The Book of Negroes Summary

Lawrence Hill

The Book of Negroes

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The Book of Negroes Summary

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The Book of Negroes is a fictional account of an African woman’s struggle from enslavement to freedom. Though fictional, Lawrence Hill researched the subject matter extensively, and the book itself, set during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, includes historical events like the American Revolution and the British military’s own Book of Negroes, as well as insights into the Abolitionist Movement.

The narrative begins with an elderly Aminata Diallo. She is a free woman now, in London, and sets about recalling her harrowing story. When Aminata was eleven years old, she was abducted from her own village in West Africa and forced to walk miles and miles to a slave ship while chained. Aminata relates how her parents were attacked, how the white men who captured her were ruthless on the march to the ships and the disgusting conditions aboard ship when they finally arrived to the bay. Throughout all of this, Aminata is consumed with one thing: survival. To this end, she is able to speak two languages and also has skills as a midwife. These skills help her to survive while on the ship.

In America, Aminata finds herself on an indigo farm in South Carolina. From this point, Aminata suffers unspeakable horror and witnesses the abuse of fellow slaves. She suffers love and loss, but through it all, remains steadfast in her desire to survive despite the obstacles. Though she ultimately wishes to return to her small village in Africa, she ends up in New York, Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone and, finally, London.

Aminata’s journey is told as a first-person narrative. Though heartbreaking, the narrative also shows the human spirit at work and the struggle of the individual against the collective. Aminata must deal with several factors on her journey, some friendly, but most hostile, including British loyalists, Abolitionists, slave masters, and the duplicity of her own people. Indeed, Hill shows how even blacks were a part of the slave trade. In this way, the book’s major theme, one that Aminata emphasizes, is that character matters more than color. A person’s makeup says much more about them than what race or group of people they are seemingly aligned to.

Many critics have praised the book for its extensive research and broaching of topics that might not be so well known to readers, such as the early history of the black community in Nova Scotia, or that Sierra Leone’s Freetown was actually settled by blacks from Nova Scotia. History is infused in the fictional journey of Aminata, so much so that the reader must suffer through Aminata’s setbacks and heartbreaks right alongside her. As a female protagonist, however, and as a woman resolved to make it through even the darkest times, readers take solace in seeing Aminata’s fortunes take shape despite the unspeakable costs she must endure to get to the point of reflection she is found in at the beginning of the novel.

More than anything, The Book of Negroes details, and through vivid accounts, the desire to retain one’s sense of identity and being despite the cruel intentions of those seeking to oppress any sense of individualism or self-motivation. Though Aminata’s story highlights her particular story of struggle from 1745 to the early 1800s, Aminata’s journey is symbolic of other Africans who dealt with the effects of slavery. Moreover, her story is symbolic of other women, as well as other groups of oppressed peoples, who must face unspeakable odds while attempting to keep their character and sense of self-worth intact despite the quagmire of hate and oppression around them that seeks to drag them down.