Some stories must be told, stories that expose the terrible deeds of civilization. Such is the poignant tale of Aminata Diallo, stolen as a child from her home in an African village and sold into slavery. Born a free Muslim, Aminata will lose all but the few remembered words of her parents’ religion, both father and mother left bleeding in the dirt.
Shackled to others, the girl stumbles over the African terrain for months, coming finally to the great slave ship that awaits for the passage to the colonies. The stench of the vessel precedes their arrival, a smell that will haunt Aminata until her final days. The journey across the ocean is horrifying, despairing slaves jumping to their deaths in the embrace of the sea. Finally, an uprising yields white and African bodies as well, maimed and bloody, all tossed to the waiting sharks.
Trained as a child by her mother to catch babies being born, Aminata is useful on the slave ship, enduring the hardships and surviving the insurrection only to be delivered into her new master’s hands and taken to an indigo plantation in South Carolina. It is here that Aminata, now called Meena because no one can pronounce her African name, reunites with a young man from the ship.
Pregnant, Meena bears her child only to have him sold; the grieving slave is taken to New York by a new master, a Jew who says he understands how it feels to be an outsider. But in spite of his words, this man is free. Put to the test, he fails, unable to understand what slaves must endure once taken from their homeland, abused by whomever holds the power of life and death.
Taught to read and write in secret while in South Carolina, Aminata is adept at hiding her talents, but once in New York, she learns of opportunities that may advance her situation. She dreams of someday returning to Africa, to the village of her birth, understanding in her heart that she is free, master or no.
Over the years, Aminata reunites with her husband and bears another child, only to face the same fate, separation and loss, a haunting refrain that follows her every step: “survival depends upon perpetual migration.” Finally, in Nova Scotia, she learns that the Sierra Leone Company is offering those who qualify an opportunity to return to Africa as free men and landholders. Once in Sierra Leone, the Company fails to live up to its promises. Aminata is unable to reach her village, the only course remaining to go to London and tell her story to the abolitionists.
Educated, well-spoken and determined, Aminata gathers languages to tell her tale to all who may listen, to Africans and abolitionists alike, of the Diaspora from her homeland to many countries, everywhere speaking her truth: “We will cry out always always always just so you don’t forget us.”
What Barry Unsworth did for the Middle Passage in Sacred Hunger, so does Lawrence Hill for the suffering of slaves in Someone Knows My Name. To be reminded of this nightmare is to be reminded of the collective inhumanity of those who rationalize deeds to serve the god of profit. More importantly, Aminata celebrates the extraordinary courage of the human spirit in the face of evil.