Book of Negroes Review Pt.2 by Word Mason

Book of Negroes Review Pt.2 by Word Mason

 

From the Tablet Reviews: The Book of Negroes, Episode 2

In a free and democratic society, the right to self-determination is one that many of us take for granted. We enjoy the right to freedom of movement, association, and access to free education. What if all of that were to be stripped away and we were left to live or die at the whims of someone that relished nothing more than our repression and complete submission? What if trusting anyone could mean the difference between life and death? What is it like to truly be on your own?

In the second episode of the CBC’s The Book of Negroes we are confronted with these questions in all of their depth and exquisite agony. This episode seeks to not only further character development, but also to educate the viewer on life as a slave in the Carolinas just years before the American Revolution. Just like last week, if you haven’t seen the episode yet, please beware.

**********************************SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!***********************************

If you happened to be too lazy to set your DVR or too busy to watch one of the greatest shows in Canadian history, please click this link: http://www.cbc.ca/bookofnegroes/

Now that you have caught up with the rest of the world, let’s talk about this week’s episode.

This episode is packed tightly with a lot of plot, character development, and historical facts. Episode 2 picks up where episode 1 left off, with a beautifully grown Aminata rousing from her sleep under the unsettling and hungry gaze of her master, Robinson Appleby (played by a powerful Greg Bryk). The viewer gets a glimpse of some of the unpleasantness of slave life on Master Appleby’s indigo plantation. The hours are long, the work is hard, and the master’s disposition is an uncomfortable mélange of condescension and hostility. Georgia, who serves as a catalyst for exposition, warns the defiant Aminata of the dangers she must face as a young slave woman. For example, Georgia tells Aminata (read: the audience) about the dangers of being caught reading on pain of death. During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, reading was strictly forbidden to slaves. This served several purposes, it prevented slaves from becoming anything else but agents of production, it kept them obedient by discouraging independent thought, it was a tool to preserve the White elitist class, and it made communication beyond the plantation extremely difficult. Georgia also warns the radiant Aminata that her beauty puts her at risk. Beauty was a curse, for it meant an increased likelihood of falling prey to the lascivious desires of her owner. Robinson eventually acts on these desires and forces himself on the defiant Aminata, stealing her innocence in an atrocious expression of his ownership over her on his office floor.

We have the good fortune of meeting a grown-up and well-muscled Chekura, sneaking in to the plantation at night to see Aminata. First he gives her a headscarf, then a secret marriage and eventually a child. Here they endeavor to offer viewers an education on what relationships were like for people living under the yolk of slavery. Even though we see that he is a devoted father and a loving husband, the conditions under which they live make it a dangerous game for him to be present for his wife and daughter, who is eventually sold by her master in an effort to break Aminata’s spirit.

Aminata is eventually purchased by Solomon and Rosa Lindo (played by Allan Hawco and Amy Louise Wilson). They are a wealthy Jewish couple who, seeking to maximize her potential (insofar as she is still a slave), make Aminata into a house Negro, also known as a slave that serves and sleeps in the house. She is allowed to continue to learn to read and write, and is even given responsibilities beyond cooking, cleaning, and midwife services to kind and very pregnant Mrs. Lindo. Here we see diversity in the treatment of slaves, not all of them being wretched field workers baking in the unforgiving sun, many of them living in relative comfort close to the master. There is a failed attempt to find Aminata’s daughter and a reunification with her beloved husband Chekura, who continues to steal away in the night to find her.

Despite the fact that this was an episode crammed with plot and symbolism, when it ended I wanted more. I was left with so many questions. Even though Chekura found out where Aminata had been sold, how did he manage to find that place without being found out by his master? Was he punished the morning after he spent the night with Aminata since he had to travel back during the daylight with no permit badge? How was Aminata not whipped for striking Solomon Lindo, and how was she able to deter Robinson’s advances so often without being whipped? Perhaps these are questions that I am asking from my perspective of the cruelty that had taken place during the slave trade. At the same time it is important to remember that there were nuances and complex interpersonal relationships that extended beyond the simple dynamic of a cruel master and a terrified slave, even though that may have been the most commonplace paradigm.

