Though I live for period pieces, I honestly don’t really like watching slave narratives (not that there are that many to choose from). So when I saw the first advertisements for Underground on WGN America, I was skeptical. I mean of course I was going to watch it, not only was the subject matter important, but we got to see Black people at the center of their own narratives. I started the first episode with both excitement and apprehension. I was immediately hooked. Though there have only been two episodes, I am confident that the show will continue to be riveting. Throughout both hours I’ve watched so far, one thought has been niggling at the back of my head: why the fuck didn’t I learn about this in school?
I took AP US History at one of Los Angeles’s best public schools. I was supposed to know my shit. My knowledge gap doesn’t exist because the course lacked rigor or because of Mr. Rusin (he was truly pretty great), but because America has a deep problem discussing the horrors of its past, chief among them slavery there are many gaps (and for current and future students even more so). Though I knew that most Americans didn’t have a real understanding of the true horrors of slavery, I thought I was an exception to this. Underground has been proving me wrong, and that’s a good thing. Below are aspects of slavery and the antebellum South that Underground exposed me to: (Spoilers ahead.)
Alano Miller’s Cato is one of the most interesting characters to watch not only on Underground, but on television. Cato occupies a very complex space within the power hierarchy of the plantation. While it is clear that Cato is still technically a slave, he is given much more latitude on the plantation and exerts his small modicum of power over the other slaves. Further, Cato clearly has skin color privilege; his parentage has not been revealed on the show, but his sense of superiority is also tied to color. While he taunts our protagonist Noah (Aldis Hodge), we are made to hate him, so we are as surprised as Noah when [SPOILER ALERT] Cato reveals that he too wants off the plantation.
Black Overseers were a part of the plantation power structure on a number of plantations. Some plantations used free Black people for the job while others picked from their own slaves. Planation owners used their considerable power in this way to decrease solidarity and increase animosity. The most important aspect of learning history is to develop an understanding of how our present has been shaped by our past. The White elite’s commitment to exercising their power to create divisions between groups of people they needed to control is a tactic that can be seen throughout history and into the present. Had we spent time on this in high school, what connections could I have been making to divisions within the Black community of today?
Sexual Exploitation of Black Male Slaves by White Women:
How had this never occurred to me? If memory serves me correctly, we had touched on sexual violence against enslaved women, but never had we discussed what was also happening to enslaved men. Because so much of our discourse around rape and our cultural definition of what constitutes as rape centers on an assailant physically overpowering a victim, male victims have been historically overlooked and continue to be so today. Further, as we can see in some reviews of Underground, we have not reached a point where our country really has an understanding of how power impacts consent.
If I had learned about this during high school what kinds of questions and connections would I be making today? How is this phenomenon during slavery related to our understandings of Black male sexuality and physical dominance? How did White people perverse the sexual exploitation of Black men into widespread fear about the threat Black men posed to White women?
When Ernestine (Amirah Vann) tells her daughter Rosalee (Jurnee Smolett-Bell) of the dozens of other lives she’s imagined, she includes what life would have been like in a breeding house. This line hit me really hard. Though I knew that slave owners sexually exploited slaves to create more slaves and turn a greater profit, I was ignorant of the real extent. Much of our social conceptions of whose sex and sexuality are normative is a direct result of how sexuality was a component of the social construction of race in America.
We too often relegate the violence of slavery to physical violence. While most in America are familiar with whipping as a form of punishment for slaves, as well as a way to quell resistance, not enough Americans have an understanding that slaves endured multiple types of violence: physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual. Talking about these other types of violence matters. Why is it that we categorize looting a convenience store as violent behavior, but it’s not violent when the White overseer makes Noah strip naked in the middle of the road in episode 2?
Despite the limited number of released episodes, Underground has started a myriad of conversations, especially on Twitter with #UndergroundWGN. Hopefully this series can be used in history classrooms, not just AP ones, around the country to include more narratives about the time period in American history and to help remedy the problem of erasure in our textbooks.
Underground airs Wednesday nights at 10pm et on WGN America. The series was created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski. John Legend, Anthony Hemingway, and Akiva Goldsman also executive produce.