In The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill, I can easily identify the roles of women in society but specifically towards female slaves and their mistreatment. The strength and bravery of the women in this story is inspiring to me as they endure such terrible things and live with restrictions that limit the way they can live their own lives.
From the very beginning of the novel, I can see the role and expectations of women in their communities. Aminata’s father was a jeweller meanwhile her mother “planted maize and millet, and collected shea nuts” and her performed duties of “bringing babies into the world” (Hill 15). I also saw similar responsibilities for Georgia who would cook the meat brought to her by men or make concoctions of flowers and berries to heal wounds or diseases, as well as performing midwifery work. I found this expected role again later in the novel with Dolly as she was a servant to the Lindos and did all of their cooking and shopping duties. Dolly even states that if she did not want to cook “Master Lindo throw me out” (Hill 218). This housewife and caretaker of the family expectation reveals to me that it was all women were believed to be good for. If they could not cook, be a midwife or provide cleaning duties it seems as though they would be useless.
The expected housewife role that women play throughout the novel shows me the historical conditions for these women at the time. Along with being expected to perform the housework and care for the children, Aminata’s father reveals “it was not the place of a girl to learn to read or write . . .” (Hill 14). It was seen that knowing too much was dangerous when Georgia notes on Aminata’s quick learning and that she should watch out because if “you know too much, someone kill you” (Hill 163). As a young female myself, this is devastating to know that young girls could not learn to read or write therefore restricting them from an education or really any knowledge of what goes on in the world. They are not given the chance to be able to understand and will be punished for trying to learn anything. This explains Aminata’s want to dive into all and any books that Solomon Lindo would give her and also helps to reveal her desire to see and know where she actually comes from since she was never given the opportunity until she became a servant to the Lindos (Hill 235-237). I believe every female should have a chance at an education. They should not have to work for someone else to receive one as a reward or risk receiving a severe punishment for having obtained one.
Although women were all expected to perform the same duties, being an African female slave was much worse. During the 1700s the importance of female slaves was not only economic responsibilities but also sexual duties (“The Role of Women in Slave Communities”). Aminata notes “Robinson Appleby owned my body” (Hill 187). Since Aminata was his slave, Appleby felt that “as he plunged deep inside” (Hill 184) of her, it was right because he had purchased her and he could do as he pleased with her. The fact that a slave could be purchased like they are an object and not a human being is terrible enough, but I am applauded that a man felt that he could rape one of his slaves for his own pleasure while he completely destroys that woman’s dignity. I believe that this is why Aminata states in her older age that all she wishes to have are a husband, children and grandchildren to love and care for. Women were expected to marry and give themselves to one man and raise their children. In Aminata’s case, her body did not belong to her and she was stripped of giving herself to only one man without choice because rape was not an uncommon thing for women slaves. She lost so many years of freedom and faced such unthinkable horrors that her dream of a loving family would be the one thing that could provide her comfort in her later years.
I believe that the novel shows women as smart, courageous and strong as seen in Aminata’s character which displays these traits very well. I can see how the novel represents her as being smart because Georgia states “I have never seen someone from Africa learn so fast” (Hill 163). Also, her knowledge becomes valuable to Lindo as she quickly picked up on the lessons he taught her so that she could work for him. Her skills are also valuable to Colonel Baker so that she can write down all of the names and information about each Negro boarding a ship to Nova Scotia (Hill). Aminata escapes from Lindo with the help of Sam Fraunces and decides to trust a slave trader to guide her through Africa in hope of finding her childhood village that very well might not even exist anymore (Hill), which I believes demonstrates how courageous and brave she is. These are only two of many instances in the novel that I believe prove her bravery because she takes a wild leap into the unknown and entrusts people who could easily betray her. Lastly is her strength. I have no words for the amount of strength Aminata would have had to have to push through losing her parents, witnessing deaths and gruesome events, beatings and so many more things that accompanied her journey as a slave. I believe her two biggest signs of strength were watching both of her parents be murdered right before her eyes at just eleven years old, and then be in the hands of slave traders that began the worst journey of her life (Hill 31-33). The other sign of strength occurred when she tried to stay resilient to Appleby as he shaved her head in front of all the other slaves on the plantation for becoming pregnant by anyone but him. Later her baby was stolen and sold by Appleby and was denied the ability to raise her own son (Hill). I believe the traits Aminata reveals shows that no matter what the expectations of women were during this time, women are not weak. They can go through the worst possible things and still survive even if a man or society tries to say differently.
This novel revealed to me how little control women really had over their lives and the damage caused by having things taken away from them in exchange for a life they did not choose. These women were born into a world where they were not seen as superior and had to live by the standards put in place for them otherwise receive punishment for stepping out of those boundaries. I also believe the novel demonstrates the pure strength of women and how they still tried to fight back and make efforts to improve their lives, even though consequences would follow. The lack of respect for the lives of the women is sickening to me and I am so thankful the world has become a better place where there is equality for everyone, no matter what the race or gender.
Hill, Lawrence. The book of negroes: illustrated edition. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2012. Print.
“The Role of Women in Slave Communities.” Www3.gettysburg.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2017.