The Book of Negroes’ Illustrated Edition: Circulating African-Canadian History through the Middlebrow

Gillian Roberts, Lecturer
Department of American and Canadian Studies
University of Nottingham

This paper examines the illustrated edition of Lawrence Hill’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize- and Canada Reads-winning novel The Book of Negroes. Originally published in 2007, the novel was re-released as a deluxe illustrated edition in hardback in 2009. This novel relates the story of Aminata, a West African girl kidnapped and sold into the transatlantic slave trade, and her experiences in an indigo plantation in the American south, followed by further displacements to Charleston, New York, Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, and London. In New York, as the Revolutionary War comes to a close, Aminata becomes the scribe for the Book of Negroes, documenting the black Loyalists, as well as the slaves and indentured servants of white Loyalists, granted passage by the British to Canada. Hill has commented both in the paratexts to the original edition of the novel and in magazine articles that the Book of Negroes is an important document about which Canadians are largely ignorant, and need to know more. This desire to circulate knowledge about African-Canadian history through the novel is particularly manifest in the illustrated edition of 2009, where the document of the Book of Negroes features prominently (with a double-page photograph of its original text) as well as countless other images and captions, all of which supplement and interrupt Hill’s narrative. The production and circulation of Hill’s novel as a kind of “keepsake” or “souvenir” edition, with National Geographic-like images, demands critical scrutiny, particularly of the implications of its middlebrow packaging of African-Canadian history.

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