Historical New York: The Book of Negroes and the African Burial Ground National Monument

It is not uncommon for me to acquire a book, either on my own or as a gift, and then wait years before I finally read it. I love books as objects, and I’m happy just to have them around, but being in college for the past four years really cramped my style, and books that I bought for fun ended up mostly as decoration. The end of every semester held the same promise: weeks of free time to read whatever I wanted! But stuff happens, and vacations get busy, and by the time graduation rolled around, I had accumulated tons of books I’d been meaning to read, but hadn’t. As soon as I handed in my final assignment (ever!) this spring, I picked up a book I’ve been meaning to read for two years: The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill. I purchased the book in Canada; it actually exists in America under a different title, Someone Knows My Name. The novel tells the story of Aminata Diallo, an 11-year-old girl who is kidnapped from her village in West Africa and sold into slavery. The book follows Meena (as she’s nicknamed) through a number of adventures: her service to vengeful slavemasters in the southern states; her escape first to New York, and then to Nova Scotia; her participation with the Sierra Leone Company, which takes her to Freetown, Sierra Leone to help settle a free black community; and finally to England, where she works for the abolitionist movement.  The story is a compelling one, similar in scope and emotion to that told in Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Alex Haley’s epic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from the 1970s. The difference is that Hill’s novel is a first person account by a woman, a fictionalized slave narrative following one woman’s life and journey in the time of slavery.  While Haley’s novel follows multiple generations of one family, from the African village of their ancestors to the author himself, Hill’s book focuses on Meena, exploring the ways in which living as a slave affected the family, body, and mind of the individual.

The inspiration for the book, Hill has said, came when he read of a historical document called “the Book of Negroes,” which was used to record the names and descriptions of more than 3000 slaves who fought for the British during the American Revolution, and were consequently granted freedom when the war ended. The people listed in the book were evacuated by the British, and sent to colonies in British North America, namely Nova Scotia. In Hill’s novel, Meena works for the British, recording the names of slaves loyal to the British Crown in the book before joining them in their escape to Canada.

Book of Negroes received unanimous praise in the months after its release, winning the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in Canada in 2007, and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2008. Last year, a Canadian film company, Conquering Lion Pictures, purchased the rights to the book, and the film is currently in the early stages of development. However, when it came time for the novel to be published in America, Hill’s publishers had concerns about the use of the word “negro” in the title, and requested that the title be changed. Hill was resistant, but in the end, the American title became Someone Knows My Name, a less descriptive and less provocative option. The change in title could, of course, lead to all kinds of fascinating discussions about racial history and relations in America, and how they compare to those in other parts of the world (even as geographically close as Canada). There obviously isn’t room for those discussions in this post, but the issues are significant nevertheless: Why did the title have to be changed, when it is in fact alluding to an actual historical document? Why did it have to be changed at all? How is it that the word “negro” remains palatable enough for a book title in countries such as Canada and Britain (where the original title remained intact), but it was thought too controversial to sell in America, as well as Australia and New Zealand (where Someone Knows My Name was also used)?

Being from the country myself, I know that we Canadians tend to sugarcoat our own involvement in slavery, believing our main contribution to have been the Underground Railroad, and thus rendering us morally superior to Americans. I also know, as a recently graduated African-American Studies major, that that spin on history is far from the truth. Slavery existed in Canada, racism exists in Canada; we are no better or worse than anyone else. Interestingly, it is similarly easy to forget that New York, as a liberal Northern city, also participated in the slave trade. Many people focus more on the city’s history as a point of escape or salvation for slaves than a site of sale or servitude, and while the idea that New York was less to blame than southern cities is true to some extent, but slavery existed in New York, and racism existed/s in New York. Evidence of both remains downtown, at the site of the African Burial Ground National Monument, operated by the National Park Service, and located near City Hall in lower Manhattan.

During the construction of a federal building in 1991, the remains of more than 400 former slaves were found, all of whom had been buried during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is now believed that there may have been as many as 20,000 people buried on the site, which was used until its closing in 1812, and is the largest colonial-era cemetery for slaves in America. Upon discovery of the remains, construction was halted while the bodies were properly preserved. In 1993, the site was declared a National Historic Landmark, and in 2003, the remains were finally given a proper and permanent burial during a multi-day, multi-city reinterment ceremony. Beginning in Washington, DC, and with celebrations in Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, and Newark (all historically significant cities in the role of Africans’ contribution to American colonization), the remains made their way to the same port in New York where the slave ships would have docked during the slave trade. Finally, a memorial was erected over the site, commemorating the people who were buried on the site; all the people who were lost during slavery; the African Diaspora; and a return to the home of the ancestors.

I visited the memorial a couple of years ago, and it was a highly emotional experience. Before you see the actual memorial, you are taken inside the building that now stands adjacent to the site to watch a video explaining the history of the grounds, and to offer a libation to lost ancestors. I highly recommend a visit to the burial site for all people living in the city, regardless of background, course of study, familiarity with the history, or any other factor. Not only is the site a significant part of both New York and American history, but it is a valuable reminder that sometimes, bad things happen in the best of places.

The African Burial Ground National Monument is located at 290 Broadway, at the corner of Duane and Elk Streets. The memorial and visitor center are open from 9am to 5pm, Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is FREE.

*****

Emily Mousseau, GS’10

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