Someone Knows My Name is the extraordinary story of Aminata Diallo who – as a child of eleven – was stolen from the African village of Bayo and enslaved. Aminata survived the horrors of the slave ship, rape by her first owner, Appleby, (p160), the theft of both her children and the constant danger of being re-enslaved once she had regained her freedom. The story begins and ends with her old age in London when she was helping William Wilberforce and the Abolitionists to end the slave trade. It is fiction, but – as is made clear in the afterword, it is based on the true story of The Book Of Negroes and is the product of thorough research. The novel won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2008.
The subject matter makes it compelling reading, but somehow it falters half way through when Aminata – known as Meena because her name is too hard to pronounce (really??) – has made her way to Nova Scotia in Canada, (then a British colony). There is a flatness about the writing, perhaps intentional, that mirrors her depression when she learns firstly that Chekura, her husband, was drowned at sea en route to freedom, and secondly that her daughter, May, has been stolen by the childless couple, the Witherspoons, and taken back to England. From this point on Aminata seems a little lost, even though she remains a woman determined to fight for her freedom.
I don’t think that Hill has depicted the overwhelming and ongoing nature of grief very well. Certainly we share Aminata’s grief and bewilderment at her initial capture. She longs for her mother, hears her father’s voice giving her advice, and retains elements of the Muslim religion that they shared. She hungers to return to Bayo, a longing she clings to all her life until she is betrayed by one of her own , the ”Toubab with Black Face’, Alessane, a Black African slave trader who plans to re-enslave her even though he has been paid handsomely to take her back to her childhood home.
From the day I was stolen, thoughts of home had made it impossible for me to feel I belonged anywhere I lived. Perhaps if I had been able to keep my husband and to live for years with him and our children, I would have learned to feel settled in a new place. But my family never settled in its nest. We never had any nest at all. But after I heard Alessane’s words, I felt no more longing for Bayo – only a determination to stay free. And now, as I waited for my strength to return in a hut belonging to people I didn’t even know, I let go of my greatest desire. I would never go back home. (p442)
Compared to this powerful longing for home, Aminata’s grief as the loss of her first child, Mamadu, seems muted. When she tells the story of her life to the villagers who took her in after she fled Alessane, she makes very little mention of her lost children, other than to say that the Toubabu (white men) took them away (p444). Her testimony to the Parliamentary Committee for the Abolition of Slavery focusses more on her enslavement (p458-460) and there is no mention of her children at all. Indeed, the Committee seems more appalled by her branding than by anything else that has happened to her, perhaps because it is tangible evidence of the dehumanising effects of slavery. I am not criticising Hill’s work because it is a very fine novel, but I feel that a woman would mourn the loss of her children every day, and this does not come through in the story, nor does her anguish when the children are taken from her. Hill writes about her physical collapse and her refusal to eat or work, and how this forces her owner Appleby to sell her to Solomon Lindo (p185) but in my opinion these scenes lack credibililty. Knowing as we do that generations of enslaved women had their children taken from them and that there were very harsh punishments for recalcitrant slaves, it does not seem likely that this woman’s grief would have seemed very different to anyone else’s nor that the slave-owner’s reaction would have been compassionate in this particular instance.
I also didn’t find the reunion with her daughter credible. While it seems plausible that the Witherspoons would have returned with May to England and that May might have heard of her mother’s fame and would want to seek her out, Hill makes no mention of how May came to be of independent means. I would have liked this to be explained, as I would have expected May to be working in one of England’s industrial cities such as Manchester…
The book is published under the title The Book of Negroes in Canada, but I prefer its title here in Australia. Its significance is at first to do with a child’s need to have around her anyone who knew her. She was surrounded by terrifying strangers and didn’t know who to trust. Then it became a matter of recognition of her culture and her birthplace at a time when no one could/would pronounce her name, and she even had to take on the name ‘Mary’ for a while until Meena became an accepted alternative. In old age when Aminata had suffered so many losses, to have someone know her name represented the very human need to have a friend.
Three times, Georgia made me repeat [my name], but the best she could do was to say “Meena”. In this new land, I was an African. In this new land, I had a different name, given by someone who didn’t even know me. A new name for the second life of a girl who survived the great river crossing. (p127)
Perhaps Aminata’s youth protected her from the horrors of her situation somewhat? Adults around her could not cope, collapsed and died; or were harshly punished when they reacted with violence, confusion or apathy to their circumstances. Aminata mostly naively co-operated because she didn’t know what else to do and had a child’s optimism. However it’s equally likely that in real life, children in this situation would have rebelled, failed to keep up with the coffle or annoyed her captors somehow, and suffered harsh punishment if not been killed outright for being a nuisance. It is equally like that such a child would have been distraught at the loss of her family and not had an adult’s coping skills. Hill seems to suggest that this woman survived because she was clever and adaptable. Obviously many young slaves did survive, but the question is how, and at what cost to their emotional development.
The way the slaves were left alone on the Carolina indigo plantations to live their lives in comparative freedom for most of the year also seemed a bit idealised to me. It was as if they were able to settle down and form an independent community. How likely was this? Hill researched his book thoroughly so I suppose it’s possible, but I felt uneasy reading it because it did not ring true. Mamed, the slave overseer, has been promised his freedom one day, but now in his old age he is reconciled to his fate…
If he knew so much, I wondered, why was he still on Appleby’s plantation? He saw the question in my eyes.
