The book is told in four parts. It begins with the birth of Aminata Diallo (Meena), in approximately 1745 and spans the following six decades of her life. She spent her early years in Africa in the village of Bayo, where she lived happily in the secure home of her parents, until her 10th or 11th rain season, helping her mom to “catch babies”, learning muslim prayers from her father and tending to the needs of their simple, everyday existence. She was well loved and well cared for until she was ripped brutally from her family and her homeland by violent bands of Negro men who kidnapped the Africans, leaving death and destruction in their wake. The prisoners were marched across the country, to the sea, with many dying along the way from the deprivation and mistreatment. They were boarded on overcrowded ships with deplorable conditions and sent across the ocean to America to be sold into slavery. Many more suffered and died aboard ship and when they arrived they were examined like animals and humiliated. On their long trek across Africa, their plight was witnessed by other natives who were aware of the tragedy taking place in their midst and still they cooperated with the perpetrators for their own personal gain and/or for fear of their own lives since the enemy was well armed, more powerful and cruel with swift murderous vengeance when they were betrayed.
It is a horrifying account of brutality and cruelty. It is the kind of book you read to the exclusion of all others, holding your breath until you turn the page and go on. The nightmare continues, however. There is no relief. One has to wonder how the slaves survived and continued to face their future of unspeakable horrors. What surprised me most was the black on black hostility, the black on black cruelty. Their own brothers captured and sold them into bondage. It was their own kind who received payment from the human traffickers and turned a blind eye to the heinous acts they were committing to reap their own reward or, perhaps, to save themselves. It was the whites that received them, providing shelter and food and little else, except, more often than not, there was large scale abuse, rape and humiliation. However, I realized a simple truth while reading; without the traders, there would not have been slavery. Perhaps some of the blame is misplaced on white folks and needs to be shared by the black community as, well.
It is difficult to read about Aminata’s years of captivity in South Carolina. She arrives there, more dead than alive and is nursed back to health by another slave who takes her under her wing. Georgia, like Aminata’s mother, “catches” children. Aminata is known as Meena on the indigo plantation of Mr. Appleby She is abused by him but in the midst of all this trauma she finds love, marries and bears a child. She gains special acceptance because of her defiance, skills and quick wits. She is well learned and is also a hard worker, able to deal with life, always looking for a silver lining someplace and never holding hate in her heart, although sorrow has a permanent home.
Eventually she is sold again, to a Jew, who takes her to New York. He and his wife treat her well and teach her to read more fluently and to do bookkeeping but they are ever mindful of the fact that they own her. She is happy with this family and is even allowed to “self-hire” herself out to others, earning her own money. When tragedy strikes the family, she is despondent. Her owner becomes detached and forgets about her for months, leaving her half starved. When he returns, she is furious because she realizes he is the one responsible for stealing her son from her and arranging his sale into slavery. As kind as he has been, she is still his property. She is able to escape and make a life for herself, however briefly, and is reunited with her husband. Shortly after, the British government guarantees her freedom and that of other slaves, in exchange for their help. She is the scribe who helps prepare the Book of Negroes which documents the freed slaves and black and white Loyalists being transported to Nova Scotia and other British colonies. She is once again with child. She is betrayed by the British soldiers she has been working with, who promised her safe passage, when they simply disappear without warning, leaving her with no support group. Circumstances once again separate her from Chekura, her husband, and she is almost sent back to captivity.
Eventually, Meena makes her way to Nova Scotia where her daughter is born. She helps build a community there, continues to teach reading, do bookkeeping and catch babies. Unbeknownst to her, while she is working to rebuild the homes in Birchtown that were destroyed when attacked by an angry mob of white men, her child is stolen by the white family for whom she had worked. They had offered to care for May while Meena was absent but they had planned to do much more. She had no idea where her child had been taken and she searched for information about her, to no avail. Although free, the British yoke hangs over their heads and whites are intolerant to the Blacks.
Eventually, she realizes her dream and travels back to Africa where she discovers that “you can’t go back” and she suffers great indignities, once again at the hands of the black slave traders. She escapes back to London to work with the Abolitionists who were responsible for bringing 3000 black freed slaves to Nova Scotia where they tried to protect them as best they could under the auspices of the Siera Leone Company. They are working hard to establish laws to stop the slave trade.
The story is told in the voice of Aminata, as she experiences what befalls her as a child and also in the voice of the adult she has become. As Aminata reaches into her memory the story unfolds. She is called Meena when she is in captivity but she has a name and it is Aminata Diallo, which means she exists, someone knows it!