Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Lawrence Hill on Someone Knows My
Years before I began writing Someone Knows My Name, I came across two
startling discoveries in a scholarly work. I read that thousands of African
Americans fled slavery to serve the British, who promised to liberate them in
return for service during the American Revolution. When the British lost the
war, they sent those African Americans who could show that they had served the
British for at least one year to Canada. Three thousand names were entered into
a 150-page military ledger known as the "Book of Negroes," and, in the last half
of 1783, the former slaves set sail to Nova Scotia.
Ten years later, many of these same former slaves were so disgruntled with the
hardships they encountered in Canadaslavery, indentured servitude, anti-black
race riots, and segregationthat in 1792 they accepted an offer from the British
government and sailed to Africa in a flotilla of fifteen ships, to form the
colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone. This was the first back-to-Africa exodus in
the history of the Americas, and it turns out that a number of the adults swept
up in this migration had actually been born in Africa.
As I began to write Someone Knows My Name, I imagined the life of an old
woman on one of those vessels carrying liberated African Americans from Halifax
to Freetown. What would she look like? Where had she been born in Africa? How
had she been stolen into slavery, where had she lived in South Carolina, and how
on earth did she find herself, in late life, sailing back to Africa from Canada?
Someone Knows My Name is my attempt to give this fascinating but
little-known story a human face. I gave the protagonist, Aminata Diallo, my
eldest daughter's middle name. It is the story of a heroic woman in the
eighteenth century, and I felt that the best way to lift her off the page was to
love her like I love my own daughter. And indeed I loved Aminata from the moment
I first started imagining her face, hearing her voice, seeing the way she walked
with a platter balanced on her head.
My daughter, Geneviève Aminata Hill, was eleven years old when I started to
write this story. The same age as my character when she is kidnapped by slave
traders. What if this had happened to my own child? Aminata, the character, grew
up under my tutelage. She learned to walk and then to read and to navigate her
way in the world, and now this fictional creation of mine is all grown up and
gone from the house. She belongs to the world of readers now, and I hope she
will be well loved.
What is the significance of the title Someone Knows
What is your opinion about Hill's suggestion that
Aminata's very youthfulness at the time of her abduction enables her
emotional survival, even as some of the adults in her world show signs of
The section of the book set in the sea islands of South
Carolina depicts eighteenth-century indigo plantations where African
American slaves and overseers are left largely to their own devices during
the "sick season"a good half of the year. To what degree does this cultural
and social isolation allow for an interesting development and interaction of
African American characters in the novel?
Aminata suffers some horrifying cruelties at the hands
of her captors, but her relationships with her masters aren't always what
you'd expect. How does Aminata's story reveal the complex ways that people
react to unnatural, unequal relationships?
During the course of the story, Aminata marries and has
a family. Although she is separated from them, she is reunited from time to
time with her husband and one of her children. What does the work tell us
about the nature of love and loyalty?
Aminata struggles to learn and master all sorts of
systems of communicating in the new world: black English, white English, and
Gullah, as well as understanding the uses of European money and maps. How do
her various coping mechanisms shed light on her character?
Aminata longs for her home. What is the meaning of home
in the novel, and how does the meaning change as the novel progresses?
What does the novel tell us about survival? Which
characters fare best and why?
As Aminata moves from slavery to freedom, she finds that
freedom is sometimes an empty promise. At what points in the novel did you
feel this was true? Did it change how you thought about the meaning of
Aminata is a woman of extraordinary abilitiesshe is
skillful with languages, literate, a speedy learner, a born negotiator. Why
did Hill choose this story to be told by such a remarkable woman? What
effect do her abilities have on the shaping of the story?
What do you think would be the challenges involved in
writing a realistically painful novel that still offers enough light and
hope to maintain the reader's interest and spirit?
What lessons does Aminata's tale hold for us in today's
Readings of Interest on the Web
BBC site, read "Africa and the Transatlantic Slave Trade," an article by Dr.
Hakim Adi, author and reader in the History of Africa and the African Diaspora
at Middlesex University, London.
Most of the more than 1,200 images in
date from the period of slavery. "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the
Americas: A Visual Record" traces the experience of those who were sold into
slavery in Africa and transported to the Americas, as well as that of their
Read about Olaudah Equiano
(1746-1797), who was sold into slavery at age eleven, eventually gained his
freedom, and in 1789 wrote what was to become one of them most widely read slave
autobiographies. Click "Equiano's Autobiography" for the text.
The U.S. Library of Congresss
presents its digital collection "African-American Odyssey," which features more
than 240 items relating to African American history, from the early days of
slavery through the twentieth century: important and rare books, government
documents, manuscripts, maps, musical scores, plays, films, and recordings.
Our History, Our People" offers a wealth of historical detail in the form of
personal accounts of Black Loyalists, letters, and other documents and
proclamations, including the text of the original Book of Negroes. Click
"Documents" on the main page.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of W.W. Norton & Company.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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