Monday, January 12, 2015

The Book of Negroes/Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill

I posted in July 2013 that The Book of Negroes, also published as Someone Knows My Name, would be aired as a television miniseries. Once I found out that the premiere would be this upcoming February, on the B.E.T network, I made this my first read of 2015.

I will use the same words I used to describe The Warmth of Other Suns. The Book of Negroes  is “thoroughly researched and impeccably pulled together.” It is historical fiction at its finest. And as with The Warmth of Other Suns, this book is of the same epic proportions.

Aminata Diallo is the storyteller. When we meet her she is an older woman, but the novel quickly shifts to her childhood where she recounts her life from the time she was conceived, to the moment that she was captured by slave traders, and then to the the life she lived after being sold to her first owner. 

The care the author took to include details from this time period immediately stuck out to me. It allowed me to lose myself in this book. It’s the closest I’ve come to being able to imagine I was there - to the extent possible- while reading any book covering this subject matter.

The trauma of being captured, long before being sold to an owner, is a detail that seems to be overlooked, at least in the literature that I’ve read. The trek from the villages to the ship lasted a few months in this novel. Women menstruating while unclothed is something that never occurred to me. Not so for this author. Many lost their sanity, one character even lost his ability to speak. The trauma, even long before being sold, is a detail that some writers seem to overlook. 

Hill frequently mentions the smells in and around slave ships. Charles Town, currently Charleston, South Carolina, was enveloped in an unmistakable stench. The same stench that intensified, allowing you to know when a slave ship had docked. And it wasn’t uncommon for bodies that had been thrown overboard to wash ashore.

The first time Aminata saw “smoke” come from her mouth, due to temperatures that she’d never experienced in her homeland, she thought for sure that she was on fire. She waited for the burning sensation which, of course, never came. And then there are the things that are not horrific in nature but are equally successful in dehumanizing a person. It’s details like these that are included throughout this novel that make reading it an experience unlike any other.

It was easy to love many of the characters. Aminta’s mother figures, they are wise and nurturing. One of them, also a slave, even knew how to immunize for small pox. Aminata’s fortuitous love interest, he is resolute in his commitment to her. Aminata herself is skillful. She was taught to “catch babies” by her mother and read by her father. Even while being enslaved, her skills completely changed the trajectory of her life.  

And then there is the history, so much history. An entire section of this book is devoted to the Sea Islands of South Carolina, indigo plantations, and the Gullah language. Even today, there is a Gullah Festival that takes place annually to preserve African American Gullah the culture and heritage. There is the creation of the Book of Negroes, which is an actual document. As noted in the reference of this novel, “it contains the names and details of 3000 black men, women, and children, who, after serving behind British lines during the American Revolutionary War, sailed from New York City  to various British colonies." Then there is the resettling of former slaves in Freetown, Sierra Leone. And the facts surrounding this particular section of the novel touched me at my core, but the same was true through most of the book.

I am currently reading Hill’s second novel, Any Known Blood and am enjoying it so much that  I ordered his first novel, Some Great Thing. Although, the latter title could also be used as an alias for The Book of Negroes; it is indeed a great thing. 

"That, I decided, was what it meant to be a slave: your past didn't matter; in the present you were invisible and you had no claim on the future." 
The Book of Negroes 

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Mary Okeke said...

Wow, you blew away with your review. I will definitely read this novel. Wow....

Shannon @ Reading Has Purpose said...

Mary, the book blew me away. I'm glad that I was able to get that across in the review. Hopefully you will be able to view the miniseries.

Didi said...

Excellent review and I should have read this book last year when I bought it. Well definitely be bumping it up the list.

Leslie said...

Okay - I am like the other commenters, here! This book is definitely going on my "to-read" list. I checked, though, and found out that it's a "chunky" (more than 500 pages) so I don't think I'll get to read it before the BET series airs. Still, without your review, this book would not have been on my radar, so Thanks!

Shannon @ Reading Has Purpose said...

I've had it for a while but I'm glad I read it so close to the air date. I really wonder how they are going to pull this off on screen!

Shannon @ Reading Has Purpose said...

Yeah, the reason I didn't read it sooner was because of the size. But now I feel like I'm missing out with the bigger books. His book that I'm reading now is over 500 pages, but I decided to just go for it.

Stefani said...

Sounds like some really intense and fantastic imagery!

Marvin Simpson said...

I read The Book of Negroes a couple of months ago: it is a fantastic read and I thoroughly enjoyed it! Don’t be discouraged by the number of pages in the book—they go fast. The word imagery is the author uses to describe scenes are incredible: you feel like are there.
Aminata Diallo displays strength, courage, determination, intelligence, leadership, and tenacity—she is an inspiration. Imagine yourself, your child, or a relative in their pre-teen years being forcibly enslaved, forced to sail around the world to a new land.
Aminata Diallo’s story is inspirational on so many levels: as a human being, a black person, and particularly as a black woman; to overcome the thing as a black woman during that period in American history.
The experiences of Aminata remind me not only of how good we have it but never to complain about my daily challenges and to appreciate how precious our lives and loved ones are.

Jacqueline said...

Love this awesome review. I downloaded this book and will be reading it soon.

Anonymous said...

Once again this is a good review. If I hadnt read the book already I would definitely read it because of the review. This book was gifted to me by my bestie and at first I was worried about number of pages but its an easy ready and the pages go by really fast.
I love the spirit of Aminata bacause she preserved no matter situation she was in. I also liked how the book provided a lot of history. I believe that this is the first book that I have read by Lawrence Hill. I will definitely include his other works on my reading list.