Entertainment

The Book of Negroes is relevant now more than ever as the fight for Black rights takes centre stage

The six-part miniseries, based on author Lawrence Hill's best-selling and award-winning novel, first aired on CBC back in 2015 to great acclaim from critics and audiences alike.

Miniseries based on Lawrence Hill's acclaimed novel links the past with the present

Aunjanue Ellis, centre, displays a slogan on her dress to protest the flying of the Confederate flag, as she stands with director Clement Virgo, second from right, and fellow cast members of The Book of Negroes at the 2016 Canadian Screen Awards in Toronto. The miniseries won the award for best TV movie or limited series and Ellis received best actress honours. (Fred Thornhill/Reuters)

The Book of Negroes is coming back to a TV screen near you.

The six-part miniseries, based on author Lawrence Hill's best-selling and award-winning novel, first aired on CBC back in 2015 to great acclaim from critics and audiences alike.

It tells the story of a West African-born woman named Aminata Diallo who is kidnapped as a child and forced into slavery in South Carolina.

Diallo eventually helps the British in the American Revolutionary War, getting her name in a book kept by British naval officers.

She eventually makes her way to Nova Scotia, and through her eyes, viewers relive the earliest chapter of the Black experience in Canada.

Aunjanue Ellis as Aminata Diallo on the set of The Book of Negroes. (Joe Alblas, Conquering Lion Pictures, Out of Africa Pictures)

But what does this lavishly shot and passionately portrayed piece of fiction have to offer audiences now, in 2020?

With protesters in cities in Canada, the United States and around the world calling for an end to systemic racism — sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 — what makes this little-known chapter of our history relevant?

  • SPECIAL PROGRAM | Watch Being Black in Canada, Sunday, July 26 at 7 p.m. on CBC-TV, CBC Gem or online. Host Asha Tomlinson speaks with activists who have been a part of the Black Lives Matter movement for many years about what has changed and what now needs to happen. Also in the program, we reunite writer Lawrence Hill and stars from the cast and crew of The Book of Negroes to talk about its ongoing relevance. At 8 p.m., we start our broadcast of the series that will continue on Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on CBC-TV.

Series director Clement Virgo and members of the cast sat down with CBC's Asha Tomlinson for a roundtable discussion to answer this question.

Aunjanue Ellis's searing portrayal of Diallo won her best actress honours at the Canadian Screen Awards in 2016.

Director Clement Virgo on the Appleby's Plantation set during shooting for The Book of Negroes. (Joe Alblas, Conquering Lion Pictures, Out of Africa Pictures)

For Ellis, there is a direct line between the history she helps depict on the series and what has unfolded in the wake of Floyd's killing.

"I'm still in the throes of it. It will take me several months — perhaps years — for me to have some clear words about what that did to me, she said.

"But I know what it did to my body, I know what it did to my soul. I'm interested now in what it's going to do to my mind.... I shamelessly say that The Book of Negroes is a seed for that ... because Lawrence Hill wrote that not knowing that he had George Floyd in those words that he was writing."

WATCH | Aunjanue Ellis discusses her feelings about the killing of George Floyd:

Aunjanue Ellis plays lead character Aminata Diallo in The Book of Negroes. She reflects here on how she's dealing with the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and what it has made her understand about The Book of Negroes. 0:57

For Beverly Bain, a professor of women and gender studies at the University of Toronto, a big part of the power of The Book of Negroes is the fact that it has a Black female protagonist.

Bain said it's a reminder of the role Black women have always played in anti-racism work.

"That is the history of Black women," she said. "We continue to be the voice of the resistance to anti-Black racism. It reflects the fact that women have always been the leaders standing up for both Black women and Black men." 

Women march through the streets of downtown Toronto in June in support of Black Lives Matter and protesting against the police killings of Black people. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Canadian actor Shailyn Pierre-Dixon was just 11 when she played the role of Aminata as a child. Now 17, she said being cast in The Book of Negroes has helped her navigate being a young Black woman in the current push for social change.

Pierre-Dixon said she learned little to nothing about the history of slavery in Canada in school.

"It's only because before filming I'd read the book that I was able to really immerse myself in a little bit of education on this type of topic,"  she said.

"I was never really noticing different types of micro-aggression — being able to identify these instances — before being a part of The Book of Negroes, which is why I think as a young person, it's really important for us to put this type of film out."

WATCH | Shailyn Pierre-Dixon on the lack of Black history lessons in schools:

Actor Shailyn Pierre-Dixon, who plays 'young Aminata' in The Book of Negroes, talks about the lack of lessons on Black history in school and how she immersed herself in education about it when she read the book. 0:42

The miniseries also stars a legend of stage, screen and television, Louis Gossett Jr. He plays Daddy Moses, a father figure to Aminata Diallo as she tries to build a life in Nova Scotia.

To an earlier generation of activists, he was known, among other performances, for his role as Fiddler in Roots — another iconic story, written by Alex Haley, about the history and legacy of slavery that aired as a miniseries in 1977.

The Book of Negroes, he said, is this generation's Roots.

"It's time for people to know all the stories about us, to get a picture of who we really are, as some of the stories about us have been taken out of our history books," Gossett said.

"Everybody needs to know about everybody. Our children need to know who they are so they can represent themselves properly."

WATCH | Louis Gossett Jr. on spreading knowledge of Black history:

Oscar winner Lou Gossett Jr. talks about the importance of The Book of Negroes and other seminal shows like Roots in spreading the knowledge of Black history to a wide audience. 0:46

The U of T's Bain cautions that while it's important to know our true history, especially in times of turmoil, it's not enough.

"Too often history is seen as the past. This is the continuation of the past," she said. 

"What we see in books and in the show is still reflected in today's practices, both at institutional and everyday levels."

Learning about the history of slavery, Bain said, has to be accompanied by what she calls "a simultaneous call for a change to the structures that continue to bear down on Black bodies, such as the police."

As for Lawrence Hill, who combined his research with his imagination to create The Book of Negroes, knowing history and how it can inform the future is important.

Acclaimed Canadian author Lawrence Hill wrote The Book of Negroes. (Lisa Sakulensky Photography)

But perhaps the most important takeaway from the miniseries today is empathy.

"Hopefully it peels back the layers and allows us to see a real person ... imaginary but sort of a real person," Hill told CBC's Asha Tomlinson.

"And it might inspire people today to imagine that there are real people behind this Black Lives [Matter] movement, real people who are getting shot and killed and choked to death in this country and in the United States and other parts of the world. Real people who are suffering and whose humanity needs to be recognized today."

  • CBC's website, Being Black in Canada, is now live featuring the stories and experiences of Black Canadians from across the country. Find it at cbc.ca/beingblackincanada.

About the Author

Tarannum Kamlani is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared on the fifth estate and The National. She has also worked on a spectrum of shows on CBC Radio and Television, including Q and Power and Politics, and holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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