Book of Negroes Review Pt.5 by Word Mason

Book of Negroes Review Pt.5 by Word Mason

 

From the Tablet Reviews: The Book of Negroes, Episode 5

 

In Canada we pride ourselves on the strides forward that we have made in the fields of human rights, race relations, and gender equity. We have our charters, anti-discrimination laws, and committees promoting multiculturalism. We do this so much so that we often forget that historically, Canada has a terrible record for violence against non-Europeans. Many of these acts have been undertaken with utter impunity. When looking at Canada on the surface it is unthinkable that this great nation could ever be home to the slave trade, that the native population has and continues to experience economic and physical violence, or that Canada was the home of North America’s first recorded race riot. When studying history and trying to understand and explain it, it is important to approach it with an open mind. People rarely are the same as we remember them and as I mentioned in my last review, history is much deeper and far more nuanced than what we read on a page decades or even centuries after the event.

 

In this episode of CBC’s The Book of Negroes we travel with Aminata to the British colony of Nova Scotia. We follow her through the gauntlet of hardships, both natural and manmade as she tries to scratch out an existence in her new home. We learn about a very shameful chapter in Canadian history through the Birchtown riot. We get a glimpse into the entitlement and vehement xenophobia of European settlers, and we see the beginnings of a grand adventure back across the sea to the Motherland.

 

Now before we get into any more discussion, it is my duty to inform you of the following:

 

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

 

This is episode 5, and if you are only now getting into the series and are trying to start here, be ashamed of yourself and go back to episode one. If you just happened to miss this last episode then ignore that last thing I said and please click here to join the rest of the civilized world: http://www.cbc.ca/bookofnegroes/

 

I found it challenging to find the right words to describe the gravitas of this episode. The entire series thus far has been a sobering lesson on the inhumanity that our species is capable of. Even in freedom Aminata does not see peace. If there is one thing that this episode has made very clear, it is, in the words of Titus Maccius Plautus: “homo homini lupus” or man is a wolf to man. This lesson is well foreshadowed at the outset of the episode when Aminata arrives at the destitute town of Shelburne and on her first day is harassed by frustrated white locals and witnesses the corpse of a local African man being devoured by a starving wolf (which was really a husky, but we all know they meant wolf). Though she is met with the threat of attack, the heavily pregnant Aminata fortuitously encounters kindred spirits in Jason Wood (played by a charismatic Matt Ward) and Daddy Moses (played by the great Louis Gossett Jr.), who save her from attack. They find her accommodations, food, and clothing in Birchtown, a settlement for Black Loyalists.

 

There is little food and even less work, causing the relations between the Europeans and free Africans to become as cold and barren as the landscape they inhabit. Tensions continue to spread as what little work is available is shared between the Europeans and the Africans, who are hired to work at often times less than half the wages of their white counterparts. Some of the Africans living there are forced by egregiousness state of their poverty and desperation to seek indentured work. Aminata births and loses another child while she continues to pine away for her darling Chekura. Life is hard with the constant harassment from Europeans and the hardships of their new home. The situation becomes so intolerable that the Africans of Birchtown write to anyone that will read their letters appealing for salvation from the oppression of the Europeans of Shelburne and the unfulfilled promises of the crown. Aminata finds work birthing children, though this does not provide for all of her needs. She eventually seeks employment at the print shop of Maria Witherspoon (played by a seasoned Jane Alexander), the mother of one of the most violently racist men in the town. Aminata is promptly fired after Maria’s racist son is killed on the road to Birchtown after trying to rape her. Captain Clarkson reappears with news that 1,000 Black Loyalists will be transplanted to Sierra Leone as part of a relocation plan for the benefit of the British Empire. A very happy Chekura reappears and swears to Aminata that he will never leave again while lamenting the loss of their second child. Aminata is commissioned to facilitate the mass exodus of Africans from Nova Scotia. The movement sets in motion a series of violent events where Maria, prior to her murder by Cummings Shakespeare (Steven James) incites the European men of the town to violence, which boils over into the historic Shelburne riot in which the Birchtown is reduced to ash. We end the episode at the start of Aminata’s final journey home.

 

Episode 5 played like a feature length film, full of symbolism, character development, and a rollercoaster of emotions. This episode lays bare many unspoken truths about Canada’s history of race relations and the true underpinnings of race based violence and xenophobia. These all manifest in the fear of change, the sense of white supremacy and entitlement, and the phenomenon of kinship survival.

