This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.
The Canadians owned slaves from Africa. So did the British. So did New Yorkers and Bostonians. And so, even, did other Africans.
I can only imagine the looks on the faces of my students who read Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes (in the U.S., Someone Knows My Name) and learned this information about their own history, the sort of details that rarely make it into history textbooks but that historical novels make so vivid and interesting -- and sometimes revelatory -- as to seem entirely fictional.
Of course, the history of slavery in North America is well-documented in fiction already, but rarely do the historical novels focus on anything but the Civil War -- the immediate antebellum years, Emancipation, the aftermath. When I was in high school and read Gone With the Wind for my American History course, I felt myself thoroughly well-informed about slavery in the United States. It was only years later that I realized what a small, romanticized piece of the larger picture that was. Unlike many other stories about slavery, this novel begins in the mid-eighteenth century and ends shortly before the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, before the abolition of slavery itself in England, and long before the abolition of slavery altogether as a Western institution.
In our Grade 12 students' culminating project, which asked them as a group to select the summer reading books for the incoming Grade 12 students based on their own independent reading projects, The Book of Negroes came out on top in every section. According to the students, it fulfilled every criterion they had set for themselves: it had a strong protagonist who appealed to them and had a voice; it was accessible and interesting, with a narrative that drew them inexorably through its saga-like span; it challenged them but was enjoyable at the same time. Yet what seemed to interest them most about this book was its informative qualities -- "I learned a lot from this book" was a frequent refrain in discussions.
The historical Book of Negroes, as recounted in the novel, was a record of Black Loyalists who left the Thirteen Colonies before and during the Revolutionary War, most of them bound for Nova Scotia, which was still under British colonial rule. In Lawrence Hill's afterward, he tells us:
In terms of the sheer number of people recorded and described, the actual Book of Negroes is the largest single document about black people in North America up until the end of the eighteenth century. It consists of the names and details of 3,000 black men, women and children. . . . Readers who wish to see the Book of Negroes can find it, or parts of it, in the Nova Scotia Public Archives, in the National Archives of the United States, and in the National Archives (Public Records Office) in Kew, England. It can also be found on microfilm at the National Archives of Canada and through an electronic link provided by Library and Archives Canada:
Because the novel is named after the historical document, I was a bit miffed to learn that its title had been changed in the United States (although I can understand the reason for this strategic move). But the clumsy title that replaced it -- Someone Knows My Name -- seemed to me to signal a YA novel.
But now, having read the book, I better understand the choice. Names hold a significant power to the characters in the story. The protagonist, Aminata, suffers the indignity of being called "Meena" by those who cannot (or, more properly, will not) pronounce her African name, and throughout, names are a symbol of identity and personhood. One of the first small acts of defiance from the newly-captured slaves is the declaration of their names to one another aboard the slaving ship as they try to make sense of what has happened to them. For someone to know the other's name is to acknowledge that he or she is a person with his or her own story, something Aminata emphasizes just by the fact of narrating her own life.
This is not the most memorable historical novel I've read, but its scope and scholarship are pretty impressive, and it is an absorbing read. Several students who hadn't yet read it plan to, based on the recommendations of their peers, even though as graduating students they don't have any summer reading for us! If my students are anything to go by, it's a winner.
Check out Lawrence Hill's own Canadian novel picks here. Four of them were on the list our students generated for their project this year.
A good companion film: Amazing Grace (2006), about the abolition movement in England.