Excerpt from Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Someone Knows My Name

aka: The Book of Negroes

by Lawrence Hill

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2007, 512 pages
    Nov 2008, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Stacey Brownlie

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In private moments, when the abolitionists are not swirling about like tornadoes, seeking my presence in this deputation or my signature atop that petition, I wish my parents were still here to care for me. Isn’t that strange? Here I am, a broken-down old black woman who has crossed more water than I care to remember, and walked more leagues than a work horse, and the only things I dream of are the things I can’t have—children and grandchildren to love, and parents to care for me.

The other day, they took me into a London school and they had me talk to the children. One girl asked if it was true that I was the famous Meena Dee, the one mentioned in all the newspapers. Her parents, she said, did not believe that I could have lived in so many places. I acknowledged that I was Meena Dee, but that she could call me Aminata Diallo if she wanted, which was my childhood name. We worked on my first name for a while. After three tries, she got it. Aminata. Four syllables. It’s really not that hard. Ah–ME–naw–tah, I told her. She said she wished I could meet her parents. And her grandparents. I replied that it amazed me that she still had grandparents in her life. Love them good, I told her, and love them big. Love them every day. She asked why I was so black. I asked why she was so white. She said she was born that way. Same here, I replied. I can see that you must have been quite pretty, even though you are so very dark, she said. You would be prettier if London ever got any sun, I replied. She asked what I ate. My grandfather says he bets you eat raw elephant. I told her I’d never actually taken a bite out of an elephant, but there had been times in my life when I was hungry enough to try. I chased three or four hundred of them, in my life, but never managed to get one to stop rampaging through villages and stand still long enough for me to take a good bite. She laughed and said she wanted to know what I really ate. I eat what you eat, I told her. Do you suppose I’m going to find an elephant walking about the streets of London? Sausages, eggs, mutton stew, bread, crocodiles, all those regular things. Crocodiles? she said. I told her I was just checking to see if she was listening. She said she was an excellent listener and wanted me to please tell her a ghost story.

Honey, I said, my life is a ghost story. Then tell it to me, she said.

As I told her, I am Aminata Diallo, daughter of Mamadu Diallo and Sira Kulibali, born in the village of Bayo, three moons by foot from the Grain Coast in West Africa. I am a Bamana. And a Fula. I am both, and will explain that later. I suspect that I was born in 1745, or close to it. And I am writing this account. All of it. Should I perish before the task is done, I have instructed John Clarkson—one of the quieter abolitionists, but the only one I trust—to change nothing. The abolitionists here in London have already arranged for me to write a short paper, about ten pages, of why the trade in human beings is an abomination and must be stopped. I have done so, and the paper is available in the society offices.

I have a rich, dark skin. Some people have described it as blue black. My eyes are hard to read, and I like them so. Distrust, disdain, dislike—one doesn’t want to give public notice of such sentiments. Some say that I was once uncommonly beautiful, but I wouldn’t wish beauty on any woman who has not her own freedom, and who chooses not the hands that claim her. Not much beauty remains now. Not the round, rising buttocks so uncommon in this land of English flatbacks. Not the thighs, thick and well packed, or the calves, rounded and firm like ripe apples. My breasts have fallen, where once they soared like proud birds. I have all but one of my teeth, and clean them every day. To me, a clean, white, full, glowing set of teeth is a beautiful thing indeed, and using the twig, vigorously, three or four times a day keeps them that way. I don’t know why it is, but the more fervent the abolitionist, it seems, the more foul the breath. Some men from my homeland eat the bitter kola nut so often that their teeth turn orange. But in England, the abolitionists do much worse, with coffee, tea and tobacco.

Reprinted from Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill. Copyright (c) 2007 by Lawrence Hill. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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