Television

'Resurrects forgotten history': Why you need to watch The Book of Negroes

The series will encore as a three-night special event in recognition of Emancipation Day, starting July 26 at 8pm (8:30NT)

The series will encore as a three-night special event in recognition of Emancipation Day, starting July 26

Young Aminata (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon) is comforted after being lashed for trying to pray. (CBC)

The Book of Negroes is a six-part period miniseries that explores slavery in late 1700s North America through the eyes and experiences of Aminata Diallo (played by Aunjanue Ellis).

Told in a first person voice, Diallo recounts her harrowing journey: from her abduction from her village in West Africa at eleven years old and being forced into a slave coffle to enduring a horrific ocean crossing, being brought to a South Carolina plantation and getting married in a clandestine ceremony to her baby's brutal abduction and her journey back home.

The portrayal of the realities of the slave trade and the experiences Black people endured in the 1783 is of utmost importance because of the awareness it raises around real and brutal historical events. It also holds a mirror up to contemporary Western societies, which in turn may enable a much needed dialogue and assurances that these events never repeat, in any form.

There are many reasons why The Book for Negroes is a 'much watch' series but here are five more to get you excited about an encore broadcast on CBC Television which will air as a three-night special event, from Sunday, July 26 to Tuesday, July 28 starting at 8 p.m. (8:30 NT), in recognition of Emancipation Day (observed in Canada on August 1) — a day commemorating the abolition of slavery across the British Empire. 

Based on a novel, which is based on a real naval ledger

The Book of Negroes originally premiered on CBC in 2015 and went on to win many awards including 10 Canadian Screen Awards and two Critics Choice Television Awards in the U.S.

The series is based on a 2007 novel of the same name written by Lawrence Hill which earned the same widespread acknowledgement receiving Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the 2008 Commonwealth Writers' Prize and won the 2009 Canada Reads as championed by Canadian filmmaker and journalist Avi Lewis.

The characters in the book are fictional but the story itself is anything but fiction. Hill's book is actually based on another book, an actual Book of Negroes from 1783 — which is a detailed British naval ledger containing names and descriptions of 3,000 Black refugees, enslaved Africans who escaped to the British lines (Canada) during the American Revolution. 

They were evacuated aboard ships sailing from New York to Nova Scotia, mostly as free people but some were also travelling as slaves or indentured servants of white United Empire Loyalists. A small number of fugitive slaves who were claimed by their American owners before they could leave New York were also documented in the ledger.

"[It] was a book that the British collected so that after the war they would free all the [Black people] that had fought for the British. Ironically they lost the war," says Louis Gossett Jr., who plays Daddy Moses, in this 2014 Q interview to guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

A story of hardship, resilience and triumph

Having their names documented in the actual 1783 book meant freedom for African people who were stolen from their lands and homes. It was a promise for a better life and a chance to return home. 

Lawrence Hill drew inspiration from that and through his savvy at creating unforgettable characters and using the information from the real ledger, he transformed the neglected aspects of history — creating a revealing story of survival, strength and ultimately triumph.

He pens Aminata as a determined warrior who never gives up in her quest to secure her freedom, or loses her humanity, while she navigates her way through the abuse in South Carolina, the American Revolution in New York, the isolated refuge of Nova Scotia and the jungles of Sierra Leone.

"Yes, slavery is at the center of this but it's about how she manages to overcome the hardship that she is forced to endure," says Executive Producer of the series, Damon D'Oliveira.

"What sets this one apart is the background of slavery and the diaspora and all that, but the story is about this woman and her triumphant life. Through all odds, she got back home and she is the one that's telling her story," adds Gossett Jr. 

"[Lawrence Hill] really hooked me from the very first line, 'I seem to have trouble dying,' and I just fell in love with Aminata Diallo, I fell in love with her as a character," says Virgo Clement, who directed and co-wrote the six-part miniseries adaptation of Hill's bestselling novel. 
 

Resurrecting a dramatic and forgotten history

Though the title of Hill's book has raised concerns in some countries and Canadian provinces resulting in title changes in Australia to Someone Knows My Name and Aminata in Quebec, the author has stated: "The title is used not to provoke or offend but to resurrect a forgotten history."

Actor Gossett himself was initially on the fence, explaining: "The name 'Negro' is something that in America most African-Americans reject these days so there was kind of a contempt prior to seeking out the truth. I turned the book down until they said they wanted me to do the part. So I opened the book and I was exposed to this heavenly world that Lawrence Hill wrote. It's called contempt prior to an investigation. I'll never do that again — for people, places or things."

What the series reveals is an uncomfortable history of Canada and slavery. It unearths the truths that need to be firmly acknowledged and used for educational purposes.

(CBC)

"I want to be instrumental in a correction that I think needs to happen in world history, particularly in African-Canadian history, now that I know about this history that happened here as well," says Aunjanue Ellis who plays Aminata Diallo, in a 2015 Q interview to guest host Gill Deacon.

"There's a willful desire on the part of supremacists who want to subdue certain parts of our history because it serves them. And so many stories, particularly stories about women, particularly people of colour, not just African-Americans but Japanese-Americans. All of us have participated in this experience of creating both these cultures. For me I want to participate in that correction. People get educated a lot of times, more so visually than they do from books and so I feel like I'm participating in that."

Epic portrayals by Oscar-winning cast, supported by acclaimed director's vision

The series features the talented Aunjanue Ellis in the main role of Aminata Diallo alongside Oscar-winning co-stars Cuba Gooding Jr. (Sam Fraunces) and Louis Gossett Jr. (Daddy Moses).

It also boasts high profile supporting roles including The Legend of Tarzan's Ben Chaplin who plays John Clarkson, Republic of Doyle's Alan Hawko (Solomon Lindo), Jane Alexander (Maria Witherspoon), Lyriq Bent (Chekura) and Sandra Caldwell (Georgia).

But the stunning visuals of this epic tale of inhumanity are delivered through the lens of an acclaimed Canadian director, Clement Virgo, whose directing credits consist of classics like HBO's The Wire and Billions, FOX's Empire, Baz Luhrmann's Netflix drama The Get Down, ABC's American Crime, OWN drama series Greenleaf, on which he served as Executive Producer alongside Oprah Winfrey, and more.

A lesson in history with many teachable moments

If you think that knowing the end to this story is a spoiler, think again. The real mental sustenance and story substance is in Aminata Diallo's journey from her abduction to her freedom and onwards.

Canadian history pertaining to slavery tends to be romanticized on screen as we point a finger south of the border, says Hill in this The National interview. The Book of Negroes, however, credibly portrays slavery reflecting the true history while featuring the first African-Canadians who settled in Nova Scotia and helped build Canada.

With many teachable moments about history as well as human strengths and power, the series gives back a voice to those that have long been silenced. It's also a cautionary tale that provides takeaways one should always keep top of mind in order for these atrocities to never repeat again.

Young Aminata Diallo (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon) is sold to South Carolina's Indigo plantation owner Robinson Appleby (Greg Bryk). (CBC)

This story remains relevant even today with anti-Black racism still so prevalent in our society. But, if we can draw any lessons from Aminata, it's to never give up hope and the fight for a better and more equal tomorrow, and there is a lot of work to be done.

The three-night special viewing event of The Book of Negroes airs from Sunday, July 26 to Tuesday, July 28 starting at 8 p.m. (8:30 NT), on CBC Television. You can also watch the series now on CBC Gem.

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