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Guest: Lawrence Hill

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Listen Now

If you have a name and other people know it, your humanity is asserted in the same way it is blurred by the titles “slavery” or “slave”, says Lawrence Hill, winner of Overall Best Book, the top award of the international 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
“Life, of course, is much more than just being a slave. There's everything that goes on in the life there and it’s hard to actually see the human being behind these huge titles. I want to bring the reader squarely into this world, and the corrosion of the soul, the toll the system (of slavery) extracts. Everybody caught up in it pays their own price, whether you're a slave or a slave owner or an abolitionist.
“I think that it’s really difficult for anyone -- particularly if you're a child or teenager -- it’s really difficult to visualize what a life might look like if you strip away the title ‘slavery’ or ‘slave’. I want to make the reader feel the time and the place and the heat and the cold and the pain and the shock of all these dislocations, actually see how people lived. What they felt like. How they ate, what they wore on their backs, how they bore their children. How they worked or what their parents were like. What relationships they had.”
So this award-winning African-Canadian created Aminata, an “everywoman” stolen from her family at age 11. He quickens her into a remarkable woman through whom he sums up the entire slave narrative in North America. CalledSomeone Knows My Name in the U.S., in Canada it’s The Book of Negroes in recognition of one of many essential elements that are true to history.
“The actual ‘Book of Negroes’ is 150 pages in length and contains the names of 3,000 African-Americans who are moving out of Manhattan (along with the British, defeated by their former colonists). It’s the first time that thousands of African-Americans are publicly, formally documented by any formal body in the United States or in Canada. And these people are moving primarily into Canada so it’s like a community passport.
“I dreamed Aminata into existence when I heard about the (subsequent) exodus of 1,200 African-Americans who were leaving Halifax and going to found the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone in 1792. These are African-Americans who have become Afro-Canadians and are so disgruntled by their time in Canada that they leave what they thought was the promised land.
“Not only were 1,200 leaving, but a third of the adults on those ships had been born in Africa. Unbelievable!”
When pressed, Mr. Hill acknowledges a larger, timeless meditation underneath his riveting story.
“Identity and humanity are often submerged or lost or ignored or shoved under the mat or stomped on by dint of this horrible monster that was the transatlantic slave trade. And yet somehow people -- millions -- not only survived the rigors of this trade and this intercontinental dislocation, but they also survived emotionally. That emotional survival is what fascinated me.
“It is really a human miracle, that people can pass through the most indescribably painful moments and come out the other end being bigger. How do ordinary people who are caught up in extraordinary circumstances hang on and become richer people as a result of it ? How does that happen?”


Mr. Hill reminds us that the first form of literature created by African-Americans and African community was the memoir which made clear, “‘This is who I am, this is my name, this is when I was born, and I'm going to assert my humanity by putting it down on the page for you to read and this is my way of proving to you that I'm equally human.’” In naming his book, Mr. Hill also pays homage to the legendary James Baldwin and his immensely influential work, particularly his Nobody Knows My Name. We thank Mr. Hill for his keen awareness of the vital role literature plays for humankind and we join him in his admiration for all these writers who went before.

Mr. Hill cheerfully delayed dinner to assure that we could join together in this conversation. We are deeply appreciative of his loving spirit in both his literary pursuits and in his personal reach.

Special appreciation is due Judith Costello, Political Advocacy and Academic Relations Officer at the Canadian Consulate General in Atlanta, GA. Without Ms. Costello’s diligence and foresight we would never have been able to connect with Mr. Hill during his demanding tour of the American Southland. We hold her in the highest possible regard as a consummate professional and we are honored by her friendship.

Related Links

Someone Knows My Name is published in the U.S. by W.W. Norton. In Canada and the U.K., the book’s title is The Book of Negroes, published by HarperCollins Canada.
In Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American RevolutionSimon Schama provides an historical accounting of much of the material Lawrence Hill presents with great effect in his novel.
Taylor Branch's magisterial 3 volume history of the American Civil Rights movement brings Lawrence Hill's story into the modern era.
Edward Ball's Slaves in the Family presents a more accurate view of the relationship between slaves and masters than the opaque view dear to Southern apologists.
Aminatta Forna reconstructs the damage done to Sierra Leone in modern times by the legacy of colonialism and slavery in The Devil That Dance on the Water. Her Ancestor Stones is a collection of fictionalized stories linking the women of Sierra Leone to their deep past.
The Known World is Edward P. Jones' richly imagined account of slave-owning Blacks in America.
Randall Kennedy examines the legacy of slavery and the tangled relationships among various "races" in Interracial Intimacies.
And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.

This Program was recorded on Monday, March 24, 2008 in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S.

Tags: Commonwealth Prize humanity identity Lawrence Hill Paula Gordon slavery Someone Knows My Name The Book of Negroes