I read Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name almost by accident. I borrowed the book last summer, only because the name sounded familiar. What a happy accident that was! I have since gifted the book to my mom—together with a box of tissues—and made the more voracious readers of my book club read it. I rank this book up there with The Color Purple, and that is, in fact, my sales pitch: If you have read and appreciated The Color Purple, pick up Someone Knows My Name immediately.
The novel tells the story of Aminata Diallo, who as a nine-year-old is abducted and sold to slave traders in Africa. After a harrowing crossing of the Atlantic, she ends up on an indigo plantation in South Carolina. She is lucky insofar as that her mother taught her about midwifery and she can quickly learn a new language. Her life takes a turn for the worse when both her and her son are sold to different new owners, and while she manages to reunite with her husband, she is not able to find out what happened to her child. The Revolutionary War offers her a way to freedom; in New York, she works for the British and helps pen the Book of Negroes, which is a list of black people who receive safe passage to Nova Scotia as a reward for helping the British. Hopes for a better life there are dashed when the emigrants are met with prejudice and poor living conditions. On top of that, Aminata is once again betrayed by a white family she considered her friends. With nothing to lose, she volunteers in moving a great number of African Nova Scotians to Sierra Leone. She hopes that this will give her the chance to find her way back to her native village. Yet her dreams do not materialize, and eventually, Aminata finds herself in London, aiding abolitionists there by teaching the British about the cruelty of slavery.
As you can see from this summary, Aminata lives a full life. It might seem a bit incredible that she should cross the oceans not once, but three times in her lifetime, but it did not feel incredible while reading about her. Aminata came to life for me in this book, and it speaks to the power of this book that I still think frequently about her, even though it’s been months since I listened to the book. (It is narrated by Adenrele Ojo, who does an excellent job.)
Aside from reading about and agonizing with a strong woman like Aminata, I loved the historical aspect of the novel. I never gave much thought about what happened to the runaway slaves or free black people who worked for the British during the Revolutionary War once the British left. Until last year, I had no idea that there was a colony of free black people in Nova Scotia. And I still know way too little about the idea and effort to establish colonies in Africa for people who came from there to begin with.
A very different aspect that still fascinates me is the completely different title this book has depending on the where it is being sold. In the US, it is published as Someone Knows My Name, the title I preferred until I found out that the Book of Negroes is an actual “thing.” Then I preferred the Canadian title: The Book of Negroes. And then I read an essay about the importance of a person’s name—and the importance of who names us (e.g., parents vs. slave owners)—and was back to preferring the US title. And isn’t it fascinating that the German title translates to “I Have a Name” and that the French edition is simply called “Aminata”? Well, I could go on and on here, but that might stop you from reading the book. And that I definitely don’t want to do. Go and read the book.