Beyond the Book of Negroes

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Recently I watched an interview with actress Aunjanue Ellis, the star of The Book of Negroes Miniseries that aired on BET this past week. In the interview she spoke about having a realization I have been thinking on for years. “When people say they are tired of seeing stories about people who were enslaved, what they essentially are doing is saying their story does not matter. You’re saying this is the sum total of their lives. It’s a bigger story than that.”

As African Americans, we tend to get angry when we see each other depicted on TV and in movies as slaves, because we have been taught slavery is something that is shameful for us. In truth, this was the reality of most people of color who lived on this continent during that that time in history. Who are we to say their stories do not matter? Who are we to think the total sum of who they were could be confined to their circumstances and not look at who they were as people? If we do this we are condemning them, just as the slave masters did, to be invisible. They have stories worth telling and those stories are muti- dimensional. There should be no shame in being a slave, as many so called enlightened people may believe. Truth be told, the shame is the burden for those who did the enslaving to bear. Unfortunately, as blacks in America, we are still defined by the conditions of our fore fathers, so much so that often times, their accomplishments are disregarded. It is only through telling the stories of triumph and resilience that we make progress in changing this way of thinking.

I remember as a child watching Roots every year when it aired. To me it was something to look forward to; like watching The Wizard of Oz or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. My mom, on the other hand, always got angry and refused to watch it. Not understanding her angst, this confused me as a child, but I get it now. I still don’t agree, but I get it. Growing up in a different era, she was taught to think differently. Having former slaves as grandparents negatively impacted her view of the world. However, my way of thinking was different and I couldn’t wait to watch Roots, because it was a way for me to make a connection to my history. Being raised in the south in the 70s and 80s, you can imagine there were not many opportunities to talk with elders about the past. It was just not something you did. It wasn’t as if my great grandparents were sitting around the fireplace talking about slavery with nostalgia, recalling “Remember the time ole massa made us pick cotton till our fingers bled.” My sarcasm is rich here, but seriously,they would prefer to forget memories which are not pleasant, therefore children were taught not to ask questions, especially those questions that would be painful for anyone to answer.

With no one to go to with questions, I found curiosity manifests itself in strange ways, and so I turned to the one place I thought could quench mine; television. I chose this source of information because black history was not being taught in school at that time. Even what is being taught today is somewhat inaccurate. As an adult I have chosen to educate myself through reading a variety of books on historical subjects, but as a child it was almost impossible to do; there was no access. Learning about new events that took place during slavery should be a passion of the youth, but how will this happen if all those stories are never told? How will the world ever know about the heroes and heroines of the past if we chose to overlook hundreds of years of our history? Of course no one wants to watch the horrible beatings and the conditions, in which slaves were forced to live, but it was the reality of millions of people. It needs to be shown, otherwise, we run the risk of slavery being romanticized without people feeling its horrors. Every American needs to feel the pain of slavery to prevent this diabolical institution from legally rearing its ugly head again.

For those who say we don’t need another story about slavery, I say open your minds. The Book of Negroes is not a book about slavery, just as Roots is not. The Book of Negroes is a story about Aminata Diallo, an intelligent, multi-lingual woman who just happened to be a slave. It is a love story. A story of never ending hope. She did not allow the fact that she was forced to do someone else’s bidding prevent her from realizing her childhood dream of being a story teller. She accomplished so much more than her adolescent mind could ever have imagined, despite the fact she was enslaved. The same holds true about Roots. It is a story about survival and love of family; about passing on the customs and heritage of Kunta Kinte so his family can remember their origin. Being a slave was just their surroundings in each of these stories, but getting to know the person is so much more rewarding. The next time you see a movie or book that has a slave as the main character, I challenge you to get to know the person instead of their circumstance.

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28 thoughts on “Beyond the Book of Negroes

  1. Thank you for sharing this post. While I am not ashamed of slavery or deny its existence, I did not see the movie Roots. Self-awareness of the horrendous physical abuse my people were subjected to during that period has successfully carried and guided me through more than sixty-five years of living in a country where I have been subjected to unfair and unequal treatment in most areas of my life for no other reason than the color of my skin.

    As a child and continuing to this day, emotionally and mentally, I prefer not to view violent movies of any type. I am probably one of the few people who do not follow the television programs — How to Commit Murder, Scandal and Empire. Though, Hubby and my children follow the programs weekly.

    In fact, every year or so, Hubby will have a movie marathon pulling out Godfather I, II and III; and, I find a quiet space in another part of the house.

    I am grateful that you shared this post. Now, I understand why I have gotten strange looks when I tell people I couldn’t watch Root or Django. Now, I know a deeper explanation is needed. Thank you, again.

    • Thank you for sharing some of your personal insight. I respect everyone’s choice not to watch such program, but wanted to relay a different way of viewing the subject. I have alway been fascinated with the stories of former slaves. My curiosity challenges me to get into their psyche to see what they were thinking and how they managed to survive such conditions.

