The remarkable thing about Lawrence Hill's fourth novel, Someone Knows My Name, the life story of an African Muslim girl sold into slavery, isn't her physical survival. Sure, that's wrenchingly rendered and gives the story its heart. But it's the girl's emotional survival, her constant and ferocious fight for humanity that gives the book its considerable soul.
Aminata Diallo is 11 years old when a group of black men step out from the trees near her village in West Africa and kidnap her. Her parents fight to the death for their daughter, but in vain. The child is leashed by the neck to a group of captives and force-marched, naked, for three months across the continent. There, British slave ...view middle of the document...
Five of them looked like they would not regret the closing fist of death. I felt my stomach churning, my throat tightening. I looked down to avoid meeting their eyes. I was fed and they were not. I had clothes and they had none. I could do nothing to change their prospects or even my own. That, I decided, was what it meant to be a slave: your past didn't matter; in the present you were invisible and you had no claim to the future.
But the author has plans for Aminata. First, he lets her learn to read. Then, he moves her to New York, in the company of her new owner, a Jewish man named Solomon Lindo. Lindo is not unkind, and in his service, Aminata develops new skills and furthers her education. Though he refers to her as a "servant," he is, in fact, her owner, and he eventually betrays her.
When the American Revolution breaks out, Aminata escapes. Hill, whose previous writings brought close scrutiny to the tapestry of African-Canadian life, then shifts into the true heart of his tale: the little-known story of the move by 1,200 freed slaves from Canada back to Africa in 1792.
In the course of preparing for this journey, which was funded by staunch British abolitionists, the government collected biographical information on thousands of slaves eager to make the voyage. It's an extraordinary document, known as "The Book of Negroes." Excerpts from it form the endpapers of this book, and Hill uses it as the fulcrum for the final third of Aminata's tale, revealing the breadth and scope of the tragedy of the African slave trade, as well as a great deal about the mind-set of its defenders.
The pro-slavery men claimed that slavery was a humane institution that rescued Africans from barbarity in their homelands. Africans would simply kill each other in tribal wars if they were not liberated in the Americas, where they enjoyed the civilizing influence of Christianity.
Chosen by abolitionists as a living symbol for their cause, the literate and well-spoken Aminata is placed in a position to refute these claims....