[In this piece, MM starts by taking to task the “fairy tale” elements of Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name for failing adequately to represent the systematic dehumanization involved in the Middle Passage and Atlantic slavery. She then goes on to argue that we ought not to be satisfied with comforting and comfortable tokens of memory–whether in a novel whose main character triumphantly shrugs off enslavement or in a bench by the road, but ought to “demand more.” SKL]
The Fairy Tale of Slavery: Demanding a More Authentic Narrative
Lawrence Hill’s 2007 novel, Someone Knows My Name, follows the life of a young girl captured and sold into slavery. The young girl, Aminata, learns English as well as different dialects of African languages as she suffers the injustices of slavery, meets men will become prominent historical figures, and bears witness to significant events. The novel attempts to hit almost every aspect of slavery (kidnapping, sexual assault, kind masters, terrible masters, abolitionists, British relations, and more) creating an almost fairy tale version of the genre.
But slavery was not fairy tale and it is not a subject easily encapsulated. By creating a “paint by numbers” slave narrative, Hill ignores many of the nuances of systematic dehumanization. Part of his erasure stems from his perpetuation of a strong Western bias. Although Aminata is a Muslim originally from West Africa, she embodies and projects Western values, most obviously in her understanding and use of the English language. Part of Aminata’s depiction could be rooted in a trope we briefly touched upon throughout the course: Mother Africa.
The creation of a female representation of a place is not unique to the Pan-African tradition. Colonizers and those who resist colonizers have long relied upon the female figure to further their own political agendas regarding geographical identities. From the British’s use of Britannia and Hibernia to the Irish’s use of Cathleen Ni Houlihan to even the United States’ early use of Columbia, the female figure has been a frequent tool of colonial and postcolonial rhetoric. In some ways, the character of Aminata continues this tradition by acting as an all-encompassing mother figure: sexually appealing when young, maternal as she matures, smart, and resourceful as she grows older. Aminata is flawless because she represents the “perfect slave”: that is, a slave so upright and respectable that there can be no argument made against her character. Characters like Aminata (we’ve encountered several, but the one I find most similar is the mother in Sankofa) resist the rhetoric used by pro-slavery advocates and general racists to depict a different sort of African(-American)—one that does not require the paternalistic institution of slavery to guide her through life. Rather, the virtues of Aminata and similar characters illuminate and oppose the many vices of slavery.
But that is not all such characters do. The flip side of the female postcolonial figure demands that the feminine figure requires protection from her masculine counterpart. As Spivak famously observed, one of the most insidious techniques of colonial discourse was to depict the colonized female as needing protection from the colonized male. By portraying the colonized male as brutal, savage, and dangerous, empires justified their colonization of these peoples. In the nineteenth century, colonized peoples began to respond to such rhetoric by showing the colonized female as needing protection from the colonizing male. This allowed colonized men to re-contextualize their own positions within colonial and postcolonial frameworks to reclaim power, masculinity, and the moral upper-hand.
In Hill’s defense, Aminata has more agency than many of her predecessors did. Aminata manages to escape slavery, she survives while her husband does not, and she is able to travel the world as a woman to great success. But Aminata also speaks in “proper” English and uses genres and forms familiar to a Western audience, she possesses no humanizing flaws, and her experiences as a woman (her menarche, her sexual assault, her identity as a mother) are all reduced to tokens of her gender. Hill’s portrayal of Aminata fails to humanize her on a basic level and so, although the novel does expose the evils of slavery, it fails to give voice—as Morrison’s Beloved does—to the 60 million rendered voiceless.
Then again, that is just my opinion. Our class discussion regarding the merit of Hill’s work was divisive with two clear sides: those who believed Hill’s work was an excellent beginning to a necessary dialogue, and those who believed Hill’s text stunted the discussion regarding slavery and its legacy. I fell into the latter camp, finding particular fault in Hill’s privileging of a Western perspective, but I cannot forget my own background when considering Hill’s novel. I am a white upper-middle class woman from the mid-Atlantic. My Christian family benefitted directly from the Civil War and their gain has provided me with educational opportunities afforded to few: traveling from a young age, meeting a wide range of people, and attending the college of my choice. My education has helped me realize my own privilege, my own position, and my own role within the legacy of slavery. In most ways, I am the epitome of Western bias.
I have to pause to ask myself if part of my criticism of what I perceive as a Western bias in Hill’s work is the internalization of my own Western bias. Am I uncomfortable with seeing a consciousness so close to my own idealized and placed within an African context?
Although I acknowledge that this is not only possible but plausible, I think there is something deeper at work here for me and my classmates. It is not just an acceptance or resistance to our own varying privileges within the legacy of slavery, but our varying opinions on how the legacy should be reflected in society today.
We have looked at so many different newspaper articles throughout this semester that detail the way slavery still lingers in our consciousness. From vehement letter writers protesting the commemoration of Emancipation through the Jubilee Project to editorials describing French slave owners as the victims of a slave revolt, our narratives of history still need much development. We need to learn how to incorporate our painful histories into our national narrative.
In 2008, a year after Hill’s novel was published and almost two decades after Morrison’s Beloved debuted, the National Park Service along with different non-profit groups unveiled a bench on Sullivan’s Island to remember slavery. Inspired by Morrison’s assertion that there is no sort of monument—not even a small bench—to prompt the contemplation of this painful history, the bench stands as one of the few markers of our country’s long complicity in human trafficking.
This is what I have learned from the class: a bench is not enough. Lawrence Hill’s novel is not enough. I would question if it is even a good start. It seems to me that it is too easy to become comfortable with these consolation prizes. Slavery doesn’t deserve a bench; it deserves a hundred monuments. The people who were enslaved don’t deserve the idealized Aminata; they deserve to have the nuances of their experiences, the subtleties of their characters, the joys and pains of their lives portrayed in an authentic voice. We have said over and over that time doesn’t pass, it accumulates. We still carry this legacy, We should not be comfortable with it. We should be uncomfortable and challenged. Challenged to do better, to think better, to be better. I don’t have the answers. I don’t even have an answer. But this course has instilled in me the question: why don’t we demand more?