'Book of Negroes' Star Discusses Why We Cannot Stop Telling the Stories of the Enslaved

Veteran actress Aunjanue Ellis gives an extraordinary performance as Aminata Diallo in the BET/CBC production Book of Negroes. The Mississippi native carries the miniseries that covers the true story of the life of the enslaved woman.

"I felt like Aminata is this person who has this, despite the terror that she experienced in her life, sense of joy," she told me when we spoke of her performance. It is that joy that saves the drama from being consumed by the inescapable bleakness that accompanies the subject matter.

In our conversation, Aunjanue discussed the importance of telling this story and the challenging of representing our history.

Book of Negroes airs February 16-18 at 8PM on BET

-Kimberly Foster

Kimberly Foster: I did get a chance to see Book of Negroes, and it was absolutely wonderful. The first thing that I want to do is commend you on a phenomenal performance.

Aunjanue Ellis: Great. Thank you.

Kimberly: How did you come to this project? How did you learn about it?

Aunjanue: I just was ... How should I say this? I was stalking the trades last summer or summer before last, which was a habit for me at the time. I don't do it anymore, but during that time I was doing it a lot. This particular day, I ran upon this article about a joint production between the Canadian Broadcasting Company and BET. I thought that was weird and extraordinary. I just immediately wanted to know what it was, wanted to know what it was about, and then I found out that it was about The Book of Negroes. I had never read the book—never heard of it at all—and then I think that I started asking about it before they had even finalized everything between the producing partners. I wanted to make sure that I put my hat in the ring.

Then I got an audition, so I read the series and then I read the book. [I] fell in love with this woman, and I read for her. I think they responded positively to the tape. It took months before it was mine because there was a lot of things happening in the world, in my world and their world, and a lot of things had to fall into place, but this worked out. That's how it happened.

Kimberly: You mentioned being drawn to the central character Aminata Diallo. Was that your primary reason for wanting so much to be a part of this project?

Aunjanue: I didn't think I had a chance in hell to play her. I didn't think that they would ever consider me to play her. I mean I've done lead roles in independent movies and done a Lifetime Movie of the week where I was the lead. I generally play supporting roles in something of that scale. I just wanted to be in it, and I expressed as much to them. I said to them, "You know, there's a character in the series called Georgia, and she's one of the people that Aminata meets along in her journey." I said I would gladly play her if they would just let me read for her.

I just wanted to be in it. I looked at this series, I read the book and I just feel like the story has such significance and I just wanted to be a part of it no matter what I play. I wanted to be in the move to tell the story. I wanted to be a part of it.

Kimberly: Clearly that passion shone through because you were cast and you did a wonderful job. I'm wondering, how did you prepare? This series covers a long span of time. How did embody this character?

Aunjanue: I had to look at her as somebody who was very different from myself. I had to look at her as someone who was a woman of the 18th century. She was an African woman and I had to start from there, that she was African and I'm not African. She ages. She's 20 years old and she ages from 20 to till she's 57. I had to look at those things and investigate them. I had to do a lot of outside work, a lot of exterior stuff.

Every day I came to work, I just had to literally put on that costume, and I mean that literally and figuratively. I have to put on the clothes of this woman to play her because she's nothing like me. I could assume that she is like me. I share things in common with her. I want justice in this world; she wants justice in this world. I'm from Mississippi, so I come from a long tradition of bigotry and injustice. Those things I share with her, but those things are abstract. You know what I'm saying? You can't play that.

I didn't want to get caught up in people's presumptions, I had to make this woman real. I had to make her tactile. I made choices from the outside in-to help me do that.

Kimberly: You did mention that you are African-American. How did you approach Aminata's heritage? How did you approach her ethnicity?

Aunjanue: I worked a lot on her accent and I worked with a woman who was West African to try to achieve something that would be believable to someone who is African, who wants very much to retain her African-ness, and who also had lived in the States for a while. The story that I tell is after she comes to America. The story when she's in Africa is largely told by, at least when she's a young girl, is largely told by Shailyn Pierre-Dixon who plays Aminata when she's eleven.

I had to find things that reminded me of where I came from. I just have these totems in my life. Every time I walked in my trailer, I had pictures that I could look at. When I would go to set, I would have these images in my head that would feed me emotionally. Then I was in Africa. We shot in Africa. My research was all around me. On our crew, we had people from every part of Africa. I listened to them. I listened to what concerned them. I listened to them talk about their families and their family's histories.

The driver that I had, his name was Ernest. He's also my spiritual adviser and he was my consultant. You didn't realize that at the time, but he was my consultant because I could listen to him talk, I could listen to him speak about who he was in the world.

I thought that that made sense for Aminata because I think that's what she is. I had this research all around me.

Kimberly: Had you been to the continent of Africa before?

