Passage to Canada
Both literate and a skilled bookkeeper, Aminata is enlisted to record the names of Black Loyalists who wish to immigrate to Nova Scotia. She describes this poignant experience in the following excerpt:
My job was to interview the Negroes...I had imagined, somehow, that my life was unique in its unexpected migrations. I wasn’t different at all, I learned. Each person who stood before me had a story every bit as unbelievable as mine. At the end of each of our encounters, I hastened to repeat the key details...I liked writing names in the Book of Negroes, recording how people had obtained their freedom, how old they were and where they had been born: South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia; Madagascar, Angola and Bonny. I wanted to write more about them, but the ledger was cramped and Colonel Baker pressed me to rush through the lineups. The colonel was especially impatient over the descriptions and preferred short phrases such as stout wench, marks on face, stout fellow, pitted with pox, likely fellow, ordinary fellow, worn out, one-eyed, lusty wench, incurably lame, little fellow, likely boy and fine child. I didn’t care for the descriptions, but I loved the way people followed the movement of my hand as I wrote down their names and the way they made me read them aloud once I was done. It excited me to imagine that fifty years later, someone might find an ancestor in the Book of Negroes and say, “That was my grandmother.”
- What do you think of the descriptions Aminata was asked to provide of her fellow Loyalists?
- In your view, what important information is missing from this record?
- Why do you think that Aminata was surprised to learn that “Each person has a story every bit as unbelievable as mine?”
Activity: Historical Fiction
- Lawrence Hill wrote an article about the “Book of Negroes” entitled “Freedom Bound.” After reading it, get into groups of four or five and develop five questions about the article designed to promote discussion of its contents. Be sure to consider what the article says about the nature of history and how history does or does not get told.
- If hearing about or reading a novel such as The Book of Negroes inspires someone to read more about a topic, what other types of historical novels would you like to see written in Canada?
- In Canada, Lawrence Hill’s book is titled The Book of Negroes while in the U.S. its title is Someone Knows My Name. Why do you think the titles are different? Which one do you like better and why?
- Is it wrong to modify a book title? Why or why not?
Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird has been compared to The Book of Negroes: their respective main characters, Scout Finch and Aminata Diallo, share some characteristics, and both books address themes of prejudice and human rights. Some educators have advocated for the replacement of To Kill a Mockingbird with The Book of Negroes for classroom use. Read a news article that discusses the issue.
In groups, consider the following questions:
- What makes a novel a “classic” in your view? Write a list of five characteristics.
- What are the strengths of both To Kill a Mockingbird and The Book of Negroes? What case can be made against each novel?
- Is using a Canadian source in the classroom an important factor to consider in this debate?
- In your view, what books or poetry could be used to address themes of racism, prejudice, human rights and Black history? You may choose any work of fiction or non-fiction. Justify your choice.
- Do you think To Kill a Mockingbird should be replaced by a more contemporary book?
Thinking About the Past
Events studied from the past can give us insight into the times during which they occurred as well as today’s world.
- How does studying the experiences of Black Canadians in history help us better understand Canada today?
- Why is it important to give voice to an aspect of history that may not be well told? What does that tell us about the nature of history itself and how it is told?
What are some of the moral and ethical issues that arise in a study of the experience of Black Canadians through time?