“Might you not hate all white men indiscriminately? You would have good reason.” A white abolitionist asks Aminata Diallo, the protagonist of the book.
“If I spent my time hating, my emotions would have been spent long ago, and I would be nothing more than an empty cowrie shell.”
The Book of Negroes is definitely worth a read, and for me at least, is a story very different from all the others I’ve read on slaves and the slave trade.
Though it is a novel, because it’s a first person rendition and it speaks of a very interesting and grave subject, I thought it lacked emotional depth.
It’s a gripping read all the same. It traces the life of Meena Dee (as Aminata Diallo’s name is corrupted to by the slave handlers).
From Baya, near Segu by the river, Aminata is stolen and taken to America. Years of perserverence and self-education later she comes back to Africa — as one of the first settlers at Freetown, Sierra Leon. She then becomes the poster girl for the abolitionists and travels to London.
What I liked best about the book is that it is complete in the point of view it takes — that of the ‘homelander’. The slaves neither know what Africa is nor identify with what the white man’s maps show. Their life is about their villages and communities*.
However, through the book, too much of an effort is made to show the ‘better side’, though I can’t imagine there could be one at all.
And towards the end (still set in early 1800s), there are way too many white people shown not as the perpetrators of the crime of slavery. It didn’t feel right — even if it had been true. Even if Aminata was not willing to indiscriminately hate all whites, I can’t believe that there had been so many against slavery and yet the practice carried on for as long as it did.
Reading the book — fiction though it maybe, it still draws from the truth — the sheer evilness of human beings churns your stomach.
Especially since even after centuries of supposed development, not much seems to have changed today.
* I’ve always found it supremely arrogant when people refer to Africa or Asia or Middle East as ‘one place’. Even highly literate people (Oprah Winfrey does it, Ann Patchett does it) refer to any country from Uganda to Botswana generically as Africa!