Aunjanue: I had. Yeah, I had but not Southern Africa. Not Southern Africa, not Sub-Saharan Africa. I had been to Tunisia.

Kimberly: You mentioned earlier that you are portraying 30-something years of this woman's life That is an incredible journey to take as an actress. Did that intimidate you at all?

Aunjanue: No, it didn't. It didn't in terms of the work that I did. How people respond to it is another thing. I felt like Aminata is this person who has this, despite the terror that she experienced in her life, sense of joy. We associate joy so much, especially in this country, with youth. I think that's a misunderstanding of what joy is. Aminata was a joyous human being. It was important to me that that joy played out throughout her life.

When you read someone who has that sense of joy, they are essentially the same person they were at 75 as they were when they were 50. They're still dancing around the world and still making people laugh. They still walk in a room and everybody feels better because they walked in the room, just like a child does. I wanted Aminata to have that throughout her life. Now she may move slower, she may carry herself in the world a little heavier, but that constant joy, I wanted that to always, always be there. That's what I worked to do.

Kimberly: I absolutely see what you're saying about embodying joy throughout the series. I think the history of people of diaspora is marked by our ability to have and find joy in spite of all of the horrible stuff that happens. How did you take care of yourself mentally and emotionally during the shoot?

Aunjanue: That's so funny. I get asked that question so much, and it's largely women who ask me that. I think they're all worried about me.

Kimberly: Yeah. I mean, listen, I just watched it and I went through it. I can't imagine what it would be like embodying it day in and day out.

Aunjanue: At the beginning when we first started shooting, we shot of a lot of the more difficult scenes which is good because I was still fresh. I was very, very fresh and it had still not sunk into my bones what was going on in the world. What I did that made me pretty successful in terms of self-protection is I took it one scene at a time. I looked at it like, "Okay, this is happening right now and this is happening later, and in between I may have a cup of tea."

Because in between our tragedies, we still have to live our lives. The world has not stopped because we got tragedy. It's striking to me that when having to deal with tragedy, I'm always jarred by something really mundane but necessary that I had to do when this catastrophic thing is happening. This is how I imagined Aminata's life could be. That yes, she had this tragedy that happened in her life, but at the same time she still was living life. She knew that she wanted to continue living life because she had a family to preserve. I kept that in mind a great deal when we first started shooting, and I'm good.

I think as we went along in the shoot, I got tired. My soul got tired. My spirit got tired, and it worked for her because she was tired. She still pressed forth and pressed on. Her body was tired. She was sick. What happened, interestingly, is there's a scene where one of my children dies. When we shot that scene, I had like a hundred plus fever during that time. I was actually really sick for real when that happened.

I was tired. I never missed a day of shooting, and I worked every day with the exception of maybe two or three days. That self-protection went away after a while, and I just had to give into it.

Kimberly: It definitely shows that you were completely immersed in this world on screen. You are surrounded by lots of other very brilliant actors. Lyriq Bent was wonderful. I was really surprised by Cuba Gooding Jr. He was really great as well. Did you guys come together to form any sort of community during the shooting process or what sort of support did you lend each other?

Aunjanue: Lyriq is like a brother to me now. I mean we really bonded because we had to fight for these characters. We had to fight for them to make sure that they were best expressed by everybody including, of course, ourselves. We spent a lot of time hashing things out and talking about things and who these people were, what they did to each other and to the world that they lived in. We were each other's support system. Then Mr. [Louis] Gossett came along, and he was just an angel on earth. He just supported everybody. We were out in the middle of nowhere. Everywhere we went, we were out in the middle of nowhere.

We all knew that we were doing something extraordinary.

We had these moments where we would be in Durban. We had these moments where we just look at each other and just go, "Can you believe this?" If you had an image of what Eden is, that's what this was. We were shooting here and the ocean and the sky were one and the same and the mountains were right there. There were all these wild cows and bulls grazing down the mountains. It was just really extraordinary, and you can't help but be forever bonded with people that you go through something like that with.

Kimberly: You all recognized during this time that this was going to be a really important work?When people think about epic narratives about slavery, they immediately go back to Roots 40 years ago. I feel like this has the potential to occupy a space like that. While you're on set, while you're shooting, did you have that in mind?

Aunjanue: No. I didn't have that in mind at all.

Kimberly: Yeah. The series has already aired in Canada, right? What reception have you received there?

Aunjanue: It's been off the chain in Canada. It's broken ratings records. Like CBC hasn't got ratings like that for any of their dramas in like 25 years. We were guests at the Parliament two weeks ago. They brought us to Parliament, and they gave us a standing ovation. We had tea with the Prime Minister's wife. I mean it's a little over the top. They have a great deal of sentimentality attached to the book. People love this book in Canada and imagine what The Color Purple is here in America. That's what the Book of Negroes is. It occupies that kind of space in Canada.

