THE BLOG

The Book of Negroes: An American Story/History Still Matters!

02/19/2015 02:01 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

Since the Christmas Day release of Selma, the movie based on the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and the events leading up to the march from Selma to the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery, social media has hosted hotly contested debates about the authenticity and truthfulness of the movie.

Contestations about the past are not unusual, to be sure, and they are enhanced when the dramatic past makes it to the big screen. In this case, however, many of these critiques made efforts to detract from the film as a beautiful work of art and history stitched together with stunning performances.

These efforts included the piece that sanctioned the backlash penned (and published in the Washington Post) by one of President Johnson's staffers, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., a person invested in LBJ's legacy on the right side of the moral story during the historic events that shape the mass civil rights movement years.

Califano prompted an avalanche of overly loud protestations over the depiction of Johnson with little consideration or sensitivity to the core of the movie's message and focus. The cynic in me sees no coincidence. Director Ava DuVernay chose not to include a white savior to iconize -- a trope that would increase audiences at the expense of alternative visions.

Rather she insisted on telling a story that depicts the range of black humanity, the messiness of mass movement organizing and the real everyday threats to the lives of African Americans -- whether they are children walking down the basement steps of their church in their frills and bows to freshen up before Sunday school before sticks of dynamite end their lives, or adults trying to register to vote facing openly hostile registrars or menacing police swinging nightsticks. She chose to tell the story of the black freedom struggle as the black freedom struggle.

The resulting critiques? This is more black stuff. What's the point? LBJ is the story here. Or, we know this story but it is the past. Perhaps this nation (read: white people with the disclaimer that I do not take the monochromatic posture that all white people think this, clearly this is untrue) has reached its saturation point with the black-directed and/or black-focused. I mean the critique goes, we had Precious, The Help, The Butler, Django Unchained, 12 Years A Slave (just to name a few) - all in the recent past years. These productions ran the gamut from fantasy to intensely real. Do we really need more? We know black lives matter, but do black stories and black histories, told by black people themselves also matter?

To add to this, let me insert The Book of Negroes, a new spectacular miniseries featuring Academy Award Winners Louis Gossett, Jr., and Cuba Gooding, Jr., based on the fictional tale narrated by award-winning Canadian writer Lawrence Hill. This series, airing on Black Entertainment Television this week, documents the extraordinary life of Aminata Diallo, born in what is now Mali, captured and sold into slavery as a child where she eventually escaped to New York after losing her infant to the slave auction. In New York, armed with literacy, she helps the retreating British military in return for passage to Nova Scotia and freedom from the risk of re-enslavement.

In 1783 British officials asked her to create a log-book documenting the African American community in New York, The Book of Negroes. This book is a real historical artifact that exists in three versions, safely housed in the U.K., Canadian, and U.S. national archives -- living records of a moment when approximately 3,000 black lives mattered enough to have the British employ a black woman to record them. The film and books then trace these black loyalists to Nova Scotia and later to Sierra Leone through Aminata's story, powerfully portrayed by the splendid actress, Aunjanue Ellis.

I had the privilege of viewing one episode of this 3 part series in a special campus screening a few weeks ago due to the fact that Ellis is a Brown graduate. The Book of Negroes is a lush color-rich picture, supporting a host of award-winning performances worthy of a huge audience. Through the story of one woman's life, it shows the international nature of the slave trade; the deep complexities, ironies, and tragedies that the trade revealed about human nature and the depths of human cruelty and kindness.

Yes, there are "good" white people who understand the human, political, and economic ramifications of their empathy and actions toward the enslaved, as well as those who understand how to manipulate the situation to their own benefit. The depiction of George Washington as a brash, sneering, pompous victor belies the heroic narrative, but again, suggests the complexities of all people.

The Book of Negroes enjoyed record-breaking television audiences in Canada. Publicity for the mini-series has enabled the cast to enter the Canadian parliamentary chambers for recognition, and their faces have graced the sides of buses. In the U.S. hardly anyone knows of this production. Unable to screen on PBS (I would argue that this series is more relevant than, say Downton Abbey of which I am also a great fan), BET might already circumscribe audiences. Attempts to book the cast on the major network talk shows and media networks have failed, despite Academy award winners lending their talents.

One exception: Louis Gossett, Jr., appeared on The View on Monday 16th February, hours before the debut airing of the series. Is The Book of Negroes a victim of bad timing at the end of a list of award-winning pieces about African Americans? If so, what does that really mean? Does it mean that it is too inconvenient to try to absorb more of the history that sheds light on the current inequities that do not collude with the nation's color-blind blinders? Indeed the lead actor in Selma, David Oyelowo, just commented on America's tolerance for portrayals of subservient black people. Aminata is anything but subservient.

For those of us who research, write, and teach about the past for a living -- and for many others paying close attention -- the lack of attention given to The Book of Negroes tells a story as rich and troubling as the film itself. There is more than one story about slavery in America, and if we can welcome yet another depiction of JFK, or George Washington, or Abraham Lincoln, surely we can embrace more stories of a nationwide institution upon which American capitalism, society, and politics firmly rest. It is important to tell the simultaneous stories of suffering and pain alongside endurance and survival. Black lives matter, so do the stories and the histories of these lives. The Book of Negroes is an American story.