11-year-old Pecola Breedlove believes she’s ugly. And nothing can change that. Nothing at all. Unless … unless she could trade in her eyes for beautiful blue ones. Now if she had those blue eyes, things would be different; because then, everyone would love her.
After a bit of break, I’m back to reading African American history.
Most of us have a vague idea of how scores of Africans were sold in European and American markets. We are familiar with slavery through books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, in a more glorified form, in Gone with the Wind. We read these books, ‘It was terrible’, we say, we shake our heads and then we get on with life.
It’s not until a book like The Book of Negroes comes along, that the horror of it all sinks in. In its entirety. It’s then that we truly begin to understand, just a little bit, what it would have been like.
For that, this book, is a must read.
Set in the 18th-19th century, we hear the story in flashback through Aminata Diallo, daughter of a talented midwife and a jeweller.
While on her way home from a neighbouring village, 11-year-old Aminata is kidnapped. Then on begins a long and arduous journey for her. Along with a group of other village folk, she is yoked by the neck and made to walk.
Aminata befriends a young boy Chekura who is helping the kidnappers. He is sympathetic towards her, bringing her food and water.
After months of walking, goaded along with whip-lashes from their captors they reach the sea. They are then loaded onto ships that sail to Carolina. Ironically, Chekura is also put in along with other Africans, becoming a prisoner himself.
Aminata survives the harrowing ship voyage as also a slave rebellion and lands on the shores of Carolina. She is sold off to Appleby, a ranch owner. She’s a smart young girl, quick to pick up skills, eager to learn new ways and new languages. She has picked up midwifery from her mother and that renders her invaluable.
However, not her intellect, nor any of her skills can protect her from her fate as a slave. She’s beaten and raped and separated from her husband; her child sold off. She moves from Carolina to Nova Scotia and she survives, as does her dream of going back to her village in Africa.
What I thought of it
The Book of Negroes lays bare the cruel practice of Slavery in all detail. It talks about how people from Africa were kidnapped, coerced, shipped, treated worse than animals and bought and sold across America.
The writing is lucid and flows easily. It’s simple and it kept me turning the pages. It is the story that remains the hero of the book. Aminata’s journey is execptional and yet hundreds of millions of blacks faced the same fate, cheated over and over again of their right to exist as humans. Despite its heart-breaking subject, the book manages to maintain an underlying upbeat spirit, perhaps due to it’s protagonist.
Aminata’s character embues the book with optimism, rendering it readable
Right from the beginning it is clear that Aminata is a gifted child. She grows up to be smart and intelligent. Her skill at mid-wifery, her mother’s gift to her, and then later, the gift of education put her in a league above the other black people. It ensures for her, a better life than most others. Which is why the book doesn’t turn into a weep-fest. It did however make me wonder how much worse it would have been for the vast majority of other slaves who were illiterate, uneducated and barely skilled. Would they have had any bright spots in their lives at all? That was a frightening thought.
The African Diversity
We often make the mistake of clubbing the entire African continent as one entity. The book brought home its diversity. It was good to be reminded that there were multiple tribes with multiple languages, dialects and religions. Not every slave could even understand what another one was saying. Also, it was Africans who were capturing other Africans. So to think that all of them were victims would be wrong.
In the end the book is about humanity
On the surface of it, this is a story of the white man against the black, and yet in the end it is about respecting another human, no matter his race or colour. Also, to lay the blame solely at the door of Europeans or Americans would be wrong. Almost every race, at some point, has people trying to prove their supremacy and to undermine others for power or money. Like I pointed out earlier, a lot of Africans were involved in the slave trade too. Closer home in India, the caste system was just a variation of slavery as were practices like bonded labour. None of us are truly exempt from blame.
The book is a reminder that every human deserves to be respected.
Last thought: Read this for a glimpse of African history.
