The first section of The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, sent a chill up my spine as I read it. The imagery brought by the story presents graphic pictures in my mind of the cruelty and unbearable lives slaves had to endure. As a reader, my heart breaks to know that Aminata Diallo was only eleven years old when she was forced from her home and had to face exposure to death and so many other gruesome events. I could not even begin to imagine that if in today’s society using Africans as slaves was still seen as acceptable because they were considered to be “property” rather than human beings (A slave’s life – when people were property). The tone Aminata uses to share her story causes me to believe she is tired of hiding and being forced to keep quiet, and she wants me to take a step into her past and see for myself what it was like to be an African in the 1740s.
The first thing I connected Aminata’s story to when describing how she was captured and forced into slavery was Jews being taken to Nazi concentration camps. I instantly sympathized and really took an understanding to Aminata because I have personally visited a concentration camp in Germany and all I can say is hearing or reading about what happened to Jews is nothing compared to actually seeing where they were taken. Aminata was captured from her village and forced to walk for days with little food, water and rest. On the slave ship, the captives were placed in horrible living conditions or faced severe beatings resulting in many dying (Hill). If any captives were dead or even just ill or severely weak, they were “shown no respect” and tossed overboard (Hill 93) . Similarly, according to Holocaust A Call to Conscience, Jews were forced from their homes and imprisoned in concentration camps for inhumane forced labour. In the camps, Jews faced “brutal mistreatment, hunger, disease, and random executions.” Any who were too sick, old or could no longer keep up with the work demands were immediately sent to gas chambers or endured other means of death with no respect (Holocaust A Call to Conscience). Walking on the grounds where these type of events occurred was one of the most eye-opening experiences for me and reading this book produces mental images of the same torture and inhuman gestures towards slaves as was towards Jews which proves to me that history really does always have a way of repeating itself.
Even though Aminata no longer has parents, one of the things I noticed was that she encounters many people who help teach and care for her along her journey. The main person I believe that fills this role is Georgia. Aminata arrived to the plantation in brutal condition and just as she was about to receive a beating, a woman came running over and “the negro and the toubab took a step back and the big woman scooped me up in her arms” (Hill 143). Georgia took her into her home, nursed her back to health, taught her English, how to perform jobs on the plantation and took her to catch babies. She also informed her how she must behave to avoid beatings from the white owner (Hill). Georgia acts like a mother to Aminata by protecting her, taking care of her and teaching her so that she can be as safe as possible. This protective mother role reminds me of my own mom looking out for me to make sure I am safe and teaching me right from wrong. This causes me to remember the importance of having family around and the everlasting love and support that family members provide to always ensure I am well cared for and given every opportunity to succeed.
Knowledge and education for a slave was seen as very bad thing to white slave owners because they thought educated slaves would jeopardize their authority on the plantations (Williams). As Georgia was teaching Aminata she stated “I never seen someone from Africa learn so fast,” and warned her that if she knows too much, someone will kill her (Hill 163). Even though Georgia warns that her quick learning may result in her being killed, I believe that it may actually benefit her in the next sections of the book. This is because the story begins with Aminata being an old woman who was liberated from slavery. As an old woman she is working with abolitionists who want to use her as the face for their fight because she is “a woman. An African. A liberated slave who has risen up, self-taught” (Hill 114). I believe this gives insight that she has taught herself how to read and write and these skills along with her fast-learning will be of use, not only to a white slave owner later on in the story but maybe it will also be seen as powerful to someone else and ultimately save her life and lead to her liberation from slavery.
The biggest aspect of the first section of the novel that really struck me is her strength and her ability to overcome the obstacles she has faced in life. Even though Aminata is assisting the abolitionists to end the slave trade she is still “working” for the English in a way and I am astounded to see that she has the strength to not revolt against them since she has spent her whole life owned by someone else. She notes, “the abolitionists may well call me their equal, but their lips do not yet say my name and their ears do not yet hear my story” (Hill 115). I strongly believe everyone should be treated equally so it disgusts me to know that slave owners and even the abolitionists believe they are superior to Aminata just because she is an African. They want her to help and work for them yet they do not even consider her a proper human being. Aminata also notes “here i am, a broken-down old black woman who has crossed more water than I care to remember, and walked more leagues than a work horse, and the only things I dream of are the things I can’t have- children and grand-children to love, and parents to care for me” (Hill 5). She has spent her whole life as a slave and the only thing she asks for is a family to love and care for. Her strength as a person is shown in that sentence because she has found a way to overlook any hatred or the want for revenge and instead just wants her family. I believe that everyone should have the type of strength to be better rather than bitter and focus on the bigger things in life and not pointless drama or hate with another person.
The first section of this book really showed me the footsteps that the author wanted me to follow to hear the horrible yet eye-opening story of what it was like to be a slave. The discrimination these individuals faced for being African is deeply saddening and hurtful. I believe the author wanted to not only show me how the world has changed significantly but also to teach me a very valuable lesson which is simply to be grateful. I have no understanding of what a “hard” life is like compared to what slaves including Aminata faced. I believe the author wanted to be graphic enough so that I can visualize what happened but be very precise in showing me that it is time to stand together as an entire world and put all differences aside so that no one has to endure such a miserable life again.
“A slave’s life – when people were property.” The Danish West-Indies. Rigsarkivet, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <https://www.virgin-islands-history.org/en/history/slavery/a-slaves-life-when-people-were-property/>.
Hill, Lawrence. The Book of Negroes. Toronto: Harper Collins, 2007. Print.
Holocaust A Call to Conscience. “The Concentration Camps, 1933-1945.” Holocaust A Call to Conscience. Projetaladin.org, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2017. <http://www.projetaladin.org/holocaust/en/history-of-the-holocaust-shoah/the-killing-machine/concentration-camps.html>.
Williams, Heather Andrew . “African American Education in Slavery and Freedom.” Harvard Graduate School of Education. Harvard Educatiocn Publishing Group, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2017. <http://hepg.org/her-home/issues/harvard-educational-review-volume-77-issue-3/herbooknote/self-taught_325>.