The British “Book of Negroes" at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown in Yorktown, Virginia, in 2019.
Readers follow Aminata Diallo’s first-person “slave narrative” from her abduction as a child to her death as an elderly woman. The story begins in 1745 in West Africa. Aminata is captured in her hometown, Bayo, at age 11. She is marched to the coast in a coffle — a shackled string — of slaves. She and thousands of other African slaves are boarded onto ships bound for the Americas. Aminata’s months-long crossing details the horrific conditions aboard slave ships.
In America, Aminata is sold into slavery. She is taken to an indigo plantation in South Carolina. While enslaved, she becomes known for her midwifery skills, which she learned in childhood from her mother. (See also Birthing Practices.) In secret, Aminata learns to read from a fellow slave. Her literacy skills later prove instrumental to her freedom. After her baby is sold and Aminata refuses to work, she is sold to a Jewish couple, the Lindos, who teach her arithmetic.
In return for her loyalty to the British crown during the American Revolutionary War, Aminata is granted her freedom. She is also tasked with entering the names of other former slaves into the naval ledger, the “Book of Negroes,” before their journey by ship from New York to Canada. Though she is free, Aminata faces discrimination and hardship in Nova Scotia, where she helps to settle the Black community of Birchtown. (See also Africville.)
When settlement in Sierra Leone is offered to “free Blacks,” Aminata fulfills her dream of returning home. She does so alongside 1,200 other former slaves. Once in Sierra Leone, she searches for her hometown and helps establish the new colony of Freetown. But a desire to help free her fellow Africans brings Aminata back across the ocean to England. There, her story — the narrative of her life, which she writes in her final years at the turn of the 19th century — becomes an important document for the white-led Abolitionist movement.
The title, The Book of Negroes, references one of many migratory experiences in the novel. It is this theme of migration — both voluntary and involuntary — that dominates the book and unifies its plot. As Aminata says repeatedly, Black people are a “travelling people.” The novel traces her journey from inland Africa to South Carolina, New York, Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, and finally England.
Aminata must constantly adapt to changes in her geographical, cultural, familial and intellectual conditions. She repeatedly witnesses the profound inhumanity of slavery. She also explores the slave trade’s degrading moral and spiritual effects on those enslaved, those who trade in slaves, and those who witness any part of the trade. Aminata recognizes the hypocrisies involved in slavery. She sees how such hypocrisy diminishes all people’s ability to live ethical lives. Again and again, Aminata encounters promises and proclamations that appear to be well-intentioned. But, in each case, she watches as those pledges are abandoned, reversed, or simply fail because the economic, political and material temptations of slavery overpower ethical intentions.
Lawrence Hill wrote the novel in the tradition of slave narratives, using the language and tropes of the genre. For instance, the narrator tells her story after achieving literacy and freedom. Her story helps forward the abolitionist cause. As a work of historical fiction, The Book of Negroes incorporates actual events and figures into its fictional plot and characters. Aminata’s story is told for the sake of being told and to explore the historical record in a literary way. In other words, her intention is to provide meaning and purpose to her life. She also gives voice to those who lived alongside her but were unable to record their own stories. The novel depicts an aspect of history that has gone unnoticed or been silenced in both the historical record and contemporary culture.
The title of the book refers to the British military ledger, the “Book of Negroes.” It documents the identities of some 3,000 Black Loyalists who were granted passage to Nova Scotia from New York in 1783. In the novel, Aminata’s name is entered into the book.
In most English-speaking countries, the novel carries the original Canadian title. The American edition was also slated for publication under the original title. However, given sensitivities toward the term “Negro” in the United States, the publisher felt the title would not be well-received. The title Someone Knows My Name was substituted just before the cover went to print. The book was also published as Someone Knows My Name in Australia and New Zealand. It was published in translation under the original title as well as Someone Knows My Name and Aminata.
Hill originally disliked the idea of changing the title. But in a 2008 editorial, he explained what changed his mind:
“In my country, few people have complained to me about the title, and nobody continues to do so after I explain its historical origins. I think it’s partly because the word ‘Negro’ resonates differently in Canada. If you use it in Toronto or Montreal, you are probably just indicating publicly that you are out of touch with how people speak these days. But if you use it in Brooklyn or Boston, you are asking to have your nose broken. When I began touring with the novel in some of the major US cities, literary African-Americans kept approaching me and telling me it was a good thing indeed that the title had changed, because they would never have touched the book with its Canadian title.”
Despite its historical significance, there were still those who protested the original title. Following the 2011 release of the Dutch version, titled Het Negerboek, Dutchman Roy Groenberg wrote to Hill to criticize his use of the term “Negro” in the book’s title. He also informed Hill that he planned to burn the book to mark the anniversary of his ancestors’ emancipation from Dutch enslavement.
Hill responded to the letter in an op-ed in the Toronto Star. Hill expressed his horror at the notion of burning books and offered to open a dialogue about the term and title. In June 2011, Groenberg and his “Foundation to Honour and Restore Payments to Victims of Slavery in Suriname” burned the book’s cover in an act of protest against the title. Hill later wrote an essay about the events called “Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book.” The essay considers Hill’s experience as well as historic instances of book burning and censorship.
Translations, Editions and Sales
The Book of Negroes has been translated into Spanish, Hungarian, Turkish, French, Arabic, Hebrew, German, Dutch and Norwegian. It continues to be published in other languages and markets internationally. In 2011, a French version was published by Éditions de la Pleine Lune under the title Aminata. It sold more than 12,000 copies, a considerable success for the Quebec market.
HarperCollins has published six different editions of The Book of Negroes in Canada: hardcover, trade paperback, HarperPerennial paperback, mass market paperback, and illustrated hardcover and softcover editions with more than 150 images. A best-seller, the book has sold an estimated 600,000 copies in Canada and more than 200,000 internationally.
Awards and Honours
The Book of Negroes won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2007 and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2008. It was the first book to win both CBC Radio’s Canada Reads competition (in 2009) and Radio Canada’s Combat des livres (in 2013). It also won The Commonwealth Prize for Best Book. As part of the prize, Hill was granted a private audience with Queen Elizabeth II.
Lawrence Hill worked with filmmaker Clement Virgo to adapt The Book of Negroes into a six-part TV miniseries. The ambitious $10 million production was shot in Canada and South Africa with an international cast of 120 and a crew of more than 400 people. It stars Shailyn Pierre-Dixon and Aunjanue Ellis as the child and adult Amanita, respectively. Other cast members include Allan Hawco, Lyriq Bent, Ben Chaplin, and Academy Award-winners Louis Gossett Jr. and Cuba Gooding Jr.
The miniseries premiered on CBC TV on 7 January 2015. It drew 1.7 million viewers, making it the number one program in its time slot. It also aired in the US on BET (Black Entertainment Television) in February 2015. The show received mixed but overall positive reviews and won universal praise for Ellis’s lead performance.
In March 2016, the miniseries won a leading 10 Canadian Screen Awards, including Best TV Movie or Limited Series, Best Writing in a Dramatic Program or Limited Series (Lawrence Hill and Clement Virgo), Best Direction in a Dramatic Program or Limited Series (Clement Virgo) and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Program (Aunjanue Ellis). It also won a Special Jury Prize at the 2015 Banff Television Festival, a Writers Guild of Canada Award for best miniseries and five Directors Guild of Canada Awards including best television movie/mini-series.
See also: Black Enslavement in Canada; Editorial: The Arrival of Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia; Chloe Cooley and the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada; Slavery Abolition Act, 1833; Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; Anti-Slavery Society of Canada; Underground Railroad; Editorial: Black Female Freedom Fighters.