The Charles Town Library Society kept its books and maps in a room on Union Street. The keeper of the books sat at a desk at the entrance. He glanced at me quickly and turned away, as if from something distasteful.
“Ah yes, Mr. Lindo,” he said. “I’m afraid we don’t allow Negroes here.”
“Mr. Jackson, don’t you have a brother in the indigo trade?”
The library man carefully closed a book on his desk. “I’m sure nobody will object this one time, Mr. Lindo.”
“Good. We need some books by Voltaire, and your most recent maps of the world.”
The keeper led us to a table at the far end of the room, brought us two of Voltaire’s books and some rolled maps, and left us alone.
“Keep that fan going,” Lindo said.
“He’s not watching.”
“Use it anyway,” he said, “it’s hot in here.”
While I fanned him, Solomon Lindo untied a string around a large scroll.
“I have never seen so many books,” I said, looking around and wishing that women and Negroes were allowed in the library.
“They have a thousand books,” Mr. Lindo muttered, “and I paid for half of them.”
“Where are we?” I asked, pointing at the map.
“This is British North America,” he said, indicating a mass of land.
On the edge of the land, right up against a huge swath of blue named the Atlantic Ocean, Lindo put his finger by a dot, beside which was the name Charles Town.
“And here,” he said, “is Africa.” Across the blue sea, I saw a strangely shaped mass, wider at the top, curving in the middle and narrowing at the bottom.
“How do you know?”
“You can make out the letters if you look carefully. See here? A-F-R-I-C-A.”
“That is my land? Who says it has that strange shape?”
“The cartographers who make the maps. The traders who sail the worlds. The British and the French and the Dutch and the others who go to Africa, sailing up and down the coast, mapping the shape of the continent.”
On the map I paused over some squiggles in the form of baseless triangles. Lindo said they were meant to indicate mountains. I saw a lion and an elephant sketched in the middle of the land called Africa. I saw that it was mostly surrounded by seas. But the map told me nothing of where I came from. Nothing of Bayo, Segu, or the Joliba. Not a single thing that I recognized from my homeland.
“Here on this side of the water, in British North America,” I said, pointing, “it says Charles Town. I can see where we are. But there are no towns written on Africa. Only these places along the water. Cape Verde. Cape Mesurado. Cape Palmas. How are we to know where the villages are?”
“The villages are unknown,” Lindo said.
“I have walked through them. There are people everywhere.”
“They are unknown to the people who made this map. Look here in the corner. It says 1690. This is a copy of a map first made seventy-three years ago. They knew even less back then.”
I felt cheated. Now that I could read so well, I had been excited by the prospect of finding my own village on a map. But there were no villages – not mine or anybody else’s.
“Is there nothing more?” I asked.
Solomon Lindo looked at his watch, and said we had time for one more map.
Mapp of Africa, the second one said, Corrected with the latest and the best observations. I checked the date. 1729. Perhaps it would be better than the first. The map showed land in the shape of a mushroom with the stem shoved to the right. Near the top, I saw the words Desert of Barbary or Zaara, and below that, Negroland, and below that, along the winding, curving coasts, sections named Slave Coast, Gold Coast, Ivory Coast, and Grain Coast. There were tiny words scribbled where the land met the water, but inland was mostly sketchings of elephants, lions, and bare-breasted women. In one corner of the map, I saw a sketch of an African child lying beside a lion under a tree. I had never seen such a ridiculous thing. No child would be foolish enough to sleep with a lion. In another corner of the map, I studied a sketch of a man with a long-tailed animal sitting on his shoulder.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a monkey,” Lindo said.
This “Mapp of Africa” was not my homeland. It was a white man’s fantasy.
“There is some lack of detail,” Lindo said, “but now you see the shape of Africa.”
I said I had seen enough. After all the books I had read, and all that I had learned about the ways of white people in South Carolina, I now felt, more than ever before, that these people didn’t know me at all. They knew how to bring ships to my land. They knew how to take me from it. But they had no idea at all what my land looked like or who lived there or how we lived.
the book of negroes
the subtitle to this post is “why the book of negroes should win canada reads“. in the annual competition for top honours in canadian literature, avi lewis (forever loved by those of us in the co-op movement for his film the take, made with naomi klein) is proposing that every canadian needs to read lawrence hill‘s the book of negroes because it effectively tells a gripping story that runs contrary to the smugness of how canada countered slavery in the united states as the destination of the underground railroad.
i’m proposing that everyone needs to read this book simply because it demonstrates the way that geography functions as a tool of colonization, power, and oppression.
up the geographers!