The Book of Negroes
Lawrence Hill's stunning novel, The Book of Negroes (published in the U.S. as Someone Knows My Name ),
tells the story of Aminata Diallo, an African girl abducted into
slavery and taken to the American South in the mid-1700s. Determined,
resourceful and resilient, Aminata survives decades of bondage and
crippling losses with her indomitable spirit intact.
The author began thinking about writing this novel back in 1982, after reading James Walker's The Black Loyalists , a history of the American blacks who served the British during the American Revolutionary War .
The British rewarded these people with the promise of land in Nova
Scotia, but the harsh racism they encountered drove many of them to
abandon Canada for life in Sierra Leone.
Lawrence Hill was astonished to learn that about a third of the
passengers who sailed to Sierra Leone had actually been born in Africa.
They had been enslaved in America, found freedom in the northern
colonies, travelled to Canada and eventually returned to Africa, all in
the course of a single lifetime.
With The Book of Negroes, Hill brings together two popular
literary traditions. One is the slave narrative, in which blacks recount
their journey from bondage to freedom. The other is the Victorian
novel, à la Charles Dickens, with its well-crafted, picaresque plot;
vivid, often larger-than-life characters; mysterious coincidences; and
examination of social ills of the day.
Aminata is representative of the female slave experience. Women like her endured the sadistic Middle Passage, toiled from sunrise to sunset on plantations, were raped by their masters and had their families torn apart.
At the same time, Aminata's unique gifts -- her ability to read and
write, her facility with languages and her knowledge of delivering
babies -- allow the author to place her at the centre of actual
During the Revolutionary War, for instance, Aminata is hired to list
the names of the Black Loyalists in a bound register called The Book of Negroes. And in London, England, near the end of her life, she is invited by famous British abolitionist William Wilberforce
to tell her story before a parliamentary committee studying the evils
of the slave trade. It is this combination of the real and the imaginary
that makes Aminata one of Canada's most unforgettable characters.
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Lawrence Hill was born in Toronto in 1957 to an interracial American
couple, the civil rights activists Daniel and Donna Hill. The pair came
to Canada just after marrying, wishing to raise a family in a less
racially hostile environment. Lawrence's background is black and white
and Canadian and American, and this range of experiences and
perspectives informs his writing.
He has written several books, including two previous novels: Some Great Thing (1992) and the immensely popular Any Known Blood (1997), a fictionalized account of his family history that crisscrosses the U.S./Canada border.
The Book of Negroes, a national bestseller, won the
Commonwealth Writers' Prize for overall best book and has been widely
acclaimed in Canada and internationally.
Lawrence's non-fiction works include a memoir, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada and The Deserter's Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq , co-written with Joshua Key.
Lawrence has a B.A. in economics from Laval University and an M.A. in
creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. He has worked as a
reporter for the Globe and Mail and the Winnipeg Free Press and has won
numerous awards, including a National Magazine Award for an article that
appeared in Walrus magazine: "Is Africa's Pain Black America's Burden?"
and an American Wilbur Award for best television documentary for Seeking Salvation: A History of the Black Church in Canada .
Lawrence's father, the late Daniel Hill, Sr., was the director of the
Ontario Human Rights Commission and, later, Ombudsman of Ontario. His
brother is the singer/songwriter Dan Hill.
Lawrence grew up in the suburb of Don Mills, Ontario, and currently
lives in Burlington, Ontario, with his wife and their five children.
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The Original Book of Negroes
The Book of Negroes borrows its title from a 1783 British document.
It listed the names of the blacks who were awarded passage out of New
York after the American Revolutionary War. These individuals had to
prove they had served the British army for at least a year and that they
were free. Copies of the book are available at a handful of libraries,
with the original held in London, England. It contains the names and
descriptions of 3,000 black men women and children. But in real life a
black woman named Aminata Diallo did not enter this information. The
scribes were officers of the British navy. The ledger reveals that the
vast majority of Black Loyalists settled in cities in Nova Scotia,
including Annapolis Royal, Shelburne and Digby, but some also went to
Quebec, England and Germany.
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"The most mesmerizing novel I read this year was Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes.
I found it historically and rhetorically magnetic all the way through
and it left a powerful imprint when I'd finished. Magnificent." -- Hon.
"This is one of the most stunning novels I have read in the past 10
years because it reveals not only a powerful narrative, but also because
it challenges accepted ideas of our history." -- Bruce Meyer
"This book tells the story of the life of Aminata Diallo, born in
Bayo, West Africa, in 1745 who at the age of 11 is captured and sold
into slavery. Detailing her struggles as a slave on a South Carolina
plantation and her efforts to regain her freedom, the story is both
harrowing and awe-inspiring." -- Heather Reisman
"[A] totally gripping page-turner of a novel. It's the kind of
compulsive read that makes you look forward to public transit. That
turns a middle seat on Air Canada into your favourite place to be. That
flips your bedside clock from midnight to 3 a.m. with no apparent
intervening hours. Everyone deserves this kind of total immersion
reading, the antidote to a fragmented life: The Book of Negroes
delivers....[T]he central character Aminata Diallo is an unforgettable,
original voice with a capacity for insight that rings as true as the
call of a circling bird... For all these reasons, and for its tremendous
compassion, humour and lovely, liquid prose, this is the novel that
Canada should read." -- Canada Reads panelist Avi Lewis
"A mesmerizing, utterly compelling journey into the heart of slavery, The Book of Negroes
is destined to join the great classics of our times. Inside a world of
brutality, a powerful spirit is evoked with such sensitivity and
lyricism that it is impossible not to be deeply moved, and impossible to
stop reading. Lawrence Hill has embodied the narrator completely, and I
in turn felt intimately connected to this wondrous woman. Stylistically
flawless, thematically layered and historically fascinating, this novel
is a masterpiece." -- Edeet Ravel, author of A Wall of Light and Look for Me
"Lawrence Hill, a cultural and spiritual descendant of West African
griots, has used his vast storytelling talents to create an epic story
that spans three continents. The Book of Negroes recites the
pain, misery and liberation of one African woman, Aminata Diallo, who
was stolen from her homeland and sold into American slavery. Through
Aminata, Hill narrates the terrifying story of slavery and puts at the
centre a female experience of the African Diaspora. I wept upon reading
this story. The Book of Negroes is courageous, breathtaking, simply brilliant." -- Afua Cooper, author of The Hanging of Angélique and Copper Woman
" The Book of Negroes is a novel that should be sung,
rather than read. It is a song of worship, in praise of the taste of an
orange, the smell of a newborn; and it is a lament to the horrors we are
capable of inflicting on each other, no matter what the colour of our
skin. But above all else it is a love song urging us to celebrate our
romance with our own dear humanity. "Ba means river," Lawrence Hills'
powerful character Aminata writes in The Book of Negroes . "It
also means mother." When I finished this novel, I held my children close
and cried over them, because this novel was a heartbreaking reminder
that they are the river through my life, just as much as I am the river
through theirs, and this is a river that will continue to flow long
after we are gone. The Book of Negroes is not only a lesson on
where we came from, but a warning about the future, a future that, with
vigilance, we might avoid. It is a courageous, challenging and
beautiful book." -- Gail Anderson-Dargatz, author of The Cure for Death by Lightning