Overall I liked The Book of Negroes. I believe that Lawrence Hill did an excellent job of tying together seemingly unconnected places, periods of time and people with the narrator of Aminata and her story. From a purely enjoyment level this novel was rather impressive and generally lived up to my expectations, despite not being what I usually read (my daily reading consists of current events and political journalism, I also read a far bit of young adult fiction, as well as poetry and screenplays, the latter of which are normally written in previous centuries by the likes of Wilde and Milton). However, from an academic standpoint The Book of Negroes starts out incredibly strong and falls flat on its face by the time the forth book has started.
In each on of my reading section responses I pick apart various aspects of the section so I will therefore focus only a few overarching thematic issues with the novel, as well as a few other aspects which I feel deserve to be touched upon outside of the section by section reading.
Firstly, from the beginning of the novel Aminata is told by nearly everyone that she meets who is an ally, whether they are black or white, that she needs to keep her linguistic abilities hidden from others who would like to take advantage of her. Undoubtedly, Aminata’s ability to learn languages (knowing Bamanikan, Fulfulde, Arabic, Gullah, Slave English, Toubab English and Temne) is noteworthy and incredibly impressive but I felt as though based on the seven major locations that Aminata lives (Bayo, St. Helena, Charles Town, New York City, Birchtown, Freetown and London) only in Freetown does Aminata receive anything but lavish opportunities due to her linguistic abilities. I was glad (in the least twisted way possible) that the Fula traders wanted to sell Aminata back into slavery when they were supposed to take Aminata back to Bayo because it meant that someone was finally taking advantage of her for her linguistic abilities and it was the hiding of them which allowed her to escape being resold into slavery. Unfortunately, this happened so far away from Aminata’s father’s and Georgia’s warnings about showing linguistic abilities that realizing this was an after thought.
Secondly, perhaps I am just too cynical to truly enjoy the beauty of Chekura and Aminata’s relationship but I found it incredibly hard to believe. From the very beginning Aminata doesn’t particularly trust Chekura except out of necessity and it seems to me that she is only in love with him, rather than someone else, because they are both from Africa. Other than a shared back story I do not see what it is that Chekura has over any other man, negro or otherwise, that is so appealing to Aminata; perhaps if this had been explained I would find their relationship easier to believe. Furthermore, I do not believe to the slightest that Chekura was faithful to Aminata because I never see what their connection is other than coming from the same area. This makes Aminata’s faithfulness to Chekura, especially in times of great opportunity such as regarding traveling to Nova Scotia or Sierra Leone, rather disappointing because I feel as though she is potentially missing out on other opportunities because of a man that is barely there. Even though Aminata is regarded as fiercely independent in the novel, I found her to be rather weak when it came to her grotesque dependence in Chekura.
Thirdly, I felt sick to my stomach knowing how badly Aminata wanted to return to a place that was so terribly misogynistic and full of hatred. I think that Aminata views Bayo through rose-coloured glasses the second she leaves, and can never see it for the place that it truly was. Even if we ignore modern gender equality standards, Aminata is still longing to return to a place where she has no future. She would not be able to learn to read any more if her father died because everyone else in the village was either illiterate or believed that women have no place learning how to read. She was going to be forced to experienced horrendous female genital mutilation, a barbaric cultural practice which still occurs to this day in many regions which was not practiced by the toubab in the Western world. She was going to be forced into a polygamous arranged marriage with the chief of her village and she had no ability to become a djeli, something that she had always wanted to do, because of a caste-like system within her village. While I certainly do not think that slavery was the proper way to escape these atrocities I do have to give WIlliam Armstrong some credit in his arguments that Aminata had the potential to be better off in the toubab world than in her own. I am disappointed that this aspect of the novel was not covered in more detail in class.
This brings me to my fourth point. Slavery, female genital mutilation, forced marriages, polygamy, and caste-like social classes still exist in the modern world, today. As a class, rather than focusing on the novel for nearly two months we should have taken the lessons from the book and applied them to our world today. While 12 Years a Slave is an excellent movie, I feel as though we should have spent time learning about modern day slavery, such as at the hands of Boko Haram and the Islamic State, as well as discussing the Canadian connection to this novel at greater lengths since this is a Canadian Literature class.
The final point that I would like to bring up is the references to Queen Charlotte as a black or African queen throughout the novel, culminating when Aminata meets Queen Charlotte and refers to her as having a broad nose, wide lips and richer complexion than the paintings. These claims are, scientifically, of little to no validity, make little sense logically and, to me, sully the historical accuracy of the novel since in Hill’s historical notes he does not mention altering this historically. The claim that Queen Charlotte has African blood is based on two pieces of ‘evidence’. Firstly, they are based on the idea that Madragana, a 13th century mistress of a Portuguese king, was Queen Charlotte’s 16th Great Grandmother. Even if this is true Madragana would only equal 0.006 percent of Queen Charlotte’s inheirated DNA and would hardly cause her to have African features. Furthermore, Madragana was a moor, or a Berber-Arab (a major ethinic group in Morocco and Tunisia which are very close to Portugal), moors do not share visible genetic features with what one would generally consider an African. Madragana likely looked more Turkish than Guinean which makes the likelihood that Queen Charlotte looked at all like Aminata aside from basic human female shape slim to none.
The second piece of evidence that seems to support this claim is a painting by Scottish painter Allan Ramsay which appears to show Queen Charlotte with “mulatto” (half black/half white or more broadly, mixed race between African and European) features. There are many people who say that Ramsay painted the Queen with such features because he was an abolitionist and the idea that the Queen was part black herself lent itself rather nicely to abolishing the slave trade and slavery itself. It is genetically like that, even if Queen Charlotte had these sort of features, they were the result of her being a direct descendant of the Vandal ethnic group of Eastern Germanic origin. More on the PBS article which reignited this debate in modern times can be read here.
The Book of Negroes was an enjoyable read which I have already recommended to others, but from an analytical standpoint it has many flaws and fails to impress when compared the other literary greats which are often brought up in English classes.