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A group of young adults, girls and boys, from London’s East End (an area known for abject poverty and all the problems that come along with it) go to a small school – The Greenslade Secondary School. The teachers – most of them women, have grown up from among them. The men the kids see around them – fathers, brothers, uncles and neighbours – are scruffy and untidy. They dress in shabby ill-fitting clothes, barely bother to brush or bathe and are hardly conscious of basic hygiene let alone the aesthetics of their appearance.
Then one day, in walks a teacher and I quote, “his clothes are well-cut, pressed and neat, clean shoes, shaved, teeth sparkling, tie and handkerchief matching as if he’s stepped out of a ruddy bandbox. He’s big and broad and handsome“. Chances are he will be laughed right out of the school as a complete misfit. But this one sticks.
Rick Braithwaite, my character for today is from ER Braithwaite’s, part autobiographical book To Sir With Love. An engineer and an ex RAF aircrew, he joins the school because he cannot find any other employment largely due to him being black. He is faced with a group of completely unmotivated, semi literate pupils interested in everything but studying. Their attitudes range from indifference and defiance to hostility. He struggles through prejudices, his own as well as his students’ and years of deeply ingrained attitudes and habits. His firm belief in his students’ capabilities and their innate goodness sees them rise above themselves. He wins over not just their respect, love and trust but also that of their families. It’s one of the warmest feel-good books I’ve read. If you’re a teacher or a parent here’s an ideal you might like to adopt.
It’s hard to enumerate why I love this character
He is sensitive and intelligent and smart. He embodies all that is honest and wholesome. He wins over the reader completely so that you celebrate his victories and feel his pain when his students fail him, which they do many times over.
I love him for the trust he places in his students. I love the way he extends himself to things way beyond academics. He teaches the students to dress, to talk and to appreciate basic human values. He introduces them to Shakespeare. He takes them on trips to the museum and the opera. Sceptics predict chaos but the children do him proud. He sets high standards for himself and expects the same from his students.
And he’s passionate. His impassioned outbursts at the students are possibly my favourite parts of the book. I could have fallen in love with him as did the students.
Yes, yes I hear you – he seems too good to be true. The character is, say critics, too simplistic and a bit vain, his victories too easy. But for one moment banish that cynic in you and you’ll love him just as I do.
A note on Braithwaite’s take on racism
The first time I read this book I would have been barely in my teens. Shielded, as I was, from much of the world, I was barely aware of the severe racism rampant in the UK back then and it pretty much didn’t register even when I read the book multiple times. Perhaps I was too focussed on the story or too young to understand the full extent of its horror.
Re-reading it now I find it more than just the story of a wonderful teacher, which it is. Interwoven along with it, are glimpses of the life of a black man and the racism he has to face. Braithwaite isn’t exempt despite having fought in the war as a member of the RAF (Royal Air Force). He talks of his shock and disappointment at being discriminated against. He fails to find a job, a lady refuses to sit next to him in the bus and later when he’s out with his (almost) girlfriend, Gillian, he’s insulted by a waiter in a restaurant.
Racism in America versus racism Britain
Another interesting bit was where he talks of racism in America versus racism Britain. In America, he says, it is much more open, hence can be opposed. Also, each incident is followed by positive change. In Britain, on the other hand, people barely acknowledge its presence. In fact they might even look down upon the Americans for how open and rampant racism is. And yet it thrives in Britain — silently, in a passive aggressive way, making it harder to fight against. In fact as a white person you may not even be aware of its existence. A conversation between Gillian and him goes like this:
‘Didn’t you know that such things happened?’ ‘Not Really. I have heard and read about it in a vague sort of way, but I had never imagined it happening to me.’
So that’s one more reason you must pick up this book if you haven’t read it already.
Don’t forget to drop by next week for yet another fascinating character. It’s a boy this time – a teenager – a very very different teen who’s out on an investigative trail. And do share your favourites. It’s no fun if I do all the talking :-).
Linking up to ABC Wednesday , the fun alphabetical weekly challenge.
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