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The Book of Negroes and the Ongoing Fight for Equality in America

02/23/2015 04:29 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015
Sonia Recchia via Getty Images

Having originally aired in January on CBC Television in Canada, The Book of Negroes premiered on BET this week to American audiences. The six-part miniseries is based on Canadian author Lawrence Hill's 2007 novel of the same name, and on the historical document from 1783, which records names and descriptions of 3,000 African-American slaves who escaped to British lines during the American Revolution and were then evacuated to Nova Scotia as freedmen. The plot centers on the character Aminata Diallo, who is forcefully brought to South Carolina from West Africa before the American Revolution.

We have followed the stories of African-American protagonists on their journeys through slavery in Roots (1977), Roots: The Next Generations (1979), and Queen (1993). While these particular pieces may be viewed as part of African-American History curriculums, and otherwise screened by families to supplement public schools' history units, The Book of Negroes is the only miniseries to document such a tale in 22 years.

Of particular importance for viewers to observe are six themes that are present throughout Aminata's story and still prevalent issues in America today.

The Name Game: One of the first instances we see stripping African captives of their humanity is the replacement of their ethnic names with ones of Anglo origin, such as exchanging "Aminata" for "Mary." (This was also done in an infamous Roots scene in which Kunta Kinte is whipped into accepting the name "Toby.") Throughout the miniseries, Aminata reasserts her name to everyone around her, in a very political effort to maintain ownership of her identity. The stigmatization of ethnic names continues today in American society, as studies show that employers often favor applicants with Anglo names.

Body Politics: The control of black women's bodies is an element that pervades through the entire miniseries in the form of hypersexualization, rape, and reproductive control. Aminata's rape on the plantation is particularly important when combined with the black women who are sexualized by British soldiers during the American Revolution. While some worked as prostitutes for the officers in their territories, others became mistresses, such as 15-year-old Rosetta with 22-year-old British Lieutenant Waters, in order to stay alive and feed themselves. Rosetta asserts that she is in love, will drown her baby, and will return to the officer afterwards, in a disturbing case of forced seduction. All three circumstances have fueled the ugly fire for the stereotype of the Jezebel, the lustful black woman out to seduce white man, created to mask the brutalities of white men's assertion of sexual dominance over black women.

This abuse and control continues with black women's reproduction. On the slave ship, a pregnant African woman is going to be tossed overboard, but instead is allowed to give birth while wearing shackles, much like the women in select prisons today. Furthermore, when Aminata gives birth to her daughter with husband Chekura, she and her daughter are sold by Mr. Appleby to separate slaveholders in a cruel act of jealousy. This disregard for black women's and black children's lives is as political now as it was then, as there continues to be a stigma linked to black mothers and their reproductive rights.

Family Matters: The series depicts both positive images and the harsh realities of the nuclear black family unit. In keeping with its romantic subplot, Aminata and Chekura marry in the jumping the broom ceremony traditionally observed by slaves. The two are separated multiple times, always fighting to find one another again. The separation of the black family is further showcased by the morbidly ironic reclamation of runaway slaves after Independence Day, in which Claiborne is separated from his free wife and daughter. Between the prohibition of legal black marriages, the sale of husbands and children, and the runaway reclamation, the black woman is left alone. This history is an important part of understanding the low marriage and single-parent household rates that the black community currently faces, as these are lingering effects from generations of dismantling.

Language and Education: Aminata speaks two African languages as well as British English fluently, which proves to be both useful and problematic. While she is asked to communicate with the other captives to aid in the operation of the slave ship, Mr. Appleby only asks her to speak "some of that African" to entertain his guests. It is no secret that learning to read was illegal for African-Americans during slavery, and Aminata is advised to keep this ability to herself. It is not until she is in New York amongst free blacks that she is able to share her gift with her community. Later she must prove her literacy to British abolitionists for the right to write an authentic account of her life. There remains a known achievement gap between black students and their white counterparts in the education system today, and this is often positively correlated with what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

White Respectability Politics: Interestingly, slaveholders Robertson Appleby and Solomon Lindo are set up as character foils. Mr. Lindo prefers using the term "servant" over "slave," and equates being treated differently due to his Jewish background with Aminata's experience as an African slave. Though misguided, Mr. Lindo means well when he offers Aminata the chance to do administrative tasks, stating, "You're intelligent. I want to lift you up." However, this all takes a turn after Mrs. Lindo dies of smallpox, and Mr. Lindo is revealed to have helped sell Aminata's daughter to a family in Georgia. He reasserts his ownership over her as well as insists that he "gave them a better life." Aminata courageously addresses his hypocrisy twice, refuting his view of himself as a "hero," and later asks why George Washington owns slaves. This alludes most prominently to the issue of respectability politics involving white people's involvement in the ongoing fight for racial justice, as there are often misguided attempts at solidarity made from a perspective marred by white privilege.

Criminalization: In light of the killings of black youth in recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged to counteract police brutality with peaceful protests and die-ins. Similarly to the Civil Rights Movement, many protestors have been criminalized in the media as "thugs" as protests have been labeled as "riots." As showcased in the miniseries, Patriots protested, rioted, vandalized, and eventually battled their way to freedom from British rule, yet these people were labeled as heroes. In Nova Scotia, Mrs. Witherspoon excites a white mob over losing jobs to blacks and wanting them to stay in their own communities, leading to a murderous frenzy. African-Americans have been heavily policed when organizing and protesting injustice, to the point of being burned and lynched by the KKK as well as assassinated in their own driveways. But despite this history of violence on the part of white Americans, African-Americans are often depicted as criminals in the media and face racial profiling more than any other population in the U.S.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Though The Book of Negroes will undoubtedly serve as one of the newest cinematic educational tools, awareness is only the beginning. In order for history not to repeat itself further, Americans have to take a long, hard look in the mirror, acknowledge their wrongdoings, and work together in this slowly-progressing society to eliminate the lingering effects of slavery and institutional racism.