If you are in a current funk of self-pity, this is definitely not the book for you. On the other hand, if you could use a vision of courage, Someone Knows My Name will not disappoint. This book explores what it means to be a slave and what means to be free. Through the central character, Aminata, we also also explore what it means to be human.
Lawrence Hill has achieved the remarkable in several ways. First, he successfully writes from the viewpoint of an 18th-century African woman, thereby ensuring we see the extent of how slavery affected “the least of these.” Second, his careful research guarantees just enough detail to facilitate our transport to the world of 18th-century colonization. Finally, and I think this is the most remarkable thing, Hill goes beyond simply indicting European slave traders, or even Africans who fully collaborated. He doesn’t shy from the truth that slavery exists wherever human selfishness, fear, and greed exist. In other words, he indicts us all.
Only after Hill has given the reader a real eye-full of the horrors of slavery does he allow his characters to discuss the issues surrounding slavery and the lies that slave-traders and their collaborators used to condone the industry. And only after ensuring that the reader sees the misery and cruelty as blatantly as possible does he show Aminata’s own struggle to identify the right people to blame. Is it the slave ship owners? Is it those who buy the slaves? Is it the Africans who participate and profit from the trade? Is it even ladies in the drawing rooms of London who can’t live without sugar in their tea? And how does she figure in the fact that her own village once owned a man?
Identifying the enemy was far more complicated that she imagined, and knowing how to fight slavery was equally challenging. At one point, she strikes a bargain with an African slave trader to take her back to her native village. She is pained to realize that this man and his followers, who are faithful Muslims, are actively engaged in profiting from slavery just as easily as those who called themselves Christians or Jews. She also soon realizes that she has participated in the threat of her own re-enslavement by paying for their services. Even worse, as she witnesses new groups of slaves being led to the coast, she is appalled to realize that she is just like the bystanders she had condemned so long ago for watching the captives pass by and doing nothing to stop the captors.
As she tells her stories later to fellow Africans, the chief of the village is incredulous when she claims that not all “toubabu” (white men) were devils. He asks, “How could it be possible to see good in some of them?” Aminata replies, “Do you not know the human heart?”
Aminata spent years associating her identity with her father, her mother, her language, and her Bayo village. As her dream of returning there fades, she begins to realize that Bayo and all that it held is a past that she must surrender. The thing that she cannot surrender and that becomes her new identity is her commitment to freedom.
Hill’s book is a striking illustration of how easily we can justify wrongs, even whitewashing them with words like “progress and prosperity.” He forces us to look at the price of greed and evil, while also considering the power that one soul, completely free from fear, possesses to effect change. Aminata’s ultimate commitment to the truth versus even to her own dreams is one we would all do well to emulate. As she so beautifully said, “I don’t govern my life according to danger.”