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.