This evening I watched the final two episodes of The Book of Negroes mini-series BET. In another blog post I mentioned that I have read the book and I provided a brief plot summary so I’ll refrain from repeating myself here. Instead, I’ll focus on the significance of the story itself. The mini-series was very well done, the acting was wonderful especially by Aunjuane Ellis and the screenplay was quite faithful to its source material.
Having said all that, the thing I like most about both the novel and the mini-series is that it highlights a relatively obscure slice of history and provides a much-needed reality check to my fellow Canadians. I have found that as a country we can be somewhat smug on the topic of slavery. Though it is true that Canada does not share the same history with slavery as its southern neighbour, we routinely fail to recognize that our hands are by no means clean. Slavery was in fact practiced in new France and some early, prominent Canadians, including the founder of my alma mater, owned slaves. Yet this history is typically glossed over in Canadian classrooms. I recall learning about Canada as a promised land for slaves who arrived there via the underground railroad but never learning about the less savoury aspects of my country’s relationship with slavery.
To a certain extent, The Book of Negroes corrects that wrong. When the main character Aminata leaves the United States to settle as a free woman in Nova Scotia she finds that the “promised land” is not all that she and her fellow Black Loyalists expected. Though they may have been free from de jure binds of slavery, they remained second-class citizens in Canada by de facto forms of disenfranchisement, discrimination, and racism. Indentured servitude was common, few owned property, and hunger was rampant. The Book of Negroes depicts the white Birchtown population as being generally hostile to the newcomers and suggests that there was little opportunity for economic prosperity or justice in the British colony.
Though it is a fictionalized account of this history, The Book of Negroes nevertheless offers an important reminder for Canadians like myself that while we may not have the same history as the United States but we are not innocent. Deep, systemic racism existed then and exists now. The Book of Negroes acknowledges this fact beautifully and hopefully this well-crafted mini-series will awaken that consciousness within Canadians.