He repeated my name over and over, and then added, “I must hear you say it. Please. Say it. Say my name.”
“Chekura,” I said.
“Someone knows my name. Seeing you makes me want to live.”
I wondered if there was a way for me to bring him water. “Now we must all live,” I said. – from Someone Knows My Name, page 66 –
Aminata is only eleven years old when she is kidnapped by slave traders and forced to march to the Atlantic ocean, miles from her small village, to be branded, sold and put on a slave ship to South Carolina. Aminata has been trained by her mother as a midwife to “catch babies” and has also had some education…both skills which help her to survive. Thus begins Lawrence Hill’s engrossing slave narrative Someone Knows My Name (known as The Book of Negroes outside of the United States). The novel spans a period of more than forty years and is narrated in the voice of Aminata (aka: Meena) who describes her life aboard a slave ship, living on an indigo plantation in South Carolina, as an escaped slave in New York, and later as an immigrant to Nova Scotia when the British government moved thousands of blacks there with promises of freedom. Aminata eventually returns “home” to Africa – specifically to Sierra Leone, later called Freetown. But her journey does not end there. As a literate black woman who has survived the most unimaginable terror and treatment, she agrees to go to London to work with the abolitionists trying to outlaw the slave trade.
Aminata’s story is horrific. Hill spares no details of the cruel treatment of slaves aboard the slave ships or at the hands of white plantation owners. The reader experiences the grief of women who lost their children to slavery…often before the age of two years old; the terror of rape and abuse; the longing to be free. In many ways, this is a difficult novel to read.
Near the platform stood a group of Africans, some barely able to stand and others with pus dripping from sores on their legs. Five of them looked like they would not regret the closing fist of death. I felt my stomach churning, my throat tightening. I looked down to avoid meeting their eyes. I was fed, and they were not. I had clothes, and they had none. I could do nothing to change their prospects or even my own. That, I decided, was what it meant to be a slave: your past didn’t matter; in the present you were invisible and you had no claim on the future. – from Someone Knows My Name, page 189 –
Hill’s research and the historical background of the novel is impecable. He explains in an afterword:
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 contains the names and details of 3,000 black men, women and children, who, after serving or living behind British lines during the American Revolutionary War, sailed from New York City to various British colonies. – page 471 –
In Aminata, Hill gives a voice to the thousands of blacks who were enslaved in the latter part of the eighteenth century and in this way, the novel becomes more than just an historical document, but instead becomes a personal story of one woman’s courage and determination. Hill’s novel is really a family saga immersed in an historical time period.
I cannot say I enjoyed this book – but I feel I am a better person for having read it. Hill’s narrative is well written and stunning. Aminata’s story is one which we should not forget.
Someone Knows My Name won the Comonwealth Writers Prize in 2008.