The Book of Negroes brings painful past and present together

Lyriq Bent wasn’t familiar with The Book of Negroes, the novel or the historical document, before auditioning for — and winning — the role of Chekura, the love of narrator Aminata’s life. And that, he thinks, is a problem.

“It was a little bit disconcerting,” said the Jamaica-born, Canada-raised, US-resident actor. “You think you know about the history and the culture, and then you find out such a rich story like The Book of Negroes exists and you don’t know about it. This was almost 100 years before the underground railroad. It shows there’s so much of the story to know.”

What drew him in was the incredible love story between two slaves, and that the entire story is seen through the eyes of a woman. Aminata and Chekura bond as children ripped from their families to endure the dangerous voyage overseas and life of slavery in a new land, eventually marrying and having a child who is, in turn, ripped from her family.

Episode three airs tonight and further heartache is in store for the couple who are constantly separated, constantly searching for each other, yet constant in their love.

“That’s love. Love has no discrimination. It has no colour, it has no boundaries,” said Bent. “They are pillars for each other.”

The Book of Negroes gives you an idea of how difficult it was for African-Americans and black people in general to build a relationship, to build a family and nurture it and protect it. There was never an opportunity to do that. It was illegal to be married, it was illegal to have children without the permission of your slave owners.”

“If you were to be brave enough, like Aminata and Chekura, they were ripped apart and sold to different parts of the country. You get a sense of how identity, values, and culture were stripped away for so many centuries and generations.”

While he longs for more positive black stories to be told onscreen, he is full of praise for CBC having brought The Book of Negroes to air, calling it a gauge of how far race relations have come — or not.

“It measures our growth as human beings toward each other. And the growth is almost minimal. Even though the physical chains have been removed, the mental chain is still there and the attitude is very present. That’s where you get Ferguson and New York. People still don’t value human life unless they have the same colour skin –which sounds so ridiculous when you say it out loud, but our behaviour suggests that.”

“No matter what point in time a story like this is dropped it’s going to seem relevant because we haven’t resolved our differences, we haven’t resolved our ignorance,” he added.

“Canada’s done an excellent job of keeping it under the rug but now the rug’s been lifted and we can see the dirt and sweep it out,” he said. “That’s what I laud Canada for, that through actions they’ve said ‘let’s right the wrong.'”

“I think the difference in America is the rug has been lifted a long time ago but there’s no resolution, no resolve.”

The miniseries shot in South Africa and Halifax, and both locations gave him insight into the story. Filming in Nova Scotia in winter shivering even in the luxury of goose down jackets the characters didn’t have, he called it “mind-blowing to try to imagine what they felt, what they thought this new freedom was. How tragic it must have been for them to realize that now they have another battle, not just racism and slavery but battling the elements while living in holes in the ground.”

But it was the shoot in a South Africa 20 years removed from apartheid that lent a surreal touch. “Everyone I met was horrified by the story. It made me question — who were the people in South Africa who were for apartheid if all the people on the set feel this way? I often wonder that about a country: is it the majority of people or the small minority with power who dictate things?”

“It was interesting to see everybody come together – white South Africans, black South Africans, Americans, Canadians and people from other parts of Africa – all these different countries came together to tell this one story that really talked about how cruel we were to a culture. It was interesting to be in that country for that story.”

But The Book of Negroes is also a story about hope, and that bond between Aminata and Chekura. “The idea of having a life gave them hope to survive, and the incredible love was what kept them going. Knowing there was that person out there was enough for them to overcome whatever was thrown at them.”

The Book of Negroes airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC.