As a child, I always loved slave narratives. Mary Lyon’s Letters of a Slave Girl was a favorite. I felt close enough to the material to be highly interested but far enough away to not feel emotionally overwhelmed by the content. It was the perfect balance. These days, I’m in my feelings a lot more, so slavery-related anything is harder on me. But I aint no punk, so I was totally looking forward to WGN’s new series Underground, about runaway slaves. The experience is so different in my adulthood. As a child I was entertained and motivated by the stories. I liked the way the slaves resisted or found bits of joy in their otherwise miserable existence. I still enjoy those aspects, but now I get lost in the implication and nuance, in the parallels that make these centuries-old accounts still relevant today.
So within minutes of the first episode, I was mad. In the opening scene, where a distressed woman is having a baby, Ernestine, the midwife/head house slave, instructs the laboring mother to quiet down so she doesn’t disturb the mistress. Can you imagine? Even in the throes of a painful and complicated delivery (the baby was breech), slaves were expected to mute themselves in the interest of preserving white comfort. In the name of survival, they had to detach themselves from human emotion. I guess they didn’t even deserve that most basic consideration. I thought of the many women today who are forced to mute themselves for white comfort, the women who swallow workplace microaggressions and backhanded compliments, the women who hold their tongues for fear of being dismissed as an angry black woman. And then I thought of those who refuse to be silenced—the loud, opinionated, often-deemed-“ghetto” sisters who will let you know real quick how they feel and “what you not gon’ do.” We tend to box these women in as rude. (I know I have.) We don’t understand their refusal to squash their feelings. We don’t understand their rebellion.
I was also struck by the scene of the mother who drowns her newborn. While his lifeless body bobs around in hot water, she stands outside entranced, declaring him free. As a mother, I couldn’t help but imagine the type of despair I’d have to feel to go through with such a thing. Without judgment or sensationalism, I considered the feelings of a woman who felt the idea of raising a slave son was too much to bear—too dangerous, too scary, too risky, too dehumanizing. Then I thought of the many black mothers today who, thankfully, don’t kill their sons but do live in that same immobilizing fear. They’re scared their babies will be mistreated, their boys will be scapegoated, their men will be accused and violently tried. It’s a fear I try not to engage, but it’s there. I tuck it away behind a smile and constant prayer.
As strong and capable as men are, our men in particular carry a fragility that makes them more vulnerable than their presentation would let on. Past the bravado and cool, past everything that makes them beautiful, there is a dark and shadowy bullseye that they carry without compensation or choice. They do their best to obscure it; we do our best to help. This point is embodied so poignantly in the scene were Rosalee volunteers herself to receive the lashes that were designated for her young brother. As painful as it was to watch her being beaten, what really got me was the frantic look on her face as she scrambled to figure out how to protect him. Though only a few seconds pass, it is clear the whole world cycles through her mind as she searches for a way to save him from a ruthless rage that wouldn’t hesitate to beat the innocence, joy and even life from his small, unassuming, prepubescent body. Like a sister, like a mother, like every woman who has ever loved a black male from under the foot of white supremacy, she sacrifices herself to protect his fragility—all the while bearing her own bullseyes too.
That scene tore at me more than any other because I couldn’t help but think of my own brothers, my own son, my own husband, my own father. Though just a distant observer who was watching this fictionalized account from the comfort of my own bedroom, I felt the dizzying worry that was so clearly displayed on Rosalee’s face. Some of that was the mere result of good acting. The rest was from an inherited connection that makes this all just a little too real.
Throughout the whole show, I was reminded of the psychological trauma exacted upon black bodies, black families, black bloodlines. We’ve been pushed and pulled into a legacy of deprivation. We’ve lost so much, and yet still are not empty. We’re amazingly resilient and magical in our ability to adapt, so I will continue to go on this weekly emotional rollercoaster. I look forward to next week’s episode.