Where we need ’The Book of Negroes’

A new guide uses Lawrence Hill’s bestseller to bring black history alive in Canadian classrooms
Clement Virgo
Where we need 'The Book of Negroes'
National Geographic Society/Corbis

In Canada, African-Canadian culture is still trying to find a foothold in our collective history. We didn’t have a high-profile black Canadian novel that captured the imagination of Canadians until Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes was published in 2007. It has now sold 500,000 copies in Canada alone, an extraordinary feat given the size of the population. But it’s still difficult for black Canadian cultural products to get the attention of the Canadian media establishment, and so when a novel like The Book of Negroes cuts through that, it should be celebrated.

As the director of the upcoming film adaptation, I’m hoping the movie will introduce audiences to one of the strongest female characters in recent literary history, a woman who cuts a swath through a world hostile to her race and her gender. Aminata Diallo is a character who, despite an onslaught of travesties, maintains courage, faith and acuity—rising above her adversaries and achieving what she truly desires most: to return to her homeland in West Africa. Acting as the agent who guides audiences through historical events, not unlike the protagonists in Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, she becomes our eyes and ears, emotionally connecting us to the realities and the horrors of the period.

The success of the book stands on its ability to operate on a number of different levels—it’s a great story, and Aminata is a compelling heroine. But, just as important, there’s so much rich history the reader can discover about the legacy of slavery: it is both an emotional and enriching reading experience. In the American canon of books dealing with the aftermath of slavery and the African-American experience, there are the classics such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, and many other modern African-American novels like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. In Canada, we don’t have that same kind of literary history. Giller Prize-winner Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe and Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For have had some impact, but The Book of Negroes has entered the psyche of Canadians, winning a host of prestigious accolades, including the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

When we ask ourselves how to bring the rich yet under-represented story of African-Canadian heritage to life for our youth, The Book of Negroes is a natural centrepiece, as it vividly documents some of the first African Canadians who settled in Nova Scotia after the American Revolution. The Historica-Dominion Institute’s new “Black History in Canada Education Guide” draws on the rich narrative, history and archives found in the book to bring black history alive in classrooms across Canada. There is a great importance in studying new literary works in the classroom, and introducing new voices that reflect the changing face of Canada.

That said, I do not believe we should put aside books such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn because a new work represents the progression the culture has made. As in music and film, the work that has gone before helps shape the work of the present. A novel like Mockingbird is part of the continuum with a novel like The Book of Negroes. I wouldn’t want a young person to be deprived of the opportunity to read Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn, because it’s important for them to know why they are classics, within the context of the era in which they were written, and how they reflected and challenged society. The same way that, as a filmmaker, I wouldn’t want a classic like Gone With the Wind or even D.W. Griffith’s controversial The Birth of a Nation to be taken out of circulation because of elements that are objectionable to the sensitivities of today’s audiences.

These classic novels and films are valuable but present our history through one lens. The Book of Negroes gives us another perspective that was under-represented in previous generations. When I was in high school, it would have been fantastic to have the “Black History in Canada Education Guide” as part of a learning tool to understand more, not only about my history as a proud Canadian, but about our collective history.