Posted Nov 1, 2009 in Arts | 0 Comments

The Book Of Nightmares

Book of Negros

Once in a while a book comes along that pulls the Ikea rug right from under your feet and has you landing on your behind. Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes has just that affect. It is essential reading. The Book of Negroes takes us through the horrid world of slavery as seen through the eyes of the young, beautiful and adventurous midwife, Aminatha Diallo (Meena). While in England helping abolitionists with their mission against the slave trade, Aminatha recalls the story of her life and how at the age of twelve she was kidnapped from her village in West Africa and sold into slavery. We see the world through the eyes of this remarkable protagonist who cannot fathom the extent of greed that drives white colonizers to such abhorrent extents for exploitation.

The actual “Book of Negroes” is an enormous document that lists the black men and women escaping slavery, poverty and hunger in the United States with promises of hope and freedom in Nova Scotia. It is a racist document, listing people’s attributes like farm animals and categorizing them in relation to their usefulness to their masters- a predecessor of the Immigration document listings of today.

Book of Negroes

In Beloved Toni Morrison speaks of the horrors that ‘residual memory’ brings forth to the children of slave ship survivors. There are horrific accounts of slaves who are packed like sardines in the belly of the ships, having to drink the urine of their white captors for water in the morning. According to Butch Lee and Red Rover (authors of the non-fiction political book Night Vision), it was African slavery that gave North America its competitive edge over Europe. By reducing workers’ wages to zero, America became very, very wealthy. This wealth came at a great humanitarian cost. The Book of Negroes is a historical fiction that attests to the Lee and Rover claim. At one point in this incredible novel, Aminatha wonders why the tubabo (whites) went through all that trouble to steal the Africans away from their land, kill their loved ones, destroy their villages and ship them all the way to America just for work? She of course could not imagine the fortunes that were being created at the backs of the slaves and the greed of early capitalism that knows no bounds.
What is striking about Aminatha’s tale is her conviction and strong sense of identity that would melt the heart of even the staunchest of white supremacists. Hill has captured a time of great shame and the brutal and bloody legacy of North America. Its impossible not to feel anguished reading how Aminatha is dehumanized and brutalized by not just the Euro-American white slave owners, but by other Africans as well. Hill vividly captures the role of the collaborator in the suffering of the enslaved and the internalization of race supremacy by the enslaved.

Reading through Negroes its relevance to today’s culture of demonizing and de-humanizing the other (like Muslims) becomes apparent. The realization that time may have moved on but the scars and signs of slavery are still around us is disheartening as well. The book’s account of collusion amongst the British, the Americans and then the Canadians is also extremely revealing as it is made clear that economic and political interest took clear precedence over humanism. There were thousands of so-called “loyalists” to the British cause- the slaves who gave up their lives in order to fight for the British against the Americans in exchange for liberty and freedom. Negroes documents the plight of these people as they go from one situation of desperation in America to another situation of poverty and subjugation in Nova Scotia.

Negroes delves into the lives of slaves, balancing misery with occasional bouts of humor, which lead to a realistic sense of their lived experience. Deprived of their dignity, their clothes, their language, their culture, their society, their family, friendship or even a name, Africans were left to fend for themselves in the oppressive jungle of white oppression.

Negroes brings to light the many sacrifices that have been made in order to achieve the gains we’ve made as people of color or minorities and the struggle of the slaves parallels lives of those who still remain without status or citizenship. At times the book reads like a horror story. Horror is found in interrogation rooms of today and amongst those walking status-less in our midst; at risk of being discovered and deported. Negroes has also been optioned for creation into a movie by Toronto filmmakers Clement Virgo and Damon D’Oliveira. Whether it will be a horror film or a drama remains to be seen.

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