Book 1 of The Book of Negroes begins with the chapter “And Now I am Old” which takes place in 1803 London, UK as Aminata Diallo sits down to write her life story. It is revealed that Aminata, who grew up in Bayo in modern-day Niger as a freeborn Muslim of both the Bamana and Fula tribes. When Aminata was eleven she is abducted by toubab (white men) and sold into the slave trade in South Carolina. As she reflects upon her aging and frail body and the hardships she’s endured we learn a warning from her which allows the reader to look into the troubling life that she has lived.
Do not trust large bodies of water, and do not cross them. If you, dear reader, have an African hue and find yourself led towards water with vanishing shores, seize your freedom by any means necessary. And cultivate distrust of the colour pink. Pink is taken as the colour of innocence, the colour of childhood, but as it spills across the water in the light of the dying sun, do not fall into its pretty path. There, right underneath, lies a bottomless graveyard of children, mothers and men. I shudder to imagine all the Africans rocking in the deep. Every time I have sailed the seas, I have had the sense of gliding over the unburied (Hill 7)
The second chapter, “Small Hands were Good” takes place in Bayo in 1745 and introduces the reader to Aminata’s life in her village before the abduction. Her father was a literate jeweler from the Fula tribe who owned the only Qur’an in Bayo and used it to teach Aminata some Islamic prayers in Arabic. Her mother was a midwife or “baby catcher” from the Bamana tribe. In ‘Small Hands were Good” Aminata and her parents gather in the night to have tea, a luxury from Aminata, and Aminata asks her parents to tell her stories about her childhood. After Aminata’s narration has caught the reader up to her eleventh year we hear about how she and her mother went to a neighbouring village to deliver a baby but were abducted by the toubab before they could return back to Bayo. Both her mother and father are killed by the toubab and Aminata, Fomba and Fanta are tied together and begin their journey to the shore.
In the third chapter, “Three Moon Revelation”, Aminata and the rest of the captives are stripped of all clothes and personal belongings and forced to march naked in a line towards the coast, which takes three months. She also meets Chekura, a fourteen-year-old boy from neighbouring Kinta who was sold to the captors by his uncle and now has worked with the toubab for three years. During this chapter Aminata also has her first menstrual cycle, meaning that she is now a woman in her culture; this has an immense impact on her view of herself as she feels shamed as she has no privacy. During this time Aminata grows closer to Chekura and begins to forgive Fanta for the way that she treated her in Bayo, She also learns more about the toubab and their strange ways and appearances. Aminata later befriends a pregnant woman named Sanu, who becomes a fast friend of Aminata. Aminata delivers Sanu’s baby, who Sanu names Aminata. This particular skill of “catching babies” proves Aminata’s worth to the toubab and distinguishes her as an exceptional youth. At the end of the chapter Aminata and the rest of the captives reach the ocean and are branded and forced into confined, feces and urine stained pens while they wait to board canoes which would take them to the larger slave ship waiting in the Atlantic.
The fourth and final chapter in Book One is called”We Glide over the Unburried”. It begins with Aminata trying to calm herself down with the thought of being a djeli or storyteller; she believes that it is her duty to live through and remember all of these horrendous things in order to share this story and history with the people of her village when she returns. While on the ship Aminata’s ability to speak multiple languages proves useful in translating for the toubab (who are inspecting the slaves), as well as communicating with her fellow slaves and building some form of comradery. This said comradery is very important for the slaves because it allows them to maintain their names and identity which limits the power that the toubab have over them. It is while translating for the toubab that Aminata first learns the reason why she is on the boat – the toubab want the slaves to work their land in America, this idea is hard for Aminata to comprehend because in her village everyone works for themselves and the good of their village. Aminata also meets a Bamana chief named Biton, who acts like a secondary father figure to her (after Fomba). Because Aminata helped the toubab the toubab agree to help her and she is allowed to sleep and live above deck with the medicine man of the ship, who is named Tom. At first, Tom tries to take sexual advantage of Aminata but when Aminata does not respond well to this action he stops and does not try again, instead sleeping with other women while in the same bed as Aminata and having Aminata take care of his parrot. As the time on the ship progresses more and more “homelanders” are killed or die and are thrown overboard. This death and destruction reaches a peak when, after Aminata delivers Fanta’s child, Fanta and some other homelanders start a revolt, attempting to take control of the ship. By the time that the ship reaches port in South Carolina about 1/3 of the homelanders has died.
This first book was incredibly well written, which is likely why it was so difficult to read. I cannot begin to put myself in the shoes of Aminata and the other homelanders to attempt to make a personal connection to this, and for that I am so incredibly thankful. The actions of the toubab were absolutely atrocious and if I didn’t know that these accounts are accurate descriptions of the horrors that slaves endured before they were even sold I would have difficulty believing them. I would like to think that if put in a position such as this I would have the same strength of character that Aminata has, which she utilizes in order to survive the slave ship, but unfortunately I do not think I would be patient enough to bite my tongue, or strong enough to walk for three months while enduring some of the most excruciating pain that one can imagine. It is Aminata’s strength of character which stands out the most to me in the first book. Hill has done an excellent job creating a character that is both believably eleven yet wise beyond her years and the retrospective narration adds to the allure of her character development. I am looking forward to the rest of “The Book of Negroes” as this first reading was incredibly enjoyable and allowed me to reflect on my own identity while diving into Aminata’s.