Published in 2007 (under the title Someone Knows My Name in the United States, Australia and New Zealand), Lawrence Hill's third novel is a work of historical fiction inspired by the document called the “Book of Negroes,” a list of Black Loyalists who fled New York for Canada during the American Revolutionary War. The Book of Negroes tells the story of Aminata Diallo who makes this same journey after she is captured by slave traders in Africa and brought to America. Aminata’s story illustrates the physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, religious, and economic violation of the transatlantic slave trade. The novel has been translated into over eight languages and has sold more than 800,000 copies worldwide.
Readers follow protagonist Aminata Diallo's first-person "slave narrative" from her abduction as a child to her imminent death as an elderly woman. The story begins in 1745 in West Africa, where Aminata is captured in her hometown of Bayo at age 11 and marched to the coast in a coffle — or a shackled string — of slaves. There, 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 and is taken to an indigo plantation in South Carolina. While enslaved, she becomes known for her midwifery skills, learned in childhood from her mother. In secret, Aminata learns to read from a fellow slave and her literacy skills later prove instrumental to her emancipation. 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 freedom and enlisted to enter the names of other former slaves into the naval ledger, the “Book of Negroes,” before their journey by ship from New York to Canada. While free, Aminata faces discrimination and hardship in Nova Scotia, where she helps to settle the Black community of Birchtown.
When settlement in Sierra Leone is offered to “free Blacks,” Aminata fulfills her dream of returning home in a back-to-Africa odyssey alongside 1,200 other former slaves. There, she searches for her hometown and helps to found the new colony of Freetown. But a desire to help free her fellow Africans brings Aminata back across the ocean to England where her story — the narrative of her life, which she writes in her final years at the turn of the 19th century — becomes a galvanizing 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 text and unifies its plot. As Aminata says repeatedly, Black people are a "travelling people," and 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 witnesses repeatedly the profound inhumanity of slavery but, in particular, explores the moral and spiritual degradation of the slave trade itself with regard to those enslaved, those who would trade in slaves, and those who witness any part of the trade.
Throughout her life, Aminata recognizes the hypocrisies involved in slavery and 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 consistently overpower ethical intentions.
To a great degree, Hill's novel is written in the tradition of slave narratives, using the language and tropes of the genre. For instance, as in historical slave narratives, the narrator tells her own story after achieving literacy and freedom and her story is put to use for the abolitionist cause. As a work of historical fiction, The Book of Negroes incorporates actual events and figures of the time along with its fictional plot and characters. As a reflection of the genres of the slave narrative and historical fiction, Aminata's story is told for the sake of being told and to explore the historical record in a literary way; that is, her intention is to provide meaning and purpose to her life and to give voice to the voiceless many who lived alongside her but who were unable to record their own stories. As the author, Hill is also producing a public literary document which depicts and brings attention to a particular aspect of history that has gone unnoticed or been silenced in the historical record and contemporary culture.
The title of the book refers to the British military ledger the “Book of Negroes,” which documents the identities of the 3,000 Black Loyalists who were granted passage to Nova Scotia from New York in 1783, into which Aminata’s own name is entered within the story.
In most English-speaking countries the novel carries the original Canadian title. The American edition was slated for publication under the original title; however, the title Someone Knows My Name was substituted just before the cover went to print because the publisher felt the book would not be well-received given sensitivities toward the term “Negro” in the United States.The book is also published in English as Someone Knows My Name in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, in translation, under the original title, Someone Knows My Name, and Aminata.
While Hill originally disliked the idea of changing the title, he explained what he came to feel was important reasoning in a 2008 editorial:
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 of The Books of Negroes, Het Negerboek, Dutchman Roy Groenberg wrote to Hill to criticize his use of the term “Negro” in the book’s title and to inform the author 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, which expressed his horror at the notion of burning books, and offered to open a dialogue about the term and title. In June, 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 entitled “Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book,” which considers his own experience as well as historic instances of book burning and censorship.
Reach and Awards
The novel has been translated into Spanish, Hungarian, Turkish, French, Arabic, Hebrew, German, Dutch and Norwegian and 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 Québec market.
HarperCollins has published six different editions of The Book of Negroes in Canada: hardcover, trade paperback, HarperPerennial paperback, mass market paperback as well as hardcover and softcover editions of an illustrated version with more than 150 images. A bestseller, the book has sold an estimated 600,000 copies in Canada and more than 200,000 internationally.
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, for which Hill was granted a private audience with Queen Elizabeth II.
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 Aunjanue Ellis and Shailyn Pierre-Dixon as Amanita, and Allan Hawco as Solomon Lindo, with supporting performances from 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 and 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. It received mixed but overall positive reviews, and won universal praise for Ellis’s lead performance.
In March 2016, the miniseries won a leading ten 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), Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Program (Aunjanue Ellis), Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Program or Limited Series (Lyriq Bent), Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Supporting Role in a Dramatic Program or Series (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon), as well as Best Original Music Score for a Program, Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design or Art Direction in a Fiction Program or Series.