When Toronto filmmaker Clement Virgo first heard about Lawrence Hill’s 2007 novel The Book of Negroes, he had no desire to read the book.
“I had a personal aversion to the title,” he confessed at a press conference on Nov. 17 for the Canadian premiere of the novel’s miniseries adaptation, which will air on CBC TV in six parts starting Jan. 7. Under pressure from jazz singer Molly Johnson, Virgo bought a copy of the book, but says it sat on his coffee table unopened for two months. When he finally picked it up, he immediately “fell in love” with the story and its protagonist, Aminata Diallo, an African woman who is sold into slavery in the southern U.S. before making her escape and joining the Black Loyalist community in Nova Scotia.
Virgo pitched a screen adaptation of The Book of Negroes to his partner, producer Damon D’Oliveira. In 2009, their production company, Conquering Lion Pictures, acquired rights from Hill, who was brought on to co-write the screenplay with Virgo, an experience Hill called both “exciting” and a “lesson in brevity.” (The two also alluded to future writing partnerships.) Originally conceived as a feature film, the international co-production was eventually shifted to a miniseries format for funding reasons, and to “serve the form better,” said D’Oliveira.
The project, which stars Aunjanue Ellis (The Help, The Mentalist) as Aminata, attracted Academy Award–winning actors Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lou Gossett Jr., who said taking the role of spiritual leader Daddy Moses was a “no brainer,” comparing The Book of Negroes to the iconic 1977 miniseries Roots, for which he received an Emmy Award.
Virgo and D’Oliveira admitted there were challenges in pitching the book’s title, which refers to a little-known historical document that lists the names of thousands of freed Loyalist slaves who landed in Nova Scotia. Hill recalled, in 2008, calling Iris Tupholme, his editor at HarperCollins Canada, “distraught” after learning that his American publisher, WW Norton*, was renaming the book. The two agreed it was best to take control of the situation and came up with the title Someone Knows My Name, which is how the novel is currently known in the U.S. (The name controversy didn’t stop there: in 2011, a Dutch activist threatened to burn copies of the book in response to the use of the word “Negroes.”)
But now, thanks to the miniseries, which is airing in the U.S. on the BET network as The Book of Negroes, WW Norton is releasing a new edition of the book with its original title. (On Dec. 9, HarperCollins Canada will also release its own tie-in edition.) There are also plans for online and classroom outreach, which Virgo hopes will educate the public on this overlooked piece of Canadian-American-African history.
*Correction, Nov. 20: An earlier version of this post stated that HarperCollins was Lawrence’s U.S. publisher.