By Oscar Wailoo
The afterword of Lawrence Hill’s 2007 novel The Book of Negroes leaves no doubt about the breadth and depth of scholarly works on African history.
The list is impressive and would be a good entry point into one of the ugliest chapters in human history, and into the history of the “democratic and freedom-loving” West.
Yet there are few novels on Hill’s long list of sources. This is not his fault as the scholarly tomes far outnumber novels like Nobel author Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which granted the enslaved Africans human characteristics and let them tell their stories without a white intermediary.
However, there is no shortage of histories on every facet of slavery and the slave trade, plus the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince.
Then there is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white abolitionist who saw slavery as an abomination but believed in the intrinsic inferiority of the enslaved Africans without denying their humanity. Even so, it provided important insights into the mind of white slave society that ran a pretty lucrative human chattel industry for centuries.
Book of Negroes widens Morrison’s coverage by starting the protagonist Aminata Diallo’s odyssey in a village in Mali. Slavers took the orphaned child Aminata – yoked at the neck with other chained captives – on an inhumanely long march to the ocean and into slavery.
She survived the infamous Middle Passage, a crossing of the Atlantic so brutal as to defy description, then was enslaved in the Carolina Islands in America.
Aminata’s odyssey later took her as an escaped slave to semi-free New York City to Nova Scotia, back to Africa, then to England to fight alongside abolitionists William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson.
Good scholarly texts will answer the questions: what, where, when, why and how but one must go to the novel to “feel” the subject in the heart or sense the humanity or inhumanity of it.
If the novelist is faithful to the sources, the characters are able to engage all the human senses. Hill puts us squarely into the heart of slavery with the touch of a fine storyteller. He does it by having Aminata relate her life from childhood in Africa, through slavery, then as an old woman and member of the British anti-slave trade movement.
The beauty of The Book of Negroes is that it defies the stereotype of the African being subhuman, good only for physical labour in the service of the superior whites. It makes Aminata skilled and literate with a basic grounding in Islam, the highly literate religion of her father and that of Mali, the ancient African centre of learning in its time.
She is an exceptional child with an aura that commands the respect of slave and slaver masters alike. That allows her, like Odysseus, to survive in conditions – where even God has abandoned – and live to tell the tale.
The tale is told against a background of brutality and deliberate dehumanization through whippings, rape, the destruction of families and linguistic communities, and the excising of all native the African cultural, religious and social practices that defined them as human beings. Emptied of all meaning, the notion of being someone else’s property fills the void; the spirit of independence is squelched by the lash of “good” slave-holding practices.
Even so, Aminata retains and rediscovers the slave’s humanity, locates the innate wisdom that survives in some, relates the constant battles to keep families intact, or to acquire literacy in an environment that forbids it. But, it’s a risky business because successful slavers know that raising and protecting families are incompatible with slavery; and such people, if literate, become lean and hungry, and think too much; that is bad for business.
The Book of Negroes makes you walk with Amanita, a sharp-minded observant witness, to see and feel slavery from the inside. It’s a trip, brilliantly described and worth every painful step.
The Book of Negroes six-part mini-series is being aired on CBC TV Wednesdays at 9 p.m.