As I’m still not reading I’ve been catching up on television. @ReignofApril was tweeting about B.E.T.’s adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes (published in America as Someone Knows My Name) so I set the TiVo. I remember watching Roots live on ABC when I was young. American attention is very rarely focused on the men and women forced to build the nation’s wealth. It would be nice if we could do it collectively once every few decades. Anyway, I’ve got questions. Lots of questions. Almost all of them are really about my most fascinating subject, myself.
The show opens on Aminata as a grown women. She is speaking to an official looking panel of men, recounting a life of survival. This was such an important way to open the series. Aminata is established as an authority, a woman of success and social worth. Our initial impression of her is carried into our next, where Aminata is a young child at home with her parents. The actress who plays her younger self, Shailyn Pierre-Dixon, is a major talent. Pierre-Dixon carries the entire episode before handing it back to Aunjanue Ellis at the close.
The viewer is terrified for Aminata as she is enslaved and sold. I wondered how much of that fear is in the script. Do I expect Aminata to fall victim to a number of atrocities she does not because I am conditioned to think of black slave children in that way, or does the script convey ambient menace (rather than explicit events) as a kindness to the viewer? So many stories focus on white faces that I’m taken aback by white characters without agency. The initial white men are so unimportant that they go unnamed. When the first series of villains are black, it’s logical. When the second are I wonder if I am surprised because of conditioning, history, or some combination? A white character shows more restraint than a similarly placed black one. In an ABC show, I’d call that out. Why am I reluctant to in a BET series? Is the restraint actually more powerful in it’s subversion of expectation than it is an easy reenforcement of cinematic norms?
Aminata proves as resourceful on board the ship as she was in her community. Perhaps a little too resourceful. There was very little emotional weakness. Aminata has no time to be soft or to second guess herself. Wouldn’t a recently enslaved child be less emotionally sound? Aminata is almost superhuman in her strength. On the one hand, she’d have had to be. On the other, do I have a right to criticize her when it’s so rare that a fictional black girl is allowed to be truly heroic? Episode 1 gets a number of things right, including showing the newly enslaved as individual people with limited choices. Instead of a group of slaves learning to be free, The Book of Negroes begins with free people resisting enslavement. Aminata is renamed and she refuses that name. So too do her companions refuse the easy choices. At times, this was mildly confusing. One character has a sudden shift in power that goes unremarked. He, like Aminata, takes a stoic approach to his shift in circumstances.
Soon enough we find ourselves in pre-colonial America. Gleeful white children are intercut with enslaved black bodies as genteel white woman casually walk the street. White businessmen shop for bargains. Most multi-generational Americans of any ethnicity number some of these among their ancestors. One branch of my family arrived here in the mid 1600’s, essentially guaranteeing that my people practiced slavery. At the least, they profited from the unwilling labor of the enslaved. It was interesting how surprised I was when the white characters remained unimportant or superfluous. My next moment of discomfort coincided with Aminata’s arrival at her new home. There she is received by a woman, Georgia, who appears to have fully adopted colonial manners. This is the sassy black mammy figure Hollywood has conditioned me to expect but with a sharper edge than is usually allowed. Aminata’s purchaser remains unimportant, it is Aminata who matters.
Final Assessment: Strong start to series, must see. Early family scenes as beautiful as the ship’s holds are ugly. A
Request: Please keep comments to events in this episode but feel free to discuss them as the miniseries has aired several times now. We’ll be posting the rest of the episodes through the week.