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CBC Personalities Minimized Canada's Role in 'The Book of Negroes'

01/13/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 03/15/2015 05:59 EDT
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Canada's national public broadcaster, CBC, has collaborated with none other than Black Entertainment Television (BET) to produce an epic $10-million television miniseries about a woman's 18th century journey from Africa to the Americas and back. Based on the acclaimed historical novel by Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes is named for the British forces' written log of 3,000 enslaved African-Americans who sided with England during the American Revolutionary War. In exchange for helping the British, U.S. slaves were granted safe passage to Canada (and ostensibly to freedom) in 1783.

The Book of Negroes novel won the 2007 Rogers Writers' Trust Prize, the 2008 Commonwealth Writers' Prize and it was the winning selection for Canada Reads 2009. Its French translation, entitled Aminata, won Radio-Canada's Le Combat des livres in 2013. The tome has sold over 500,000 copies in Canada alone, and nearly 1 million worldwide.

Adapted for the small screen, The Book of Negroes' Canadian debut occurs one month ahead of the U.S.A. premiere, appositely scheduled for Black History Month. As with any historical film depicting the bowels of inhumanity towards people of colour, it is an uneasy subject matter for the mostly lily-white CBC personalities.

For example, when delivering his review of the then-upcoming film 12 Years a Slave in 2013, a CBC Radio-Canada arts critic said on air:

"What we retain from the film is the barbaric treatment of slaves... The film is quite graphic {laughs}. It is very strong in terms of scars... I will warn you that there are two or three very difficult scenes. {laughs} You will leave the theater with a new-found phobia of whips!...The photo-direction isn't breathtaking, but the American South's décor and the cotton fields are beautiful, especially in terms of natural light. It brings us into the spirit of summer".

Even though the critic admits the graphic violence isn't a reason to turn away from the film, that the plot will have viewer rooting for justice, the awkward inappropriate humour is puzzling. The 5-minute analysis omits the lead actor's name ('Best Actor' Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor). Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Paul Giamatti's names are cited. Lupita Nyong'o, the eventual Oscar winner, is not mentioned at all.

The awkwardness resurfaced the week of the broadcast premiere, as CBC went all out to promote its TV series. On Q, post-Ghomeshi guest host Gill Deacon didn't bring upCanada's checkered racial past as described in The Book of Negroes. Fortunately, the lead actress, African-American Aunjanue Ellis, brought it up indirectly:

"I gravitate towards period pieces because I want to be instrumental in a correction that needs to happen in world history, particularly African-Canadian history. There is a willful desire on the part of supremacists who want to subdue certain parts of our history because it serves them. So many stories...particularly those of people of colour. I want to participate in that correction."

The publicly-funded broadcaster missed yet another opportunity in its self-appointed role as promoter of equal rights, multiculturalism, and respect.

THE CANADIAN VERSION OF "ROOTS" ?

Over eight evenings in January 1977, Americans of all racial backgrounds tuned in in record numbers to watch the Roots miniseries, based on Alex Haley's memoir. The miniseries reverberated throughout the United States. Some observers and commentators suggest that Roots enlightened and invigorated the national dialogue on race. As a consequence, Roots is considered by many to be the pinnacle achievement in American television.

According to the British Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past, the series has had a dramatic impact upon the perception of enslavement and the representation of slavery. What was significant about Roots was that for the first time, viewers were shown the brutality of enslavement, the lack of representation for the enslaved, and the legacy of racism that blights post-emancipation societies.

Might CBC's The Book of Negroes miniseries be a modern-day Roots for Canadians? Despite the portentousness exhibited by aloof Canadians, it is far too soon to tell if this film will shepherd a much-needed awareness and domestic dialogue on race in the Canadian context, as it did in the USA.

CBC DOESN'T EXPLORE THE CAN-CON

Screen capture from CBC The Current -- 'The Book of Negroes' highlights little-known piece of Canadian history - Jan 7 2015

Despite the deceiving headline from The Current, CBC speaks nothing of Canadian history in this interview. The focus is on the U.S.'s past and present race-relations issues.

The Current host Anna Maria Tremonti framed the conversation at the outset, omitting any uncomfortable Canadian content: "Aminata Diallo is kidnapped as a girl and forced into a life of slavery in the United States...The 18th-century tale carries a new relevance now with the backdrop of street protests south of the border over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, in a society still grappling with the legacy of slavery."

It sounds like she is calling "that society" the U.S.! Canada is post-racial, remember!?

Tremonti asks lead actress Aunjanue Ellis, "Did [the script] shatter any myths for you about the history of slavery in America?" To which the descendant of African slaves responds: "I don't have any myths about it. So it didn't shatter any myths for me."

The cultural blind spot regarding the black experience might be why Tremonti didn't consider that we might not be as ignorant about our own history as Caucasians are. Slavery is the reason we cannot pinpoint our ancestral homes, why our skin tone is lighter than our African cousins', and why our integral equality and humanity are still in question to this day.

Ironically, it is the American actress who steers the conversation towards the Canadian complicity in the oppression of blacks: "The myth-shatterer was the involvement of Canada. I was not aware of that history at all."

Tremonti responded: "And it's not all nice. Canadians like to think of the underground railroad almost as saviours with the 30,000 who came through the underground railroad but there's another side." But instead of expanding on the topic, she veers the conversation back to racism in the USA.

Over the 25-minute segment, less than 3 minutes were spent touching on Canada's past and present treatment of its black citizens. Approximately 20 per cent of The Book Of Negroes is set in Canada. So much for the "Roots"-inspired national consciousness-raising conversation.

Perhaps the novel's author summed it up best: "There are monumental injustices that continue and will always plague us. Our measure of humanity is how to respond to these injustices... I think we learn that these issues are not just issues of the past. We're in a continuum of struggle for justice." ~Lawrence Hill.

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