The “Book of Negroes” — a historical document dating from 1783 that lists the names of more than 3,000 slaves and free black people who were loyal to the British during the Revolutionary War — was on display Thursday night at the National Archives. It sat in a glass case as a screening of BET’s epic miniseries “The Book of Negroes” was held in an adjoining room.
The miniseries, based on Lawrence Hill’s novel, “Someone Knows My Name,” captures the dramatic stories of slaves who fought for the British during the war for independence. At the war’s end, the British promised the black loyalists freedom and safe passage to Nova Scotia.
The six-part miniseries, which airs on BET beginning Feb. 16, tells the story of an African woman named Aminata Diallo. Aminata, who is played by Aunjanue Ellis, was kidnapped in Africa by slave traders and sold for five British pounds into slavery in South Carolina. She finds her way to New York, then to Halifax, then Sierra Leone, and finally freedom in England.
It was Aminata who the British commissioned to write down names of black loyalist in the “Book of Negroes.”
On Thursday night, a crowd of stars and celebrities gazed upon the “Book of Negroes,” which listed men, women and children headed to Nova Scotia on British ships after the war. In fading brown ink and beautiful script, the book documents their names, ages and remarks.
According to the Nova Scotia Museum, three copies of the “Book of Negroes” still exist — one in England, one in Nova Scotia and one at the National Archives.
“This book is a hand-written list of Black passengers leaving New York on British ships in 1783. It gives a name, age, physical description, and status (slave or free) for each passenger, and often an owner’s name and place of residence…. Knowledge of the Black Loyalists begins with this list, made by British and American inspectors.”
The crowd was awed by the beautiful script about the woman, who had been captured by slave traders in Africa, survived the middle passage, slavery and eventually regained her freedom.
During a screening, Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. told a Washington audience that the power of the miniseries lies in the telling of a history that is not often told.
“We must remember that centuries before slavery, we were the first established civilization,” said Gossett. “Our children need to know those stories beyond slavery and through today.”
Gossett, who is well-known for his role as the character Fiddler in the 1977 blockbuster TV miniseries “Roots,” said the “The Book of Negroes” has the same power, to help a new generation better grasp of its history.
“We have a prolific history,” Gossett told the crowd. “It behooves us to know all of it. If we know about the Greeks and the Romans, we must know about the Ashantis.”
Gossett stars as Moses “Daddy” Wilkinson in the series, which also stars Aunjanue Ellis, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lyriq Bent, Jane Alexander and Ben Chaplin. It is directed by Clement Virgo, who is also listed as producer with executive producer Damon D’Oliveira.
Debra L. Lee, president and chief operating officer of BET Holdings, said, that the book the movie is based on was first written with the title, “The Book of Negroes.” Publishers, she said, changed the name in the first release to “Someone Knows My Name.”
As BET was considering the book for the television series, Lee said, BET decided to keep the original name.
“There is nothing wrong with the word Negroes,” Lee said. “It’s outdated but not derogatory.”
Lee said the series is different from other slave narratives. “For the first time,” Lee said, “it’s told from a woman’s perspective.”
Ellis, who plays the lead role of Aminata, said that she was inspired by her character.
“I’ve come to see Aminata as many different things,” Ellis told the crowd. “What I know about her is she is the personification of black female modernity. The way Lawrence Hill has written her, he has written her as a feminist. This idea you can be a feminist and a slave at the same time. She was a free woman. Shackles and chains meant nothing to her.
“When she said, ‘I married the man I love,’ at that time it was revolutionary. For a woman to say, ‘No one will decide for me who I love. I choose the man I love, that is a revolutionary thing to say today.”
In the novel, Hill captures Aminata’s power. In a scene challenging a slave owner, she asks: ” ‘Aren’t I a woman?’ The anger in my own voice surprised me. I jumped up from the table, knocking over an ink pot. … ‘I am no wench. I am a wife. I am a mother. Aren’t I a woman?’ ”
Virgo said the series is a complicated narrative about slavery but also a love story featuring the enduring relationship between Aminata and the man who would be her husband, a role placed by Bent.
In movies about slaves, Virgo said, “so often there is a dehumanization of slaves.”
Bent said the series is about “people running to each other, not just running from man or dogs. They are quite willing to stay still. This is a perfect example of love in its rawest form. It’s important for people to understand there were a lot of people in love at that time.”