I've been eagerly waiting for The Book of Negroes to air in the United States. Last night, it finally did. A three-night miniseries kicked off on BET. As a black Canadian living stateside, I was thrilled to see this CBC production make it to American airwaves. For those that don't know, The Book of Negroes is a adaptation of Lawrence Hill's book of the same name in Canada. In the U.S., the book was called Someone Knows My Name. So yeah, the name itself is a lot for Americans to take in. Down here the word "negro" can bring on bad flashbacks, just like "colored". It's a bold move to air something with a title like that in these here parts. Kudos to BET for taking the risk.
But before the program even started my first observation was: holy competition! It makes sense BET wanted to air The Book of Negroes during Black History Month, but it's also the February sweeps ratings period. The miniseries' first night was up against a Grammys tribute to Stevie Wonder, ABC's The Bachelor, NBC's Celebrity Apprentice, and a new CNN quiz show. It almost seemed buried. On Twitter, author and journalist Sophia A. Nelson (@IAmSophiaNelson) said "Folks if @BET has the courage to run #BookofNegroes we should all watch it. In 1979 100million people watched ROOTS for 7 nights!" She has a great point. However, in 2015 there are a gazillion other distractions and choices for a primetime television audience. It was sad to see so many tweets about VH1's Love & Hip Hop on my timeline, while 'The Book of Negroes' was on. Maybe everyone had their DVRs rolling. I'd like to believe that's the case, but I'm not certain 'The Book of Negroes' stood out from the fray.
Part one was good. Good enough to stop me from flipping to the Steve Wonder tribute every now and then? I plead the fifth. The narrative starts off in Mali with the movie's heroine, Aminata, as a young child. She's kidnapped from her family and endures a brutal journey across the Atlantic Ocean, ending up a slave on a U.S. plantation. The young actress, Shailyn Pierre-Dixon, who plays Aminata is fantastic. She portrays Aminata's fiery spirit brilliantly. This part of the series addresses so many painful and important aspects of the slave trade: how Africans sold other Africans, how families were ripped apart, and religions forced away. In a scene after her kidnapping Aminata thinks of what her mother would tell her. "Keep walking, don't fall" is what she says to herself. This was powerful. I think it's a common theme for any child of African diaspora.
One of my favourite aspects of part one is the love story between Aminata and Chekura. It starts when they're both children back in Mali during their capture. They manage to always find each other. Eventually they end up jumping the broom to marry on their plantation. In today's world, it can seem as if black love is often under attack. Aminata and Chekura remind us that black love has always been alive despite the most evil circumstances. It reminds us that many of the societal problems the black family faces today are centuries in the making.
Just like watching 12 Years A Slave or Roots, watching The Book of Negroes, can make you really angry. This is especially so in scenes showing slave hustlers dressed like Captain Hook threatening to throw pregnant women overboard. There's also the numerous scenes depicting how often black women were raped at the hands of slave traders or owners. Even Aminata's precious newborn baby is a commodity to be bought and sold. These are darks parts of our history. They're realities it could be easier to bury. The pain of reliving them, even through screen, almost feels fresh.
The Book of Negroes is reminding me how much my ancestors endured just to survive. It makes me feel obligated to live out my full potential so their pain and struggle isn't in vain. If it does that for those of us who tuned in, that's something! On the ratings front, it will be interesting to see how The Book of Negroes compares to BET's other primetime specials. This is important, because we want networks to continue telling these stories.
The next two nights in the series will delve into the actual meaning of The Book of Negroes, which is a registry of black British loyalists who fled to Canada following the American Revolution. Any chance to expose American viewers to Canadian black history is something I'm gonna get behind. So, will I watch the rest? I'll do it for my ancestors, cause I think it's just getting good.
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