The remarkable thing about Lawrence Hill's fourth novel, Someone Knows My Name, the life story of an African Muslim girl sold into slavery, isn't her physical survival. Sure, that's wrenchingly rendered and gives the story its heart. But it's the girl's emotional survival, her constant and ferocious fight for humanity that gives the book its considerable soul.
Aminata Diallo is 11 years old when a group of black men step out from the trees near her village in West Africa and kidnap her. Her parents fight to the death for their daughter, but in vain. The child is leashed by the neck to a group of captives and force-marched, naked, for three months across the continent. There, British slave ships ride at anchor on the Sierra Leone coast, waiting to ferry their human cargo to the Thirteen Colonies.
It's 1745, and the transatlantic slave trade is in full, unapologetic swing; Hill doesn't flinch from the details of his heroine's ordeal: Aminata is beaten, branded, and starved. She's ogled and inspected by white men. She's betrayed by her fellow Africans, villagers who collude with the slavers. As staggering as the details of her degradation, though, are the observations of her facile mind.
But our captors were also marked by what they lacked: light in their eyes. Never have I met a person doing terrible things who would meet my own eyes peacefully. To gaze into another person's face is to do two things: to recognize their humanity and to assert your own. Aminata's humanity is never in question. A grueling voyage brings her, more dead than alive, to South Carolina. There, she's sold to Robinson Appleby, an indigo producer. On Appleby's plantation, Aminata learns the realities of slave life, of her powerless place in a world ruled by whites, and of a lifesaving refuge in the secret, underground culture created by her fellow slaves.
Here, soon after her initial adjustment to plantation life, Aminata sees a group of new captives fresh off the slaver's boat.
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 to the future. But the author has plans for Aminata. First, he lets her learn to read. Then, he moves her to New York, in the company of her new owner, a Jewish man named Solomon Lindo. Lindo is not unkind, and in his service, Aminata develops new skills and furthers her education. Though he refers to her as a "servant," he is, in fact, her owner, and he eventually betrays her.
When the American Revolution breaks out, Aminata escapes. Hill, whose previous writings brought close scrutiny to the tapestry of African-Canadian life, then shifts into the true heart of his tale: the little-known story of the move by 1,200 freed slaves from Canada back to Africa in 1792.
In the course of preparing for this journey, which was funded by staunch British abolitionists, the government collected biographical information on thousands of slaves eager to make the voyage. It's an extraordinary document, known as "The Book of Negroes." Excerpts from it form the endpapers of this book, and Hill uses it as the fulcrum for the final third of Aminata's tale, revealing the breadth and scope of the tragedy of the African slave trade, as well as a great deal about the mind-set of its defenders.
The pro-slavery men claimed that slavery was a humane institution that rescued Africans from barbarity in their homelands. Africans would simply kill each other in tribal wars if they were not liberated in the Americas, where they enjoyed the civilizing influence of Christianity. Chosen by abolitionists as a living symbol for their cause, the literate and well-spoken Aminata is placed in a position to refute these claims. But rather than let the white men write her life story for her, Aminata insists on putting quill to parchment on her own behalf, and Hill's novel takes the form of her memoir. We get plenty of scholarly details about life in the fledgling United States in the 18th century, of the slave trade and plantation life, of the indigo harvest and the crude and cruel conditions that produced America's prized blue cloth. Aminata's quick mind also rails against the lack of information about her homeland. The maps of the day show a spare outline of the continent, then cover the interior with illustrations of lions and naked natives.
It's ironic, then, that the book itself is without any map, neither a reproduction of those antique charts that conveyed so little, nor a modern map that, with a route of the epic journey forced on so many Africans, could have taught Hill's readers so much. If the novel sees future printings, adding maps would be a smart and necessary fix.
In the end, with the last page read and the book percolating in the mind, it's not the history and horror or the lore of Someone Knows My Name that linger. Rather, it's Aminata's spirit, summed up in a haunting warning.
Do not trust large bodies of water, and do not cross them. If you, dear reader, have an African hue and find yourself led toward water with vanishing shores, seize your freedom by any means necessary. And cultivate distrust of the color pink. Pink is taken as the color of innocence, the color 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. What could easily have been a screed is instead lovely and lyrical and, as a result, all the more powerful. Through Aminata, the helpless, faceless, and forgotten Africans lost to centuries of the slave trade have had restored to them not just an unflinching history, but a long-denied name as well. --Veronique de Turenne
Veronique de Turenne is a Los Angeles-based journalist, essayist and playwright. Her literary criticism appears on NPR and in major American newspapers.