Hey TSB! It’s nice to see you! It’s been so long. I’ve been in school, still trying to get all the courses I need to get into university. I’m doing super well, but I’ve been having to work so hard to maintain my high grades that I haven’t been around much. I’m sorry. I feel less guilty hosting a post on this topic, though, since I can pass it off in my head as homework. Thank you for helping me both study and slack off simultaneously. :)
*SPOILERS PEOPLE. SPOILERS AHEAD.*
Anyway, I really want to discuss this book with you guys that I’ve been reading for my English class. As I read through, I keep wishing I could discuss it with intelligent POC who are familiar with Black history - the classic slave narratives, prominent writers and thinkers in history. I have some problems with some of this book so far and I would really like to have your thoughts, if you’ve read it. Even if you haven’t, the issues I have I will describe so if you have thoughts on that, please jump in and let me know what you think!
‘The Book of Negroes’ is the proper title of this book. It won several awards in Canada and they made a miniseries about it (which I understand is not entirely faithful, but whatever, I haven’t seen it). In the US and other places, they changed the title to ‘Someone Knows My Name’ because publishers were squeamish about using the word ‘negro’ in the title, even though the Book of Negroes was a real historical document. It was a ledger of the Black loyalists who were permitted passage on ships to travel.
The story takes place farther near the end of slavery and near the beginnings of the abolitionist movements which is an interesting time to set the novel. The main character is an old woman named Aminata Dialla and the book is her recounting of the story of her life beginning at age 11. She was born in Africa (in the area which is now known as Mali) and taken across the sea on a slave ship where she lives as a slave in South Carolina, then moves to New York with a Jewish owner who refuses to call his slaves ‘slaves’ and instead refers to them as ‘servants’. He never beats them, but it is as if he thinks he’s somehow better than a ‘real’ slave owner since he is nicer. He still owns people though. In New York, she finds that there are many free Black people, though it is still made clear that they aren’t truly free. Most live in shanty towns and are still at the mercy of white people from who raid their encampments and claim some of them as property whether they were truly owned or not. Life is not great. She does meet a free Jamaican man who owns a hotel though and so her thoughts of running are catalyzed. this is about as far as I’ve got - about halfway through.
So far, I think the book is good, but not great and I’m curious as to how it won so many awards. It’s not very subtle or deep. The author did extensive research for this book and it shows - the story reads more like an historic account than a life story. The reading is clinical almost and the emotional weight of the main character was lost. She is a two dimensional vessel existing to contain various historical events.
The beginning of the book is kind of weird and I don’t know how I feel about it. There are so many descriptions that strike me as... I don’t know, like a mish-mash of ‘African tropes’ strung together to make it seem more ‘exotic’ and uncivilized? I can’t put my finger on it but after the 30th ‘calabash’ or ‘firestick’ is mentioned, you start to roll your eyes. Firesticks? Really? Also, she lives beside an often mentioned village called Kinta, whcih it turns out is not a real place and immediately reminded me of what you would get if the words Kunta and Kinte were shot at each other in the Hadron Collider. Maybe I’m being harsh on this point. True, I know little to nothing about African tribes or naming conventions, but frankly, neither does the author who is a mixed race person living in the same town I grew up in. Thoughts?
In addition, I find Aminata to be way larger than life. She becomes almost unbelievable. She is extremely beautiful and everywhere she goes people comment on it. At one point, a friend laments that she did not come away from surviving the pox with scars on her face as this would have made her less beautiful and therefore less likely to be raped. Not that it matters, because the main character remarkably escapes physical violence almost entirely. She survives the boat trip and is never beaten. A white man takes her into his bed every night, yet never rapes her - even though he rapes others. On the plantation, she escapes beatings by being incredibly intelligent. Everyone around her tells her repeatedly not to show her intelligence or she will be whipped into submission, but she shows it all the time and instead of being punished, is taught to read and write by at least two other characters. She is ravishingly beautiful and highly intelligent and never abused even though other around her are, quite frequently. She learns like five languages during the course of the half of the book I’ve read and I swear on the next page she’s going to end slavery single-handedly with her overwhelming intellect or something. She’s just way too ‘special’ to be believable.
As far as the writer himself, well, he’s a man telling the story of a woman. At the beginning, when she’s being walked naked across Africa in chains, he takes what I feel is too many opportunities to linger on describing her periods in graphic detail but it’s written hamfistedly. Almost like he had no idea what it’s like to have a first period. “I was embarrassed.” is about as deep as Aminata gets in her thoughts about it but we are still treated to visual descriptions of running blood and the like. I didn’t actually need that and it didn’t help the story any really since it didn’t speak at all to the main character’s mindstate. It was pointless.
The whole things feels like a tapestry of African tropes and slave history but it’s so unoriginal that it borrows too heavlily from others. It may seem weird to describe a historical fiction as being ‘too unoriginal’ but hear me out. It’s one thing to get your facts straight - it is ahistorical to get timelines wrong about events that actually occurred and things of that nature but he borrows from more than historical fact. He borrows the thoughts of Black thinkers. For instance, at one point, when Aminata is owned by the Jewish man, he makes a flyer advertising Aminata’s services as a midwife. He write that she is a ‘Guinea wench’. She takes issue with that and her response is... well...
“Is Mrs. Lindo a wench?”
He sat up straight. He rubbed his hands, then looked at me directly. “She is a lady.”
“I’m not from Guinea, “ I said suddenly. The anger in my own voice surprised me. I jumped up from the table, knocking over an inkpot. “And I’m not a wench. I had a baby and I would have it now but Master Appleby stole him away. I am no wench. I am a wife. I am a mother. Aren’t I a woman?”
Surely some of you recognize this statement. It’s phrasing and context: Aren’t I a woman? Yeah, I can’t see this as anything but putting the words of Sojourner Truth in Aminata’s mouth. The relevant part of her speech:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
I furiously ran to the back of the book to check out the acknowledgements. Nope. Not one mention. He goes to great lengths to describe the multitude of hours he spent poring over old texts and reading historical documents. He lists numerous scholars and credits them for helping him write this story. No mention of her though. There is no way he doesn’t know what he’s done here.
Writer types: is this plagiarism? Does this count as foul play? I don’t like it, personally. What do you guys think?
At the end of the day, this book is likely very historically accurate. In fact, it’s one step above reading a history book. I haven’t got there yet, but I understand the author made pains to ensure the accuracy of recounting the abuse the Canadian British inflicted on Black people in the Maritimes. I am really excited to read that part, if for no other reason than Canada is very good at ignoring and brushing aside this part of our history in favour of remembering ‘good’ things like the underground railroad. It’s hard to find tales of Canadian slavery atrocities, even though it’s historical fact that slaves were trafficked through our country and we had a race riot here, etc.
So. Have any of you read this book? What did you think?