First off, I would like you all to know that The Book of Negroes is a very well-written book. It is fast-paced and certainly full of drama and action, so don’t get the wrong impression from the rest of this post – it really is a good book, but it is not for the faint of heart (or the weak of stomach…).
The Book of Negroes is vivid and can easily and fully paint a picture in one’s mind. I wish it didn’t. I mean, of course I knew all about the slave situation during the 18th century, but living it through this book is a whole other ball game. This book is bringing things to reality for me that I wish did not even exist. These are the elements that I will use reader response theory to analyse.
So let’s get started.
Before I get into the more disturbing parts of the book, I would first like to talk about the main character, Aminata Diallo. Aminata is a young girl, only about eleven years old, and was raised by wise, loving parents. Her mother taught her to catch babies and she became a pro by the age of ten. Because of her upbringing, Aminata was very innocent; she was taught to care for others, to help them and not judge, and she was fully confident that her parents loved her and would always protect her, no matter what. She was so innocent that when she was kidnapped by slave traders she cried out, “This is a mistake. I am a freeborn Muslim. Let me go!” (Hill 25). She didn’t understand that they did not care what religion she was, or that she had a family and a village and freedom. They only cared for their own personal gains.
Why would the author choose such an innocent main character who seems to know and understand so little about the world? Well, for starters it gives him a chance to have an even more dynamic character that he can develop within the novel. If he had used say Fanta as his main character, who is older and more experienced than Aminata, certainly her character has room for development and change; however, Aminata has so much more potential because she is so young and innocent. She has so much to learn and is still at an impressionable age, which means it won’t be quite so frustrating for readers. I have read countless books, and the more dynamic and teachable the main character is, the more interesting the story and the more I am able to learn. If it takes a character half the book to learn something because they are stubborn, then that does not leave much opportunity for the rest of the book. But, if they learn things quickly and are meek, then there is room for more opportunities to learn new things and deeper meanings. Additionally, when I read a book I tend to try to emulate the best qualities I see in the main character. It is also true that the more time you spend with people, the more you will start to become like them, whether you want to or are aware of it or not. If you spend all of your time with someone, you will likely eventually pick up some of their habits. So it is with books. Therefore, it would make sense to have a more innocent and teachable main character rather than someone who is rigid and stubborn. More understanding in this world and less stubbornness and pride would certainly be a good thing. This is why I think Hill chose Aminata as his main character.
Now onto harsher things – slave traders. The slave traders treated the captives horribly; they took their clothes, gave them mush for food, made them walk without shoes or rest, confined them, beat them, raped them, and killed any who protested or ran. They treated them worse than animals. They treated them as if they were worth less than nothing and didn’t deserve any kind of human dignity or kindness. What the traders did was inhumane, and it made them inhuman. To me, no one should ever be treating anyone this way. I’m a Mormon and we believe in kindness and Christ-like love towards all men and women. When the Saviour himself was taken by men to be crucified, one of his apostles grew angry and cut off the ear of one of the captors, but Jesus helped the man back to his feet and showed him kindness – he showed a man who was leading him to his own death kindness. To me the message is pretty clear; show kindness to all, whether they deserve it or not, whether you think they are human or not. Seeing the slave traders treat their captives so badly quite honestly disgusts me and makes me very angry. I still can’t get over how they could possibly treat people like that! It’s foul and hateful and demeaning and disgusting.
I also think that the behaviour of the slave traders shows a lot about their past. If they can be so cruel now, what circumstances did they grow up in? Maybe their parents treated others just as cruelly and they are merely following in their footsteps, or maybe they themselves were treated cruelly and so are trying to get back at the world. At any rate, something happened to take away their childhood innocence and make them wicked. Somewhere along their journey of life they allowed Satan to control their hearts. They allowed him to take charge and use them as instruments for evil in bringing many souls to misery and destruction. That is, after all, the devil’s goal – to bring as many souls as he can to the same misery and destruction he has fallen into. To me, this book – or more specifically, the slave traders – are a representation of the devil carrying out his plans and successfully stealing away the hearts of men.
Hill, Lawrence. The Book of Negroes. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.