What I loved about this episode was the attention to detail in each scene. In Robinson Appleby’s house, the viewer gets a sense that he loves African things. He has a French Orientalist painting on the wall in one of the scenes. French Orientalist art was a popular style of painting from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that depicted scenes from Moorish Africa. He also had an elephant tusk in his office and his globe was turned to put Africa in the shot. Aminata was another of his exotic possessions from the “dark continent”, as evidenced by his demand that she speak her mother tongue to entertain his guests. Also, we see in the scene where Aminata is walking alone in the market that she is wearing a badge that slaves would have to wear when out on errands unsupervised. Historically, it varied between a badge, a note, and a sign hung around the neck of the slave. This was done to distinguish slaves from runaways and freed men. Even free Africans had to carry papers to prove that they were in fact not runaway slaves, though the paper did not always save them from kidnapping and sale. There is also a lesson in the nuances of racism. Solomon Lindo looks at Aminata with his clear blue eyes and tells her that he is not White and is also an outsider because he is a Jew. This claim to being an “outsider” is completely dismissed when we learn that Solomon makes a good living from brokering the sale of the very human beings with whom he claims to share the yolk of marginalization and oppression. There is also some foreshadowing in this episode, as it mentions the year being 1774, just before the American Revolution, which is alluded to in the episode 3 trailer.

Similar to the first episode, there are two central themes that repeat themselves often throughout this episode. The first of them is seeking self-determination in a system meant to keep one servile. Wherever possible, Aminata seeks to assert her will and identity. There are two key manifestations of this theme that much of the action in the show surrounds. The first of which is the head scarf that Chekura gifts to Aminata. She is stripped of it when her malevolent master rapes her, and we see her wearing it in the love scene with Chekura (which was quite touching I might add). The second manifestation of this struggle for self-determination is found in her daughter May. Aminata and Chekura conceive this daughter soon after they marry, despite the potential disciplinary action she might face. The punishment she receives for it is a public head shaving by her master. The book of Corinthians says that a woman’s hair is her glory. Being a Christian, Robinson would know this, therefore making the public shaving of her head all the more malicious. The fact that the existence of her daughter is in direct conflict with her master’s wishes is made clear when the Robinson comes to inspect the child and sees that she is not of his line. The seeming hopelessness of Aminata’s quest for self-determination is manifested in not only the sale, but also the death of her child. At this point in the story, it is clear that all Aminata has is her inner strength, because this world would allow her nothing else.

The second theme in this episode is the issue of trust. Aminata learns that she can trust no one. Aminata learns in this episode that she can rely on no one but herself. Georgia could not keep her safe from being ravaged by her master despite her efforts. Her trust in the Lindos is shattered when she discovers that Solomon brokered the sale of her daughter. The wound in this scene is further salted by Solomon’s exercise of his social superiority over her when he strikes her when she refuses to come to heel. Even her husband cannot be relied upon though it is no fault of his own, as he risks his life every time he steals away from his master’s plantation to see her. The one person in whom Aminata was able to put her trust died of the pox, leaving her to survive this savage and unforgiving world on her own.

This episode carried so much weight. I really wish we had more time with many of these characters to get to know them better and become more attached. Though I was saddened by the death of Rosa Lindo and her son, I did not feel enough attachment to them as they only had so little screen time. My only real criticism is that I want more episodes so that I can sink deeper into this vibrant world where this story takes place and enjoy all the beauty, pain, and strength that these characters have to offer. I look forward to the next episode and I am sure that you are all biting your nails along with me in anticipation. Until then, be good to each other!

 

Love, peace, and harmony,

Word Mason

 

Interesting Facts:

  • When asked about writing Aminata’s character, Lawrence Hill said: “It was liberating and riveting to create a character whom I could never be”
  • One of the first ships to sail to Africa with returning Africans left from Halifax Nova Scotia, headed for the coasts of Sierra Leone and Liberia
  • The Book of Negroes Author Lawrence Hill makes his home in Hamilton, Ontario

 

Word Mason, as his name suggests, is a builder with words. Each line of poetry represents a brick to the monuments of lyrical beauty he constructs through his poetry and music. A writer and performer from the age of six, he has had over two decades of experience at the edge of the pen and behind the microphone.  He draws much of his inspiration from his love of ancient history and classical poetry. He has appeared in various programmes on stage and in front of the camera, as well as lending his talent to a multitude of charitable causes His motto is “Your life is only worth what you leave in this world behind you”, and that is his motivation for continuing to develop his art and create memorable works to captivate the listener and reader alike. Contact info: 

word.masons.tablet@gmail.com

www.facebook.com/WordMasonsTablet

@WordMasonTablet

 




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One Response to “Book of Negroes Review Pt.2 by Word Mason”

  1. Tomy Bewick says:

    Another solid review and recap. Thank you so much!

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