It's considered a cultural treasure. That's why we've gotten the reaction. It's hard to live up to a great book. They're watching it in their homes and people that I talked to seem like they really like it.

Kimberly: I'm almost ashamed because I am American. I was unfamiliar with Book of Negroes before I was sent a screener. It's unbelievable to me that I wouldn't know about this epic story of this African woman in North America. Do you have any thoughts about why here this story hasn't become as important as it is in Canada?

Aunjanue: I don't know. I don't know why the book didn't land here in the way that it did in Canada. I think it's unfortunate that it didn't. I don't know.

Kimberly: One thing that I hear a lot is people express a fatigue with these sorts of narratives. People often say they don't want to see more slavery depictions or that we don't need any more of those sorts of images and representation. What makes this story different from what we've seen in the past?

Aunjanue: I think that I must answer this in two parts. For one thing, when people say that I understand the psychology behind it. I understand the pain behind saying that, but I don't think that people realize when they say that, they're saying that people who are enslaved don't deserve their stories being told, and that's unconscionable to me. It's unconscionable to me. I think that's intolerable because an enslaved person has already had their humanity stripped from them and we strip it again when we say, "We don't want to hear that story." Is the story not worth telling because the person is enslaved?

If you say, "Don't want to hear another slave story," that means that you are devaluing again the person who was a slave. As if every slave is the same person.

I mean that's how the White folks thought. They thought of us as less of a human being. What's the difference? When you say you don't want to hear a slave story, how is that dehumanization any different?

When you say you don't want to hear a slave story that means you don't want to hear a human trafficking story. That means you don't want to hear about little girls who were kidnapped from their homes in Nigeria. That's what that means. That means that you don't want to hear about this case in Jackson, Mississippi right now. There was in trial a few weeks ago. These dudes were on trial for sex trafficking. You don't want to hear those stories. You don't want to hear about like upwards of 30 million people who are in slavery right now in this world. You don't want to hear their stories.

Having said that, Aminata is an enslaved person for a very small part of the series. The rest of the series you see this woman living as a free woman all around the world—in Nova Scotia, in Africa, in Great Britain—holding court with the abolitionists in Great Britain and building a colony in Africa. She's no joke. When people make their assumptions and they say things like they don't want to see it then they miss that. They miss all of that.

Kimberly: What really set apart Book of Negroes for me was that representation of diaspora that we don't often see, the movement and the traveling. That was really interesting for me as somebody who loves history, so I could not agree with you more there.  After you've finished this film and now you've been promoting it for a while, do you feel more connected to or cognizant of history now?

Aunjanue: Oh God, yeah. My life has changed forever because I've played this woman. She's a fictional character but I'm an aspirational woman, meaning that I aspire to be like this lady. I want to take the pieces of her that I can execute in my own life. I want to do that. If I could, every story, every time I acted, it would be in the service of telling our history or telling the future that we should have even better, because we don't get it in the books. I mean I've been out of school for a very, very long time but I know what I studied, and none of it included this.

My understanding of African-American participation in the revolutionary war was Crispus Attucks being one of the first people who get shot. That was it. I have no idea that thousands of African-Americans fought on the side of the British so they could secure their own independence.

That they were revolutionaries even, like, before the '60s. You know what I'm saying? That black revolution was happening then.  If I didn't know that, then I know that there's some kid somewhere, in some class in eighth grade who's suffering through another rote Black history program where they sit and talk about somebody being the first person to be blah blah blah and the first person to do blah, blah, blah and the second person to do blah, blah, blah. It is possible to summarize who we are as Americans based on the first time we do something.

The thing is that we have this notion that it's our accomplishment because we can say, "That was the first time we did blah, blah, blah." Then we say, "Look at how far we've come." The fact of the matter is we've been brilliant and best since we have been here. It's not a testament to how far we've come. That's not a testament to how far we come. That's a testament to how far this nation has come and still needs to go. Barack Obama is the first Black President. Does that mean that Booker T. Washington could have been President?

Kimberly: What did you hope that viewers will come away feeling or come away thinking about after they finish the series?

Aunjanue: I hope that they'll be hungry for more. I hope that they will watch this on BET, and I congratulate BET for showing this. I hope that they will insist on more stories that celebrate women in the way that this series does because I think it is a celebration of womanhood, of Black womanhood especially. It's a celebration of Black love which we do not have at all anywhere on screen it seems these days. We want more. I hope it makes people a little annoyed and angry like you and me. Like, "Hold up, wait a minute. Why don't I know about this?" and make some parents go and say to their school boards, "What are you teaching my child? What are you telling them? What are you telling them about themselves and their place in this country?" I hope all of that happens. I hope all of that happens.

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or

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