Book of Negroes Review Pt.3 by Word Mason

Book of Negroes Review Pt.3 by Word Mason

From the Tablet Reviews: The Book of Negroes, Episode 3

What is freedom? In North America, we do many great and terrible things in the name of freedom. We hold what we consider to be free and fair elections to choose our leadership, we protest in the streets, and sometimes we even go to war. We would like to believe that freedom and equality are fundamental rights of the human condition. It is written in to our laws, engraved in stone at steps to our seats of power, and touted as hallmarks of a fully developed society. We often proselytize about the cost of freedom, and sweep under the rug the crimes of commission and omission done in its name. We also forget those who do not always reap the benefits of the liberty that we proclaim to be available to all.

In episode 3 of CBC’s The Book of Negroes, we address the question of freedom and equality. This densely packed episode serves as an allegory apropos of the current climate of race relations in the United States, questioning what freedom is worth, and whom it will it serve as beneficiaries. Both old and new characters in this episode have their loyalties and their mettle tested as the American Revolutionary war rages on in the Thirteen Colonies. However, before I go any further, let me remind you…

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

Now I had to work late that night and missed the original airing of the episode, but the magic of the internet makes many things possible, one of them being getting caught up on the episode. So before you read any more, visit this link if you haven’t seen the episode:

http://www.cbc.ca/bookofnegroes/

If you aren’t at least mildly upset after watching this episode, I suggest you stop reading now and watch it again. There is so much that this episode reveals about not only the time it takes place, but also the world we live in today. What I loved about this episode was the strength of the pacing. The director knew when to spend time with the characters, and when to move the plot along. All of this happening against the backdrop of one of the most significant points in world history, the American War for Independence. We learned about the life of the runaway slave, which was rife with the constant threat of re-enslavement. We also learned about the American Revolutionary War and the hypocrisy of both combatants in the conflict.

We find Aminata strolling the streets of New York with her master Solomon Lindo where she learns about Canvas Town, a haven for freed and runaway Africans alike. Her resentment for her “benevolent” master grows with each passing day, and is exacerbated as she catches the scent of freedom. She finds a sympathetic ear in Sam Fraunces (a nuanced Cuba Gooding Jr.), the Jamaican-born owner of the inn that provided accommodation Solomon and Aminata. She grows tired of her master’s micro aggressions of his privilege, such as writing her down as “servant” in the notebook as opposed to registering her by name, and rousing her at his leisure to put her to work. As they continue Solomon’s business in New York, Aminata finds roving bands of celebrants discharging their muskets and crying freedom from the Britain. When she inquires as to the meaning of this declaration of freedom, to her chagrin she learns that freedom is “not for niggers”, but for true Americans (read: White people). She has had enough. She strikes a bargain with her newfound friend Sam, who facilitates her escape from her master and accommodations in Canvas Town among the motley assemblage of makeshift homes under the protection of Claybourne (an amiable Dwayne Murphy) and Bertilda (a charming Cara Ricketts).

When her former master was forced south due to the conflict and the frustration of his slave’s disappearance, Aminata takes the opportunity to make a life for herself using the skills she earned as a child under her mother’s tutelage. She gains a reputation as a skillful midwife, assisting in the births of babies in Canvas Town and occasionally the bordellos. One night, she was called from her bed by Clayborne, who took her to find an accused spy captured by the residents of Canvas Town. To her elation that man was her beloved Chekura. Subsequent to their third reunion, they shared a love scene that could melt a glacier, in Nunavut, at the peak of winter. The onscreen couple shared more chemistry than a laboratory trying to cure cancer, but I digress. Chekura is later recruited to join the British Army with the promise that he will be granted his freedom when the war is won for the Union Jack. Aminata is beside herself with worry, which is not helped at all my Sam’s musings about an impending rebel victory. This episode offers us a glimpse into the misery that is nineteenth century warfare. We witness painful amputations with neither anesthesia nor adequate sanitation, the aftermath of sanguinary battle with bodies strewn about like fallen leaves, and the bloodthirsty exaltation of a people high on rhetoric. Chekura is grievously wounded in the battle, and is eventually nursed back to health by his devoted wife. In the end, history plays out as we remember it with a British defeat, a United States with the freedom of self-determination, and freed Africans under the threat of being reclaimed as property by former and aspiring masters.

