10 Jun / Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
Let’s start with the bottom line: read this. [Or listen – narrator Adenrele Ojo is superb.] I guarantee this stupendously epic, unforgettably affecting story of Aminata Diallo will haunt you long after you finish.
Born in 1745, Aminata is 11 when she’s violently abducted from her West African village, but not before she witnesses the murder of both her parents. She’s forced to walk for “three moons” to the coast, where she’s branded, then herded onto a ship bound for the other side of the world.
One-third of her fellow captives don’t survive the horrific crossing, but worse awaits at voyage’s end. Her first owner brutalizes her and sells her infant son; her second owner and his wife call her their “servant,” never slave, and initially respect and educate her, until unexpected death turns the owner cruel.
She escapes on a trip to New York, works for the British military during the Revolutionary War, which allows her to leave the Colonies for the promise of lasting freedom in Canada. Her forever wish to go home to Africa is finally fulfilled, but she doesn’t remain there long, becoming a lauded symbolic figure in London’s abolitionist movement. There she begins to write her remarkable life story.
Inextricably, seamlessly woven into Aminata’s mesmerizing narrative are surprising – okay, shocking – history lessons, as well. My Eurocentric education never taught me that Nova Scotia was billed as a promised land during the Revolutionary War for free blacks who could prove their loyalty to the British for at least a year; that Freetown in Sierra Leone was founded centuries ago to include a free, working colony for returning blacks who lived virtually next door to the monstrous slave traders; that England’s Queen Charlotte who was married to “Mad” King George III was known as the Black Queen for her African heritage [“Perhaps, instead of just being a boring bunch of semi-inbred white stiffs, our royal family becomes much more interesting,” a 2009 article in The Guardian gleefully expounds].
As fascinating as both story and history are, there’s more beyond the pages. Someone Knows My Name is just one of THREE titles. Lawrence Hill’s 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-winner originally hit shelves as The Book of Negroes in his native Canada. The eponymous Book refers to a historical document kept by the British military in which was recorded the names of “3,000 blacks who had served the King in the war and were fleeing Manhattan for Canada in 1783. Unless you were in The Book of Negroes, you couldn’t escape to Canada,” Hill explains in “Why I’m not allowed my book title” for The Guardian. Regardless of such history, using the word “Negroes” proved impossible south of the border, Hill writes: “…if you use it in Brooklyn or Boston, you are asking to have your nose broken.” Indeed, “literary African Americans” approached him during his U.S. book tour supporting the change, insisting “they would never have touched the book with its Canadian title.”
And then, let’s move across the Pond. In Amsterdam – Hill considers The Netherlands a second home – his title incited an actual book burning! Truly. Hill distilled that shudder-inducing experience into a lecture at the University of Alberta, which was then published as Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book. Far less dangerous, in France, Hill’s novel was bestowed yet another name, Aminata, and strikingly enough, the cover for that edition mirrors a different Aminatta’s bestselling book almost exactly. To compare, click here.
Clearly, that’s some sort of literary recycling going on!
That controversial original title is about to go internationally public once more: The Book of Negroes is coming to a screen near you! The mini-series, co-written by Hill, is currently in production (watch for him among the extras), with a cast that includes such luminaries as Oscar winners Louis Gossett Jr. and Cuba Gooding Jr. And when it broadcasts Stateside – can’t resist – will someone know its name?
Meanwhile, two words: read it.