Don Robinson: A novelist’s entrancing tale of liberty unbound

Last modified: Thursday, January 28, 2016

Every once in a while, an amazing work of imagination forces us to think anew about how toxic effects have spread throughout our culture and what we must do to atone for them.

The 2013 movie, “Twelve Years a Slave” was such a work. This Christmas our nephew gave me another, a 2007 book by an Afro-Canadian novelist, Lawrence Hill, entitled “The Book of Negroes.” It is a work of imagination that draws on painstaking research by a generation of scholars.

Hill is a skilled storyteller, in the tradition E. L. Doctorow, interweaving a fictional hero with historical figures into an epic narrative. It centers on the story of Aminata Diallo, born in West Africa during the 1740s, captured when she was 11 years old (her mother and father were murdered while trying to resist the captors). It recounts Aminata’s slog, tightly manacled to other captives, past many villages where her desperate hope for rescue never materialized.

On her passage to America, she lies in putrid human waste, eats tiny amounts of wretched, rotten food, watches her shipmates, many of them elderly, die, their bodies thrown overboard, and almost envying them their deliverance. She comes to think of the ocean as a vast repository of unburied dead slaves and learns to hate the color pink, the hue of the westward sky at sunset.

Aminata’s escape comes in New York City, where she has been taken by her owner, an indigo merchant named Solomon Lindo. On the eve of the Revolutionary War against Britain, New York is a bawdy, chaotic place. As she signs for their room at Fraunces Hotel, using calligraphy that Lindo had taught her, she realizes that she has written her name on a public document.

In her mind, that reveals that she is a person, with a right to life and liberty.

She determines then and there that she will “not submit again to ownership by any man.” The hotel is owned and operated by “Black Sam” Fraunces (around whom controversy still swirls about whether he was of African descent; he was certainly swarthy and born in the West Indies). Fraunces, after sensing that he can trust her discretion, helps Aminata escape from Lindo and gives her tips on how to survive in the underworld of the city.

She escapes into the Loyalist community, with whom she travels north to Canada and into a career of advocacy for abolition that takes her to Sierra Leone and London. It is a fascinating tale, brilliantly told.

In 1964, I was working toward a doctorate in government at Cornell. I discussed possible topics for my dissertation with Clinton Rossiter, my adviser. Knowing of my interest in the civil rights movement (I had just returned from Freedom Summer in Mississippi), he suggested I write about black involvement in the framing of a federal constitution in 1787-1788.

It soon became apparent that the materials for such a study did not yet exist. Professor David Brion Davis was working down the corridor at Cornell on his monumental “The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture.”

As someone training to be a political scientist, rather than a historian, I was not prepared to join in such work myself, so I shifted my focus. I undertook a study of how the slavery shaped the fundamental tenets of the American constitutional tradition. In other words, I studied slavery as a problem for America’s constitution-makers, rather than slaves as agents of their own political destiny.

Hill’s work deserves more attention in this country than it has gotten. In Canada it won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, among many other awards It reflects our cultural provincialism that his reputation here languishes. For me, this book ranks with Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Annette Gordon-Reed’s “The Hemingses of Monticello” as a source of insight into what it felt like to be black in America.

Such works help me to understand why President and Mrs. Obama have drawn so much venom. American culture has depended heavily on the notion that blacks are naturally inferior to whites. Think of Jefferson’s “Notes on Virginia,” where he sketches the differences between whites and blacks. Blacks, he explains, have stronger passions than white folks, but they lack intelligence. Such notions are cockeyed, but if blacks are not inferior to whites, then how else to explain why we oppressed them, not just from the first settlements in Virginia, through emancipation, but for decades and decades thereafter?

The Obamas are the living refutation of such nonsense. George W. Bush was supposed to restore dignity to the White House after the disgrace of the Clintons, but it took the Obamas to accomplish that. How bitter a pill that is for those who put stock in racist lore.

Nations have great difficulty confessing their sins. Think of Turkey and the Armenians, Israel and the Palestinians, Japan and its Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, not to mention the United States and its program of exterminating Native American culture.

Presidential candidates from Mitt Romney to Donald Trump have boasted that the United States under their leadership will never apologize. Rush Limbaugh rants against left-wing voices that cannot stop apologizing for the nations’ sins.

I come away from reading Hill’s book more sensitive to the burdens we have piled on the backs of black Americans. They continue to suffer for our sins, in Flint, Michigan, at Charleston’s Emmanuel Church, and in prisons across this land. Black lives do matter; so do white souls. Our fates are inseparable.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at


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