April 5, 2010

The Book of Negroes

"Slave Coffle, Central Africa, 1861 [Image]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #150, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/150 (accessed April 5, 2010). Annotated by Colleen A. Vasconcellos

My mom, being a professional reader, always kept an atlas beside the chair she read in. One day she explained to me the importance of this atlas. To her, it was important to understand where the author was taking you. Not to simply have a cursory understanding…to see the locale in relation to wherever you reside. I had never done this before. Perhaps the books I read were based in North America, or familiar locations…I don’t know. It was certainly important with The Book of Negroes.

The last book my mom ever read, I’m not quite certain if she read. The Book of Negroes, authored by Lawrence Hill, was the last book she held in her hands. My mom had begun reading it before she went into the hospital and a few weeks later, while at the hospital, she was done the book.

When my mom passed away we collected her things at the hospital, and this book was amongst her belongings. She had borrowed this book from a dear friend. A few weeks after her death, I picked up the book. To be honest I don’t always do well with “epic” novels. When you read in short spurts it is easy to get confused and after awhile close the book for good. I wanted to give this book a chance. I sat down with her atlas and the book. I remember that my mother had a hard time getting started reading it. She kept saying that it wasn’t pulling her in. However, I was gripped immediately. I knew then that my mom’s inability to be wrapped into this book had more to do with her mental state and less to do with the text. On a “normal” day this book would have grabbed her and she would have read it in a week. Instead it took weeks of laborious reading. I actually mentioned to her doctor that I was concerned that she wasn’t reading more. For some people this seemed logical…you don’t feel well, you don’t read constantly…it was not logical for my mom. It made me incredibly sad to see her with a book in her lap that she wasn’t reading. And then as her meds were shuffled…she started reading again…and made it to the end of this book.

I too made it to the end. I found it to be a most interesting book. Talk about overcoming adversity! Understatement! It was inspiring. It certainly made me feel that anyone can overcome any circumstance. Although it was a fiction novel…it felt real. This book follows one woman’s journey not only through her life, but across thousands of miles. Across oceans and back again. It highlights the unending desire of Aminata to return to her place of birth. Aminata’s ability to rise up when she is being repeatedly, and violently pushed down. This young woman, Aminata, is torn from her family, shipped in the most despicable conditions across the Atlantic to America and then bought to work on an indigo farm. There are moments of joy, like her relationship with the kind woman at the indigo plantation. Their mother-daughter bond was beautiful. Her relationship with her husband, Chekura, has moments of bliss and heartache. Following her climb to becoming a respected black woman, while difficult at times, was well worth the perseverance.

Unfortunately, my blog is out of order…when I started writing this blog I had forgotten that I read The Book of Negroes a few weeks after my mom died. I wanted to connect with her. This has been the most difficult entry for me to write, so far. I started writing it over two weeks ago…and I’m only just finishing it. I suppose this is why I started this blog. To talk about my mom, to talk about me. This book will always have a special meaning for me. It makes me sad that she didn’t have a chance to really enjoy her final novel. My mom loved Africa…she loved stories about empowered women…she loved stories about heritage.

The book is done…you can have it back now D. Thank you.


  1. This was a great entry, thanks Jen. I am sure you are totally right about the circumstances of Gail not being able to fully "get into" the book, knowing when you read it that it would be a story that she loved. I know this must have been so terribly hard, but amazing that it was a novel that was fitting for the circumstances around it.

    I can definitelty attest to needing a good book as a crutch or an escape from the painful reality that life sometimes gives you - especially while being stuck in a hospital and looking out the window as the world went by continuing with everyday life, and wondering if you would ever rejoin that and have that sense of normalcy again. I started and read many books in the hospital, but depending on the day - sometimes you could read for hours and pretend you were at the place where the main character was looking for the meaning of life i.e. "Eat, Love, Pray". But sometimes it was also too hard to read (the pain, the mind altering drugs! etc). But just knowing that you have that mental escape to transport you into another setting in an instant was so helpful....

    Thank you for giving us this window into your mom's life as well as your interpretation and understanding of it.

  2. Jennifer...this was a very powerful entry for you ..I can understand why it would be the hardest to write too...but you did it and with all the grace and dignity that your Mom would have loved...It touched me to hear you speak of connecting with her through this book, since it was the last one she read..I guess as you gathered it up with her belongings, it felt like holding onto a special part of her. Your giving us a glance at your hearfelt memories and your great love and fondness of your Mom's books, is really very inspiring to me ...Your journey has captured for all of us what a great part of her life was....her books...thank you.