‘A horse fell on my leg when I was young, made me lame, and now I am also too old to run,’ Mamed said.
‘Where do Negroes run?’ I asked.
Mamed studied me carefully, locking his fingers together. He said they hid among the Indians or they went south to live with the Spanish. But he didn’t want to hide with the Indians or live in Fort Musa with the Spanish. He liked sleeping in the same bed every night and having a garden to tend.
‘You accept your life this way?’ I said.
Mamed coughed uncomfortably. ‘I stay here and I live well. This is the best I can do….’ (p154)
Well, it’s a very long time since I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and I hesitate to label this character in such a way. Perhaps Hill included this scene to show that dreams of freedom can die, and that the struggle is too hard for some people. When Aminata is in Freetown she is asked by the slave trader, Armstrong, whether she was better off because of her enslavement – because she would not otherwise have learned to read and write, had the opportunity to travel or, as a woman, been able to be important in her society (other than as a midwife).
‘Look,’ said Armstrong, ‘was the experience so terrible for you? Here you are, a picture of health, comfortable clothes, food in your belly, with a roof over your hear and abolitionists fending for you in Freetown. Most of the world doesn’t live that well.’
I had no words. I didn’t know where to start. I felt exhausted. Suddenly I wanted that bed I had been offered, and a place to be alone to sort out my Armstrong’s arguments. (p421)
It’s a curious passage in the book because Hill’s character makes quite a convincing case, and only Armstrong’s claim that slaves are not branded is rebutted. Yet it’s obvious to the reader than the rosy picture is all based on selected aspects of Aminata’s experience and anyway she was an exceptional woman. Most of the slaves were not emotionally, socially, economically or educationally better off at all, if indeed they survived. It’s quite clear that Aminata believes that a life without freedom is not worth it, no matter what the benefits may be, but she does not say so.
Nevertheless, at some time or another, all her captors are less cruel than one might expect. There is appalling violence, danger and cruelty, but Aminata is ‘lucky’. The ‘medicine man’ on board the slave ship refrains from raping her; Appleby rapes her once but not thereafter; he shaves her head as punishment once but only once; and in the end he lets her go to Solomon Lindo rather than punish her for her refusal to work. Until their final act of perfidy the Lindos are kind to her, teaching her to read and providing her with reasonable comfort. These unequal relationships can never be normal, however, and Aminata never loses her mistrust and hatred of what these people represent. She doesn’t forgive Lindo for his involvement in the sale of her firstborn Mamadu, and yet she foolishly trusts Alessane to take her back to Bayu.
These unnatural relationships are balanced by the mutual devotion of Chekura and Aminata, fulfilling an intense emotional need for some permanance and stability in her relationships. Although she can’t control how or when she sees him, she is the one who decides who she will love and care for. She is determined to remain his wife whatever the cost – which turns out to be an aching loneliness over a lifetime. This love is a freedom she will never surrender and one that can never be taken from her till she learns of his death.
Aminata’s skills as a linguist ( English, a pidgin version of it called Gullah and her homeland langauges) are the key to her survival. Her first job is as an interpreter; and she survives Alessans’s treachery because he does not know that she can understand his language. She is a storyteller with a profound message, both in an African village and on the world stage in London. Her ability to adapt and change, to learn reading, writing and map-reading, and even to accommodate new codes of religion all enable her to cope as well as survive because they provide her with an identity that separates her from the helpless or hapless others. The message of this book is that rebellious males don’t survive; useful and intelligent females can negotiate around some of their difficulties, if they are clever and watchful.
Aminata’s longing for her childhood home is a persistent motif throughout the novel but some places are more than just places to live in. At Appleby’s the slave community provides some solace and she has the friendship of Georgia, who mothers her and teaches her healing skills that are useful later on. There is the mute Fomba from her village, Mamed who begins teaching her to read, and Chekura, her husband, not far away. At the Lindo’s, Mrs Lindo and Dolly befriend her and make her life tolerable. Ironically, she is generally safer and more secure as a slave than when she is free, but she would rather risk danger. It is not that she despises those slaves who seem contented with their lot, but rather that she cannot bear it for herself.
Freedom as a concept changes from the childish freedom that Aminata enjoys in her village, to a palpable absence of it, something longed for with an angry passion. When it comes, Aminata discovers that it is still capricious: her black skin will always make her vulnerable. Within sight of freedom she is separated from Chekura and taken off the ship bound for Nova Scotia. She then has to prove that Appleby is not her owner and is only reprieved when Solomon Lindo confirms that he had bought her from Appleby. (I didn’t find it very credible that these two men would travel such a long way for her: what was in it for Appleby? Was she really so valuable as to make it worth it? Lindo was after redemption but he must have known he wouldn’t get it because she wouldn’t forgive him, and it seems out of character for him. ) When finally in Nova Scotia legal freedom did not translate into freedom-to-live: there were race riots, assaults; rape; and arson attacks against the newcomers, and slavery had not actually been abolished. Aminata and the others who took refuge there were granted residency rights because they had helped the British in the war against the Americans, not because of any high-minded belief in the rights of man. There were the same risks in Freetown in Sierra Leone, and there they were in thrall to the Company too.
Aminata is an unlikely hero, with extraordinary abilities. Hill did not want his story to be about a victim, but in creating this story as he has, he has risked diminishing the true horror of the slave trade.