Many of us will remember being moved to tears by the power and depth of "Roots", Alex Haley's compelling novel on the slave trade that was published almost 40 years ago. Lawrence Hill's "The Book of Negroes" gives contemporary readers the opportunity to savour a very similar novel and to experience the horror, shame and embarrassment of acknowledging that such abhorrent conduct towards black people is an indelible part of North America's past.
I was fascinated to discover that the "Book of Negroes" is a real historical document. It painstakingly lists the names and details of freed Loyalist slaves who chose to leave the United States to go to Canada, a difficult and frightening decision that, for them, must have seemed no less daunting than the Israelite's search for the Promised Land. To my shame as a Canadian, many of the blacks who were part of this migration discovered that their treatment in Nova Scotia was just as reactionary and oppressive as that which they had hoped to leave behind as freed slaves in the northern states of New England.
Constructing his novel around the fact of this amazing document, Lawrence Hill has presented "The Book of Negroes" as a fictionalized autobiography. Aminata Diallo, a precocious and brave young girl kidnapped from her village in West Africa, marched in chains to the Atlantic coast, squashed into the hold of a stifling, disease-ridden slaver and shipped to South Carolina where she was sold as a slave, tells her own story. We hear of the love and loss of her husband, her life as a slave under multiple owners, her migration to Nova Scotia from New York, her return to Freetown in Sierra Leone and, ultimately, her trip to England and the presentation of her fascinating but appalling story to the British people through the members of British Parliament seeking to abolish slavery.
The history that Lawrence Hill presents to us is at once spellbinding and repulsive. The incredible art and archival material that Hill has chosen to accompany the text in the illustrated edition starkly bring the story to life. We are reminded that, while "The Book of Negroes" is a novel, it is based in a reality, the horror of which is almost impossible to exaggerate. As a Canadian, I felt, frankly, that I had been soundly slapped for an entirely unwarranted sanctimonious attitude. Until I read "The Book of Negroes", I was blissfully unaware of the extent of Canada's involvement in the ugliness that was the treatment of ostensibly free black people when they moved to Canada.
February 2010 is Black History month. I urge every reader to take the time to participate in this worthy event by reading Lawrence Hill's "The Book of Negroes". Perhaps, in time, bigotry and racism will come to be no more than a repugnant historical memory.
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