Many history classes teach the first person to die in the American Revolution was a black man, Crispus Attucks, who sided with the rebels. What might not be as well known is the story of thousands of black loyalists, former American slaves, who accepted offers by the British to give them freedom in exchange for service during the Revolution.
This plan would have worked if the British had won. Since the war didn’t go as the British expected, former slaves were entered into a document called “The Book of Negroes” before being shipped to Nova Scotia, Canada in 1783.
BET production “The Book of Negroes” looks at the journey of a woman — Aminata Diallo (Aunjanue Ellis) — who found her freedom from slavery and was part of the efforts by the British to register the former slaves who were loyal to them in the book. The miniseries is based on the novel by Lawrence Hill that tracks Diallo’s story.
“This is a novel and a miniseries about a woman’s life in and out of slavery and moving her from Africa to the United States and up to Canada and then back to Africa to insist, all along, for her freedom,” Hill says. “So it’s a story of a woman’s life that presents itself very differently from ‘Roots,’ but certainly I was profoundly inspired by Alex Haley and all of his works, including the miniseries and novel ‘Roots’.”
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Ellis shares the Hill’s feelings and looks at the production as a struggle for survival by one woman. She recalls how the real Diallo would say you have to do what what you have to do to survive.
She admires Diallo because when the abolitionists wanted to write her story for her, she insisted that she could write her own story.
“I think that’s a testament to the beauty of our experience with this miniseries. I think that Aminata’s insistence upon being able to tell her own story, I hope people see this and some woman somewhere says, ‘I want to continue in that. I want to continue in that tradition’,” Ellis says. “But that’s going to take people who are willing to partner with that woman and that Chinese American woman who wants to tell her story and her family story in order to make that happen.
“It’s more than just one person doing it, though. It’s going to take all of us deciding that we want to hear and see those stories.”
Helping tell the story is Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding, Jr., Academy and Emmy awards winner Louis Gossett, Jr., and Lyriq Bent.
It’s been 38 years since “Roots” and Gossett, who played Fiddler in the miniseries, is seeing a different world than when there were concerns by the network and the producers that “Roots” would not be shown in the South.
“We made a common decision to do the best we could because we knew the story all along. We’re telling the story to the world. And the best thing happened. The world embraced us, which gave us an ‘okay’ for us to tell our stories,” Gossett says. “So along comes ‘12 Years a Slave’ and other things, and there’s a receptivity in the world about those stories.
“ ‘The Book of Negroes’ is a wonderful story of slavery and the atrocities like ‘Roots,’ but really it’s a glorious story of a woman who lived all of this and that’s in her history. It’s a triumphant story of a woman because she’s the one telling the story.”