As Black History Month draws to a close, I would like to recommend one more title.
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill was named one of the best books of the decade by Maclean's and Now magazines. It also won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book and the Ontario Library Association's Evergreen Award. It was selected for and won CBC Radio's Canada Reads and is a national bestseller.
This book truly deserves all of the accolades it has received. It traces the life of Aminata Diallo who is ripped from her African village and taken to work on a plantation in the United States. Through the years, she travels to Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone and London, England. In all of her travels, the main female character shows a remarkable level of tenacity and resilience of spirit.
There are several reasons that this book is so compelling. Hill gives Aminata such a strong voice that she seems to leap off of the page. The language is richly descriptive and highly evocative. When Aminata describes the smell of the slave ships, you feel sickened. You experience her love for her home village and her pain of being unable to return. As a reader, your heart will ache for her and you will be angered. From the very first page the reader is deeply engaged with Aminata and her story.
This is a story that should be deeply depressing, but is somehow uplifting. It is filled with injustice and loss but also perseverance. You will think of Aminata Diallo after the book is finished and you will miss her. What makes this book resonate even more is the fact that events like those described actually took place. The Book of Negroes is based on historic accounts and materials.
This book is the result of five years of research. The title was taken from an historic document that listed the names of Black Loyalists who traveled from New York to Nova Scotia and other British Colonies. You can read an online version of the document here. HarperCollins has released a gorgeous new addition of The Book of Negroes, filled with illustrations and paintings to complement the text. It also contains historic images from some of the primary sources Hill used to inform his work.
As mentioned, one segment of the novel takes place in Nova Scotia, in a run down settlement known as Birchtown. Birchtown had the largest population of former American slaves within Nova Scotia. The settlers were promised land and opportunity and instead found themselves in a slum, surrounded by racism. Later, several settlers moved to Africville, a black community in Halifax. It was bulldozed in the 1960's and its inhabitants were evicted. On February 24, 2010, the Mayor of Halifax apologized and announced that a church would be built on the site as a memorial.
Lawrence Hill was born in Toronto and is the son of Daniel G. Hill, an early leader in human rights in Canada, former Ombudsman of Ontario and a respected historian. Lawrence Hill's parents were founding members of the Ontario Black History Society. They were also a biracial couple in a time when such a marriage was a rarity and not widely accepted. Unfortunately, a recent cross burning in front of the home of a mixed race family is a sad reminder that such prejudice still exists. Hill's excellent autobiographical book, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada explores issues of race and identity in this country.
Lawrence Hill is a talented writer and The Book of Negroes is highly recommended.