  2. Hi Lisa,
    Thank you for the reminder. I think for a lot of us, we build our knowledge up about issues around social justice in a very piecemeal way…a bit here and a bit there which hopefully starts coming together and people start asking questions. I heard a very powerful talk about slavery in the modern day when I volunteered at my old school for Business Week. I’d heard bits and pieces but we’ve all been told slavery has been abolished and just like I didn’t realise there were homeless people where I live because I rarely go out at night and people are good at covering their tracks.
    I’m Australian and the treatment of our Aboriginal people is something we are a country need to be educated both in terms of what happened and also in terms of becoming more compassionate. I grew up believing the Australia was discovered by Captain Cook in 1770 when in actual fact, Australia had never been lost. If you are interested in Aboriginal issues, you can Google my Aunt, Dr Anna Haebich who wrote the history of the stolen generation and is a well-respected historian.
    I had an eye-opening time last year reading about my Irish ancestor’s anger about the English taking their land and yet they did the same to the Aboriginal people so history isn’t always straight forward.
    Take care & best wishes,
    Rowena

    • Wow Rowena! Such a great message. Sometimes we Americans can be self centered and forget about the plight of others around the world. I am making a conscious effort to change that about myself. I will google your aunt and read more about the Aboriginal people. It sound very compelling. In America we are taught Christopher Columbus discovered out country, but of course it wasn’t lost either. Thank you for your comment and I hope to chat with you again very soon.

      • It is a real struggle to be a more global person because even your own household can be all-consuming. Largely due to our geographic isolation and what we see on the news, we tend to think trouble is “over there” and our eyes well and truly opened up with the terrorist siege in Sydney in December.
        I have researched my family history in detail and my Irish roots in Sydney were a battling bunch. One of them was one of the Irish orphan girls sent out during the Irish Famine from a workhouse in Cork. My UNcle asked his grandfather who his father was when he was a boy and Pop sore red and his Dad had quite a long talk to him. Turns out his mum was pregnant when they’d married and I also think he wanted to hide their poor background. My uncle, however, interprets Pop’s reaction as an Edwardian thing. People apparently just didin’t talk. In Australia, having a convict ancestor used to be a real shame but now it is a point of pride. I don’t think anyone except the slave traders etc as you mentioned, should feel ashamed of having slaves in their heritage. It showed you have very strong, stock who were able to surivive and overcome incredible hardship. This is so much more of an achievement than being born wealthy and living off the family fortune xx Rowena

  3. Thank you for sharing this story.
    As a Nigerian I always felt my struggle was an isolated one especially when dealing with conflicts within tribe (yeah, this isn’t whites on blacks but rather blacks on blacks) but my world became brighter when I started reading the works of African Americans especially Maya Angelou, bell hooks etc then I started connecting all these together – what seemed really complicated became a bit clearer.
    I read Roots + 12 years of slave last year and only say Goodbye Uncle Tom last week – Seeing all these is helping me in a very profound way.

    I can not claim to ‘know’ the struggles of African Americans but it helped me to see my own people, African that ‘birthed’ us all in a very different light.

    We need more personal stories such as this to enlighten ourselves.

    • Thank you for your comment and for reading my post. It does my heart good to connect with someone, if only briefly, that shares my hunger for knowledge in this area. I know very little about the struggles you face in Nigeria, but I know that people are the same all around the world once we remove the labels.
      Maya Angelou was one of the main writers who taught me that and
      I see you do too. I hope you continue to discover more books to help in your journey of self discovery. Please don’t be a stranger. I would love to hear more from you in the future.

  4. Shery Alexander Heinis

    This is a very thoughtful and well written post. I am thankful that I was a voracious and inquisitive reader as a young girl and read “Roots” and saw the series on television. I read May Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” And I’m fortunate that the “Book of Negroes” was published when I arrived in Canada, and I read it as well. I learned so much about the history of the US and Nova Scotia (Canada) and it helped to give me a fuller picture of myself as a Caribbean/American (in the broadest sense) person. Being the descendant of slaves brings me no shame – in fact I marvel at the strength of a people which allows me to be here today. I read books and watch films from every culture. I have seen many movies and read books based on the history of the holocaust, yet I hear nobody complaining that they’re tired of these. I would expect others to respect and understand my (mixed up) history as much as I try to respect and understand theirs.

    • I think a lot of the complaining comes from people who say they are tired of being depicted as a lesser race, without realizing they are doing the same thing by denying their past. Sometime we must separate ourselves from our feelings in order to open ourselves to reality. Some people are not ready to do that and are stuck being angry.

  5. When I read your post on daring to look back in history I got an associate thought that many Jewish children have suffered from having had parents who were holocaust survirvers. The horrors were of kind that could not be told so the children and grnd children had no story or explanation to the behaviour of the parents. If the survivors at last told their stories it was a relief for the whole family.

  6. I meant to add, I recently learned about the enslavement of the Irish by the British/English. There is so much of history that is kept “secret” and that we only learn about if we look for it ourselves.

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