Daughter Marjorie read Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes and said it would probably be her Book of the Year, even though we are still in March. And yes, I think it is that good. It covers the story of a single African woman, kidnapped into slavery in America, her losses, her escape to freedom in Nova Scotia and her return to Sierra Leone, and then to England to fight slavery. So -one of those sagas of an era.
Yet she is an utterly convincing character, a person, Aminata Diallo, whom I will remember as I remember the real free black man in England, Olaudah Equiano, among the other historic names who appear (fictionalized, as the author clearly explains) in this novel. I grieve for her stolen children and lost husband and vanished homeland. I hesitate to write, as I usually do in this blog, about how her life interacts with my experience, because it seems so absolutely presumptuous to say as a white educated woman who has lived a safe life in the US for forty years, that I understand being black in America or how the experience of slaves dragged there at peril of death in cruel and squalid conditions can be paralleled anywhere in my life or my children’s. Just today I read of the 100th anniversary of the death by suicide of Ota Benga, an African held in a cage in the Bronx zoo as a “missing link,” next to monkey and other primate cages. Regarding black Americans as somehow less has not been acceptable for many years- but recent events show that the utter disregard for our shared humanity is still there, and may even seem again acceptable.
I am an intended audience for this book though, just as the nineteenth century was moved to awareness and action by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by a white woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, a book that became the best selling book of the century and enormously influential. This novel, The Book of Negroes, written by an author, Lawrence Hill, who is of black and white parentage, is a story for this generation, helping us all to see where lie the origins of a 21st century United States that is still so obviously structured to the advantage of one race and clearly still shows the legacy of repression of one race, even though “race” is itself a tenuous distinction, not biologically based, and its effects are muddled with the effects of generations of poverty, limited education prospects, and uneven law enforcement.
When we lived in East Oakland, in an ethnically mixed neighborhood, I was very glad that my children were attending a school with no majority of any ethnic group (including white.) All were minorities. But there were other schools to which I would not have been willing to have them assigned, unsafe, ill-provisioned, in neglected and unsafe buildings: I need not label which ethnic group had to attend those. Nor need I label the different treatment received by different young people from police.
Most of us have been so sheltered from the cruelties and tragedies of life that we are not aware of others’ worlds. All of us have tragedies and suffer injustices- but it takes a book like this to help us have some deeper awareness of the levels of injustice. Then perhaps we can expand that to concern for all who still need to walk free– children harvesting chocolate or mining cobalt, or fishermen on slave ships in Asian waters, or children sold for sex with mostly white western “tourists” and all the others who need to be seen as our brothers and sisters.