Friday, January 30, 2015

The Book of Negroes Mini Series: What's so wrong with "negro"?

Thursday night I attended a screening of the new mini series Book of Negroes hosted by Brown University's Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. Despite heavy promotion of the event, snow laden streets, traffic and cold weather likely kept many people at home. Then once the screening commenced, we lost a few more to a lengthy episode of technical difficulties. But those who stuck it out were in for a real treat- a first look at the fourth episode of the series and an intimate chat with the star, and Brown grad, Aunjanue Ellis.

The Book of Negroes is a new Canadian (with the help of American and South African producers) mini-series based on the book of the same name by Laurence Hill. The story follows Aminata Diallo from her childhood in West Africa where she is the daughter of a Muslim jewelry designer and an expert midwife, to her capture by slave catchers, her experience of the Middle Passage, sale in South Carolina and her adult life in slavery and in freedom. The book was incredibly well written with a fast pace, complicated, well developed characters and a strong basis in the true history of the international slave trade and emancipation narratives.

If the name of the book doesn't quite sound familiar that may be because it was originally published in the United States (and Australia) as "Someone Knows My Name".

“The title is not intended to be offensive, but. . . to shed light on a forgotten document and on a forgotten migration, that of thousands of blacks from the USA to Canada in 1783,” - Laurence Hill, 2011

In Holland, in 2011, some protestors found the use of the word Negro in the title to be so offensive that they threatened to burn copies of the book. In the end the group printed photo copies of the cover, which in Holland included a painting of an enslaved woman. They cut off the lower portion of the cover and pasted it on signs. Their spokesman stated that they did not wish to burn an image representing an ancestor only the offensive title of the book. Uhm ok. It is safe to assume that African descendants in Holland may have slightly different feelings about this word. And it may or may not have anything to do with this guy...
and how he reminds many black folks that Holland is not the quiet, peace loving racial democracy it promotes itself as.

In America, the term's usage marks the speaker as out of touch or possibly racist. But as part of the title of a book or film? The term's usage is clearly meant to evoke a particular historical context. But not every American is going to catch that. America's history with the term could certainly make the title a bit of a turn off for viewers and possibly sponsors. Is that why it is being hosted on BET? It harkens back to an ugly history of social unrest, state sanctioned violence against black citizens and organized civil disobedience. No not 2014! The 1960's. Hmm and the 1890's...and 1860's and 1760's and.... yeah you get it.


A couple of years ago I found myself jokingly using the term Negro among friends of color as a substitute for black. Funny enough, it became a habit. I eventually used it one too many times in front of non-black friends, and much to my chagrin, the term caught on. A few teachable moments later, they stopped using it. Sorry guys.

I am so energized by the real historical narratives intertwined with Aminata's narrative in the book and the film that I think I may do a few episode reviews. I already have a few points to discuss about the first episode. For now I hope you watch, and enjoy!!


Panel Discussion of the film and novel.
Panelists include author Laurence Hill, producers, and actors Aunjanue Ellis (Aminata Diallo), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Fraunces) and Lou Gossett Jr (Grandpa Moses).