Thursday, March 11, 2010

Someone Knows My Name

I just finished reading Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill. It's an historical novel about an African girl who's abducted and sold into slavery on the coast of South Carolina before the Revolutionary War. Several of the issues this book touches were very profound for me.

Aminata picks up English quickly and learns Gullah, as well as two African languages beside her own. Her ability to communicate in so many languages becomes an asset that eventually saves her life.

I'm married into a bi-lingual family, and over the last twenty-something years of authentic exposure to Spanish, I'm sad to say I've learned very little. I understand more than I can speak, and what little I do know I call "Sanctified Spanish" because I know church and bible words, and hymns. The rest of the developed world speak more than one language. Why America doesn't value this educationally, I don't know. We are not the richer for it.

Aminata learns to read, another skill-set that serves her well as a slave in early America. People who didn't possess the ability to read and write were so exposed back then. It gave me a renewed sense of gratitude for being literate. I've always been a reader and a writer - I even majored in English. Reading and writing have brought me much pleasure over my lifetime.

I once heard someone define wealthy as being able to read, owning a book, and having read it. The true poor spend every daylight hour surviving. Education, discretionary money, and leisure time are luxuries afforded only the wealthy.

Aminata was determined from the beginning of her real-life nightmare to return to her village one day. Her determination keeps her from accepting any of the places she lived in the meantime as home. In the 40 plus years before she's able to go back, she lives in South Carolina, New York, Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. It turns out that the old identity she'd been clinging to has been erased by time. She learns that she doesn't really belong anywhere or identify with any people group. She didn't allow herself to be molded by or accepting of the things that came into her life. I'm not saying that being enslaved isn't horrific, but difficulties, tragedies, and unfair things come into every life. If they are accepted, the past doesn't rob us of our future. We simply cannot go back, and the world forges onward whether we like it or not. I'd never really thought about it in quite those terms before.

Aminata gains her freedom along the way and, of course, is revolted by slavery. But she often finds herself in positions that, although free, she's unable to do anything about the plight of other slaves. Her convictions, although black and white in her mind, became very gray in reality.

At one point she is the guest of the second in command of the slavers' staging and shipping point on the African coast. While her host is conversing with another about England's King George, she wanders to the window and sees the slave pen below, the very pen that once held her naked scared self as a captured girl long ago. She says this:
I hated myself for doing nothing to help the captives escape their wretched confines. I tried to tell myself I was powerless to free them, but in truth, the mere sight of them made me feel complicit and guilty. The only moral course of action was to lay down my life to stop the theft of men. But how exactly could I lay down my life, and what, in the end, would it stop at all?


The age-old ethical dilemma of how to best serve the cause. She chose to help William Wilberforce persuade parliament to end the slave trade. But in doing so, she had to turn a blind eye to the circumstances of individual slaves. It's quite a conflict.

This book is meticulously researched, beautifully written, and I enjoyed the story and all the ideals it made me grapple with. One of the many reasons I love books.

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