The Book of Negroes (aka Someone Knows My Name) by Lawrence Hill is a great work of historical fiction. The story weaves together the Revolutionary War, the Book of Negroes, migration of Black people to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, and the abolitionist movement in London. It’s clear that the author did a lot of research and the historical events are a rich backdrop for the story. The twists and turns of Aminata Diallo’s life are gripping but the historical tidbits are equally engrossing.
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Aminata was born in Bayo, Niger, Africa, her parents’ only child. Her father was so intelligent that he studied in Timbuktu and became a jeweler instead of having to become a warrior or farmer. Her mother was a very good midwife who traveled to neighboring villages to deliver babies.
Both parents shared their general wisdom and knowledge from their trades with Aminata. Teaching her to navigate and deliver babies. Events occur that separate Aminata from her parents and result in her capture. Early in the book, we see examples of Aminata’s intelligence and bravery which comes in handy as she navigates slavery.
During the march to the coast, Aminata meets a boy named Chekura who is a few years older than her. The two became friends despite the circumstances that led to their meeting. They provided each other with some comfort during the difficult crossing to the Americas. I grew to really like Chekura and it made me happy when he’d pop up in the book to visit Aminata. He was the only person who knew her in both Africa and the Americas and served as a link between her childhood and adulthood.
Through people who Aminata meets and opportunities that arise, she picks up a few valuable skills. She learned midwifery from her mother; the mixing of herbs and English from her adoptive mother, Georgia; and how to read from a fellow slave, Mamed.
Aminata definitely faces obstacles throughout the book but these skills help her to navigate difficulties and take advantage of opportunities. I had no issue with Aminata using her mind and abilities to overcome hurdles. But, at times it seemed like opportunities fell into her lap and solutions fell too easily into place.
Throughout the book, Aminata has two main passions that drive her: becoming a griot (storyteller) and making her way back home to her village. In a roundabout way, her life and experiences in the Americas help her to do both. Her story also ties together the three points of the Atlantic slave trade triangle.
Due to concerns about using the term “Negroes” in the US market, the book is published under two titles, “The Book of Negroes” and “Someone Knows My Name”. I first read the book under the title of “The Book of Negroes” with the cover art based on the miniseries. When I revisited the book a year or so later, I reread it under the title of “Someone Knows My Name” with the child against a landscape cover art.
As far as I could tell, both editions of the book contain the same story. Yet, within the US and a few other countries,”Someone Knows My Name” usually refers to book and “The Book of Negroes” refers to the miniseries.
Lawrence Hill explains the rationale behind the different titles in “Why I’m not allowed my book title“.
The Book of Negroes‘ characters and story were rich and very well-developed. The story is from Aminata’s perspective and we as the reader aren’t omniscient. As a result, the other characters aren’t as fleshed out as Aminata and only exist in relation to her story. But, the lack of an omniscient narrator adds to the story’s suspense. This isn’t an edge of your seat thriller but I sat up late several nights struggling to put the book down.
Read The Book of Negroes instead of watching the miniseries because the movie is very condensed. The acting isn’t bad but I gave up on the movie after it went off track.
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