For Book Club this month, Lori asked if we could read The Book of Negroes (previously published as Someone Knows My Name) by Lawrence Hill. She warned me when she suggested it that this would be a difficult book to get through based simply on its subject matter, and she was right. The novel tells the story of Aminata Diallo, a woman who was kidnapped from her African village in the mid-1700s and brought to America as a slave. She was only 11 years old when she was taken, and lived with and worked for multiple families before escaping during the chaos of the Revolutionary War. She moves to Manhattan and then London on her quest to return to her homeland in Africa.
I can’t say that I enjoyed this book (the subject matter is quite intense), but I’m glad I read it. Aminata is a wonderful character that I won’t soon forget.
Questions for this month’s Book Club come from LitLovers. As always, a spoiler alert is in effect.
What is the significance of the title Someone Knows My Name?
Several times throughout the book, Aminata laments that she’s become a nameless black woman. The “buckra” (white people) struggle to pronounce her name, and that’s not taking into account those who don’t bother trying. The ones who care (even just a smidge) give her the nickname Meena, because it’s easier on their American/British tongues and ears. So, for someone to learn, say, and know Aminata’s name is a big deal for her.
What is your opinion about Hill’s suggestion that Aminata’s very youthfulness at the time of her abduction enables her emotional survival, even as some of the adults in her world show signs of crumbling?
I absolutely agree with this assessment, 100%. All of the adults around her (specifically on the slave ship in the beginning of the novel) simply fall apart. Many don’t survive the journey, and it’s implied that the cause for that is emotional as much as physical hardships. One woman who gives birth on the ship even slits her newborn son’s throat and tosses him to sea to avoid bringing him to “wherever they’re going.” Even in the worst of circumstances, sane people don’t do that.
Aminata, though unhappy and horrified by the situation in which she finds herself, simply puts her head down and gets through it. If she’d been older and more mature, she may not have been able to separate herself from what she was going through, and she’d likely have suffered the same fate as many of those she knew in her previous life.
The section of the book set in the sea islands of South Carolina depicts eighteenth-century indigo plantations where African American slaves and overseers are left largely to their own devices during the “sick season”—a good half of the year. To what degree does this cultural and social isolation allow for an interesting development and interaction of African American characters in the novel?
I don’t think there would have much opportunity for character development at all without that time away from the “buckra.” The story is that of a slave, not that of her masters, so it was important to show what her life was like as she lived and interacted with other slaves.
Aminata suffers some horrifying cruelties at the hands of her captors, but her relationships with her masters aren’t always what you’d expect. How does Aminata’s story reveal the complex ways that people react to unnatural, unequal relationships?
It’s definitely true that “her relationships with her masters aren’t always what you’d expect.” Some of them, while not necessarily surprising, were positively despicable. Others weren’t so bad. It was interesting to read how different people react in different ways to the same situations. One master might be a miserable man who rapes his slaves, while another might treat them as members of his own family. There’s not really any way to tell in advance what kind of master one might be until you get into the part of that story where his/her story with Aminata begins.
During the course of the story, Aminata marries and has a family. Although she is separated from them, she is reunited from time to time with her husband and one of her children. What does the work tell us about the nature of love and loyalty?
Simply put, that it (love and loyalty) trumps everything else. Even when her child is brutally stolen from her as a nursing babe, Aminata never stops loving him. Her husband leaves her one day and doesn’t come back, but she never searches for another one. She is a remarkable woman.
Aminata struggles to learn and master all sorts of systems of communicating in the new world: black English, white English, and Gullah, as well as understanding the uses of European money and maps. How do her various coping mechanisms shed light on her character?
I never really considered that her thirst for knowledge was a coping mechanism, but it makes sense that it would be. Her need to cope with her situation is understandable; we all have ways of dealing with the things around us, and learning to be the best she can be in her new life is Aminata’s. They tell us that she’s determined, and that she’s unwilling to let things happen to her. She’s a fiercely independent woman who wants to be in control of her own life, and the best way she can make that happen as a slave is to learn everything she can about living in Carolina.
Aminata is a woman of extraordinary abilities—she is skillful with languages, literate, a speedy learner, a born negotiator. Why did Hill choose this story to be told by such a remarkable woman? What effect do her abilities have on the shaping of the story?
I’m not sure the story would have been as potent with a less extraordinary character. Aminata is a rare breed that can do anything she puts her mind to, and she uses that ability/determination to her advantage. If she’d been a passive character, the novel would have been very different. More subdued, a lot darker, and not nearly as hopeful. Aminata having the personality she did was vital to the story that Mr. Hill wanted to tell.
On another level, I think he may have made her that strong because he named her after his own daughter. Whether on purpose or not, I think he wanted to tell his daughter that she could be as strong as her literary namesake.
What do you think would be the challenges involved in writing a realistically painful novel that still offers enough light and hope to maintain the reader’s interest and spirit?
Ha! I think the challenges in writing this kind of novel are too numerous to name. I’ve written novels in the past (not necessarily very good ones, and they’re not published, but they exist), and I’m not sure I could have pulled off a novel of this magnitude. It would be emotionally difficult to live in this world each day as you wrote it, but you’d always have the knowledge as you wrote that you were moving the character toward something better, and having that hope in your own body would help to shine the light through the story you were writing. I think.
What lessons does Aminata’s tale hold for us in today’s world?
Perseverance is vital for survival.
Determination goes a long way.
Be the best you can be, despite your circumstances.
Love and loyalty can keep you sane.
I’m sure there are others, but that’s what I’ve got off the top of my head.
Thanks for joining me in another month of Book Club! Make sure to head over to Lori’s blog to read her thoughts on the selection. While you’re there, stay awhile and read her other posts. She has a great blog with all sorts of different posts ranging from homeschooling elementary and middle school students (she has 3 daughters around the same ages as my two older boys) to hymn studies to simply sharing about their lives. It’s a delightful place to spend some time.
This month, we’ll be reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. If you want to read along and join the discussion, we’ll be posting answers to questions on January 5th. If you have a blog, you can answer questions there and leave a link with Lori or me. If you don’t have a blog and you still want to read along with us, please do! You can comment on either of our blogs your thoughts about the book. I’ll have at least one special guest for that post, as well – Munchkin and Will have already read the book, so I’m going to present them with questions. I know Munchkin is going to answer them, and Will might, too, so I’ll be sharing their answers along with my own next month.
Thanks again to Lori for stretching my mind with this month’s selection.