This is a book I picked up earlier this year and kept putting it off. It first attracted my attention because it has the same painting on the cover as another book I have, Heaven of Drums. The painting is entitled Portrait of a Negress (1799-1800) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. I often wonder about the lady in this portrait-who was she, what was her life like, why was she painted. I tried to find some information about the portrait and according to Wikepedia the portrait was completed a few years after slavery was abolished.
The Book of Night Women chronicles the story of a young girl named Lilith who is born into slavery on a sugar cane plantation in Jamaica. The story is told in her voice and in the voice of an unknown narrator who is reveled at the end. In 1785 she is orphaned at birth, a “baby wash in crimson and squealing like it just depart heaven to come to hell…” Lilith is instantly feared because her green eyes are a spectacle against her black skin. These green eyes and their implications of rape, violence, and enduring will create the backdrop for Lilith’s life at the Montpelier Estate.
We watch as Lilith passes from childhood into adolescence. She becomes aware of beauty, status, boundaries. Lilith speaks up, is sometimes cocky and others begin to say that she is spirited and believe that she is powerful though they can’t quite figure out what powers she harbors. Because of the potential seen in Lilith she is invited to meet with a group of women who are planning a revolt across estates. These are the night women, one of which has Lilith’s green eyes-the same green eyes of the overseer. They have been planing for years and see Lilith as a way to finally launch themselves into freedom similar to a successful revolt years earlier. Lilith, however, is struggling to make sense of her own feelings both good and bad, her identity, and her position on the estate. She struggles with wanting to do well at her work so that she can advance to better positions, she struggles with desires to attract the master’s attention, with dreams of being loved, and generally with pushing the ideas of the place of a young black woman on a slave plantation. Lilith who was once a girl is growing up and is not sure that compromising security is worth an attempt at the freedom the night women speak of.
The Book of Night Women is graphic and the language explicit, but the language and images are not so bothersome to me. I appreciate stories about slavery that are intense, where you can smell the sweat, fear is electric, and the resilience and resolve are tough as nails. It is a stark departure from many history books. It is a history that is not often told but that all should know.
Every negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will. But sometime the circle not be the negro’s but the white man own, and white man circle full of hill and valley and things they say that mean something else. Black man wake up to find circle make for him, beginning with the shackle that lock round him neck. White man circle come by him own choosing. Plenty have choice to walk straight and away, yet plenty come back to where them start. Others never leave. And if you the negro get take up in the white man life, you travel that circle too.