There was one central theme that stood out in this episode, the hypocrisy of the revolution. This theme played out over and over again in this episode in the dialogue and action in both subtle and blatant detail. Some moments that stood out for me as clear examples of this. Take for example the answer to Aminata’s question about freedom for the slaves, which he asked of a man who said that they would no longer be slaves to Britain. His response was clear; Africans were not to be counted among the free. This all came to a head when Aminata read the declaration by the British that all Africans who chose to fight for the crown would receive their freedom upon completion of their service. Sam interrupts her reading of this decree by stating life under an independent union of states would mean freedom for them. The founding fathers would see to it. It is important to note, however, that though George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and the rest proclaimed that all men should be equal and free, they all still held slaves. They were also known to rape the women they owned on occasion. Benjamin Franklin himself has numerous progeny living today that resulted from the lascivious interactions he had with his own slaves. In fact, in some academic circles, the American Revolution was less a question about freedom and self-determination than it was taxation. This was a war over economics. Freedom for Whites was never in question, seeing as the relative liberty of the average person in the now United States changed little for everyone save those at the top of the social class structure as only White, wealthy, landholding males had the right to vote.

The British owed their economic and military success to slavery though plantations that provided sugar, cotton, coffee, spices and many other raw materials used for engineering an empire. The freedom of a few slaves who would likely die before they could enjoy their independence mattered little in the face of holding on to power. In fact, many of the so called freed Africans were enslaved again after their service anyway to different masters, or were simply used as cannon fodder to exhaust enemy munitions. Their freedom was only a tool to get muskets into their hands, as economics was the main driver of these decisions. Truth be told, neither the rebels nor the establishment cared about the freedom of the Africans they exploited. The promises of freedom were only tied to the long term benefit of the hegemony that oppressed them.

This is an allegory for current state of race relations in the United States. With an African American killed by a police officer every twenty eight hours, the prison industrial complex, and the long list of wrongful convictions that are either overturned or ignored, liberty seems to have forgotten the people most deserving of it. Taking history into context, consider the fact that segregation ended and the right to vote unencumbered was granted to African Americans in the 1960’s. It took over 180 years since America was declared free for African Americans to have equal rights as citizens. That is if we do not consider the various attempts at voter disenfranchisement perpetrated by certain groups of people who would rather things return to the way they were before. This episode raises a lot of questions, all of them tied to the nature of freedom and who in truth is allowed to drink from the cup of liberty.

Overall I thought this was another fantastic episode with strong storytelling and a powerful message. I did, however, find myself a little confused with the character of Sam Fraunces. I was not sure whether to like or dislike him, and I could not put a finger on where his loyalties lie. I found it difficult to enjoy his character. I also have to expose a little of my own bias. Being of Jamaican parentage I was happy to see a character representing my father’s island on the show. I however was not so sure about the accent used to portray him. Understanding that this character was supposed to be Americanized as a result of his years in New York, it seemed as though Cuba Gooding Jr. was trying to mimic a Jamaican accent. If my knowledge of history serves me right, there were two prevailing dialects of English used in Jamaica at the time this story takes place, patois, which is an English-based creole spoken by enslaved Africans, and the King’s English spoken by the colonizers. The accent I heard in this episode was neither and yet still not fully American. Considering that the character was supposed to be the educated son of a plantation owner and one of his slaves, and his manner of speaking did not clearly reflect that. I think Cuba Gooding Jr. would have done better to stay with an American accent, his character’s time in the Thirteen Colonies sufficient enough to lose one for the other.

The next episode seems to take us along with the exodus of Black Loyalists fleeing the United States for the other British colonies fearing re-enslavement. I can’t wait to see what happens on the next leg of Aminata’s harrowing journey. I am holding my breath! Until then, be good to each other!

 

Love, peace, and harmony,

Word Mason

Interesting Facts:

  • George Washington owned 123 slaves at the time of his death
  • Roughly 5000 African Americans fought against the British during the American Revolution
  • Lord Dunmore is credited with the proclamation that enslaved Africans fighting for the British would be freed from bondage

 

 

 

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

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@WordMasonTablet 

 




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