 

We are almost immediately greeted with a manifestation of the fear of change when Aminata arrives in Shelburne. One of the white men who attempt to accost her makes a comment, “they keep coming”. We see it again in the comments from Cummings Shakespeare about returning to Africa, as the only world he knew was one under the British. The reaction of the European Loyalists when the Africans were setting to leave was also a clear manifestation of a fear of change. They had adapted to the Africans arriving and built a social class structure based upon it. Their departure would mean the removal of an entire economic and racial underclass. An upset of the status quo, no matter how much it would relieve the tension was unconscionable and drove people to violence. The world was becoming a different place, and for many people it was, consciously or not, perceived as an existential threat that had to be stopped.

 

The sense of supremacy and entitlement felt by the European settlers in this episode was neither subtle nor soft. The squabbles over jobs represent a key example. When the merchant hires a mixture of African and European men to unload his ship, there is a fight because the Africans were not excluded from hiring. Aminata received a death stare from Maria’s son when he found out that she was working in her print shop. The general attitude floating in the ether was that if a white man could not work, than a black man should not either, and if there were jobs to be had, Africans would be chosen last for work. This echoes a lot of anti-immigrant propaganda spread by many right wing groups in Canada, notably Immigration Watch Canada (Google it). When there was work given to both Africans and Europeans, the Africans more often than not were paid half or less than half what their counterparts earned. Prior to the riot that saw much of Birchtown burned to the ground, Jason, Aminata’s saviour from earlier in the episode, was murdered by an angry mob of European settlers for “taking their jobs”. There was a proclamation that the land they were on, the town of Shelburne, was for “decent loyalists”. I found this entitlement to the land very ironic considering that the land they were on was stolen from a massacred native people, the Mi’kmaq. The fact that the residents of Shelburne were struggling to survive in an economically depressed time fuelled their ire when they learned that the British government was going to extract the Africans and give them land in another colony. These people who were supposed to be inferior to them were perceived as getting more than them; even through what they were receiving was not something they wanted. The fact that the Africans were received something and they were not was enough to fuel tensions to violence.

 

What was most striking about this to me was the history lesson woven into the story. There was a real town called Shelburne in Nova Scotia, 7 kilometres up the road from an African settlement called Birchtown. Birchtown was burned and the residents brutalised in what was North America’s first recorded race riot in 1784. Tensions that underpinned this riot were tied to a mixture of economic depression and Eurocentric supremacist entitlement. Many of the Europeans moving to or returning to Shelburne were British soldiers who fought the Americans in the revolution and expected, like many of the transplanted Africans to receive farmland. They did not. Couple this frustration with having to share resources with a people they deem inferior and one finds a pressure cooker ready to overflow. The fact that the Africans were getting hired for work by other Europeans violated the subconscious maxim of kinship survival that demanded like people are given support first before others. The truth of the matter is that the Africans were needy enough to work just as hard for even less compensation, and the business owners were willing to take advantage of this new economic underclass. This riot was the first in a long line of race riots that saw prosperous African settlements destroyed. In the 1960’s Africville Nova Scotia’s population was forcibly evicted and their land rights denied due to a racist establishment. “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa Oklahoma is burned to the ground with over 300 deaths in 1921. The town of Rosewood in Florida in 1923 was burned to the ground and most of its inhabitants lynched due to a lie about a crime that did not happen in which an unidentified Black man was blamed. These are just a few of the many riots, arsons and lynchings in the centuries following the Shelburne race riot.

 

There remains one episode of The Book of Negroes. From what I have seen of the series thus far, it promises to finish as strongly as it began. Aminata finally returns to Africa and the story comes full circle. I imagine there will be a lot of closure in this episode, though we will most likely see that the saga of slavery in her time has yet to meet its conclusion. I cannot wait to see what happens next and I am sure that you can’t either. Until then, be good to each other!

Love and Peace,

 

Word Mason

 

Interesting Facts:

–        Based on a recent RCMP report, there is an estimated 1,200 missing and/or murdered Native women in Canada whose cases have not been solved

–        David George, one of the founders of the Baptist Church in Nova Scotia, was beaten savagely during the Shelburne race riot

–        The first ship of Africans repatriating to the continent left Canada in 1787

 

 

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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