Cover Photo: Underground Recap |  Episode 1.08: Grave
Underground Recap | Episode 1.08: Grave

A Gritty Cocktail

Messy Axiology, Performing Freedom & the One Drop Rule

Originally published on the | 29 April 2016


Ernestine: “We can survive anything,”
Sam: “That’s what I’m afraid of momma.”

This article is my best effort the organize melancholy into language.

Immediately we discover in episode 8 that the Macon septuplet has dwindled to a shaky triplet: Rosalee, Cato, and Noah. While suspense and excitement immediately hijack our emotions, on a deeper level, this episode bore out the tensions between retaining one’s subjectivity (the right to freedom and self-determination) and one’s objectivity (one’s existence as property). The scene in which Ernestine volunteers to sever her son’s foots demonstrated this tension in excruciatingly painful high definition. For Sam, running had been an attempt at self determination and he would rather die than meagerly survive as a pawn in this peculiar institution. On the other hand, Ernestine is singularly prepared to survive (at any cost) and more than anything else self-sacrifice might be her greatest and most troublesome quality. We will return to Ernestine and Sam later…

Cato (Alano Miller) and Rosalee (Jurnee Smollet Bell) performing freedom.

This week, Cato and Rosalee (posing as a free husband and wife) attempt to sneak a bottle of medicine from a local doctor’s home in order to help a critically injured Noah. When the doctor insists that they should stay for dinner, their “performance” is in peril. “Acting free” in a “white world” comes as a task; it requires a particular pageantry; it demands a different decorum; their responsibility now is to “think” free. The doctor’s brother, who is the sheriff of Pappyjack, Kentucky, inquires of Rosalee, “You a quadroon?” My mind immediately shifted to two topics that merit some ink: the one drop rule and the tragic mulatto trope.

The one-drop rule grows out of the antebellum period where nocturnal integration (aka interracial sex) occurred regularly. Upheld by dubious race science (ethnology), the one drop rule was a social and legal attempt to classify the hundreds of thousands of mixed-race children whose births ruptured the existing racial categories. The culprits of racial mixing were largely white men. Scholars have suggested that the European DNA flowing into the early African community in America primarily came from white male interactions with black women (this information can be found in the work of Henry Louis Gates). However, recent studies suggest that white women were also overwhelmingly participatory in race-mixing. Nevertheless, the one drop rule asserted that any person possessing even one ancestor of sub-Saharan African ancestry was considered “Negro.” Out of this was born a new racial vocabulary: mulatto (1/2 black, 1/2 white), quadroon (1/4 black), octoroon (1/8 black), sextaroon (1/16 black), etc. In some states like Virginia, octoroons were legally eligible to pass as white. Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally Hemings (a quadroon) are perhaps the best examples of the legal boons octoroons possessed in terms of passing into whiteness.

As usual, Underground demolishes preconceived notions. To be sure, there are no tragic mulattoes or suicidal quadroons here. Assumed to be perpetually melancholic and miserable because they failed to fit into either the “black world” or the “white world,” the tragic mulatto/a was a stereotypical character popularized in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries through literary works like France E.W. Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892) and Charles W. Chesnutt’s House Behind the Cedars. Specifocally, it was Lydia Maria Child’s “The Quadroons” (1842) that initially introduced this trope of the ever embattled mixed-race person into American literature. If anything, Rosalee is a triumphal mulatta who navigates both worlds with remarkable cool. “When you spend enough time on the edge of the white folk’s world,” she says, “you learn a few things.” Living on the edge of the white folk’s world is an addendum to Ernestine’s mournful confession in episode 6: “Livin’ in they world; it starts to change you.” Nevertheless, even as Rosalee is “faking freedom,” she fakes the funk with as much flair and flavor  as she can muster. She is not formally educated (most of what she knows has been absorbed from observation), but she’s crafty (like her mother) and cultured. Surprisingly, she plays the piano; she’s versed in décor and design, and her etiquette is superb. There’s no limit to Rosalee’s craftiness! Thereto, her “uppity” manner is just enough to be suspicious.

