fair to the greys of history, thought-provoking, poignant.
One of the beautiful things about this book is how, as a reader, you feel more in tune with the Africans, while the whites seem strange, alien,
bewildering, contradictory. I don't mean that Hill paints an uneven picture - far from it, the rendering of history into something visceral, tangible, grants perspective and context. It's not a simple matter of "white man, bad; black man, victim". That's what I mean by this book being honest: honest about human nature, about the complexities of history, without making excuses for anyone of any colour. I don't mean that there weren't characters who enrage you, but that they are presented relatively free of the taint of presentism.
If you're not familiar with the term, "presentism" refers to our natural tendency to judge history through the lens of the present, by our own modern standards, rather than acknowledging and positioning things within a historical perspective. Hill has done an admirable job of completely immersing us in the 18th century, creating a protagonist who is a product of the time as much as one of circumstance.
Hill has managed to write a convincing, wonderful female protagonist - frankly, not many male writers are this successful. Aminata is unflinchingly honest with herself and others, and by being so thoroughly in her head, she gives us what the Africans needed most during slavery: a voice, the understanding that she's just like us, not some black beast from darkest Africa - heathen, barbarian, uncivilised. As in some other books, the irony comes through clearly: which is the uncivilised race? Who is the barbarian? When Aminata arrives in London, the first thing she sees are the legless beggars on the street, the filth and crowds and pretensions. She doesn't even need to say anything.
Another irony is the rebellion in the American colony - Aminata is in New York when things get nasty, and constantly hears the white Americans talking about being slaves to the British, and fighting for their freedom. Aminata doesn't need to point out anything here, and I don't think I do either.
Her own people don't come off smelling of roses either. The book is thoroughly researched and historically accurate, and makes no bones about Africans enslaving each other well before the white people came, and it is Africans who capture Aminata, kill her parents, torch her village, and sell her to the white slavers. Slavery has a long, long history, and no race, it seems, is exempt. The Egyptians did it, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Israelites were famously enslaved, the Romans are guilty - and what is feudalism if not a form of slavery, which the English and French and others used for a very long time?
If nothing else, this book highlights the fact that, no matter what colour you are or what your diet is, we are all human and share this intangible thing called human nature. Cruelty exists everywhere, and cannot be simply attributed to your race, though neither can it be excused. This is why I insist that the history of black slavery - while it existed predominantly between the British slaving companies and the Americas - is everyone's history. For a comprehensive story covering three different continents and exposing many of the situations black slaves, runaways and freed slaves faced, you can't go wrong with this one.
It's also beautifully written. Aminata has a simple, honest style, without embellishment or fanciful detail. She rarely passes judgement, but offers her own thoughts and perspective subtly. She is captured just before reaching puberty and so, ironically, escapes female circumcision, which her people practised (removing the clitoris and part of the labia, and sewing up the vaginal entrance - extraordinarily painful and meant to make a woman "pure" for her husband - Aminata isn't keen but doesn't judge; I on the other hand believe it is the cruellest form of torture you can do to a woman and there's no excuse for it. It's an old African tradition, nothing to do with Islam, and still occurs in some places like Ethiopia).
There are moments of violence and cruelty, because that was largely the life of the black slaves, but while Aminata doesn't gloss over them, neither does she dwell on them in such detail that you shy away from the book.
I was walking one day behind a yoked man who swerved without warning to the left. I had no time to react, and my foot sank into something wet and soft. Something like a twig cracked under my heel. I let out a scream. Under my foot was the body of a naked, decomposing man. I jumped away and ripped leaves from the nearest branch. In a frenzy, I wiped a mass of wriggling white worms from my ankle. I was shaking and wheezing. Fanta took the leaves and wiped my foot and held me and told me not to be afraid. But my hysteria escalated, even though Fanta barked at me to calm down, and I could not stop screaming. (p41)
For all that Aminata and other slaves go through, she deserves the right to tell her whole story and not shy from the unpleasant details, or have her account censored. Remember her audience: white, genteel 19th century English men and women, the Abolitionist committee, the court of law, the common people who can read the newspapers in which parts of her story are published. It is the early 1800s, Regency London - the same time and place in which we love to read carefree romance novels that are free of the taint of black slavery - and the English have no real idea or any sympathy for what the black slaves endured. She argued to be the one to write her own story, by herself, and she refused to let the Abolitionists remove details that "couldn't be proven". Even though she is a fictional character in a fictional account, she deserves to be heard by us as well.
There's one other thing I just have to mention: the evolution of the African-American dialect. I've come to appreciate it because of this book. I mean, I always understood that it was their way of forming a new identity, one that couldn't be taken away from them, even now. But as they learnt English, as slaves, what would happen if they spoke like their masters? Aminata learns this, she learns the dialect that the slaves speak to each other, and the grammatically stronger but far from perfect English they use with the white people.
They needed a way to speak to each other without the whites understanding, yet they all came from different African tribes speaking one of thousands of African languages, or they were born on plantations and don't know any African languages at all, and so they devise their own way of speaking, close to English but entirely of their own creation. After Aminata escapes slavery, she drops this dialect and speaks "proper" English, but I get the sense it is due to her ability to learn languages quickly and well, and her desire not to be looked down upon, rather than a form of pretension. It certainly makes her a bit of a curiosity with the white people.
The Book of Negroes is a masterpiece of historical literature, capturing the contradictions of the human condition in graceful, honest prose, and gifting us with a new, entirely sympathetic protagonist.
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