As Underground demonstrates weekly, the plantation south was a gritty cocktail of promiscuity, violence, ambition, and power. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that the south was an axiological mess! What do I mean? Broadly speaking axiology is the collective term for ethics; in other words, it is a system of values or morality. When I suggest that the south was an axiological mess, I am attempting to describe an environment where right and wrong was measured primarily by whim and ego. As Tom Macon endeavors to jump-start his political career, his morality is measured largely by his peers (the Reverend Willowset in particular) which in turn provides for a troublesome, messy axiology. He admits his “moral ineptitude” to his brother John Hawkes: “I never had legs for standing on moral ground like you and dad.” It takes little effort to sway Tom and we witness this as he’s wedged between what is definitely a gang of narcissistic brutes who envision themselves to be the gurus of civilization. Before this moment, though, any confidence Tom exerts among his peers is given by the bondswoman he habitually disappoints, Ernestine.

When it comes to Tom and Ernestine, this is one relationship I want to fail. The aggravating complexity of their relationship bleeds through the furtive glances they exchange. The chemistry between them is painful because we know it’s been nourished by at least two decades of sexual exploitation. In Tom’s house, Ernestine (despite her status as a bondswoman) struts through the halls in her crimson-ish petticoat…because she can. Grace and dignity ooze through her pores. Miss Susanna (wherever she is…inasmuch as we haven’t seen her since episode 5) doesn’t stand a chance against the intoxicating swagger this mocha sister serves! Ernestine conducts herself like a boss. Indeed, she bosses Tom just as much as she counsels him. He needs both. He gobbles up everything she gives.

Without a doubt, Tom and Ernestine are creatures of habit. Her connection to him is a habit of circumstance (sex is a part of her status in the Big House; it’s a curse of the territory). In this world, though, she exists merely as a body; her flesh is worth more than her wits. She’s property on an inventory list that includes furniture, tools, and horses. But, Ernestine has both brains and brawn; and even when “Massa Tom” takes her body, she utilizes her brains. The deeper narrative is thus: black women had so few options outside of what biology bequeathed to them haphazardly. Perhaps more troubling for Ernestine’s character (and for us) is the ugly realization that when the surge of dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin subsides (the cocktail of pleasure and pain-nullifying chemicals released during sexual activity), Tom Macon is not to be trusted! His axiology (in other words the system of values he lives by) is a messy fusion of power, deceit, and lust. Macon has proven to be precisely the tangle of mixed values that continue to provoke psychological and physical havoc in the lives of Ernestine and her children in particular.

The 1857 American flag is an ominous background as Sam’s body dangles (from the architecture he likely fashioned) in front of an audience of pious and applauding southern white men. Just three years before the Confederate flag would make its appearance as the flag of the Confederate States of America, we are made privy to the ugly atrocities executed under the early American flag. Yards away, Ernestine is stripped of her crimson petticoat and banished to a filthy cubicle below ground. The goal was to tame Ernestine with the expectation that this cubicle might squeeze out any vestige of “uppity negress” she might have left. We are reminded of several things: sex is a lousy, inadequate bargaining chip and any love or paternal favoritism on Tom’s part is haphazard, tenuous, and circumstantial at best. The image of Sam’s body swinging in grotesque dishonor while his mother languishes in utter powerlessness was enough to evoke emotion from even the most stoic viewer.

If Sam’s demise provided the foundation for Tom’s political success, then his spilled blood will nourish the ground that gives birth to a mother’s rage…

With only two episodes left, we can rest assured…this is only the beginning.

As usual, WGN’s Underground has delivered an episode crammed with the kind of grief and tragedy for which we are seldom prepared. If this show is not awarded an Emmy, I’ll remain convinced that the system is rigged.

Previous review: Episode 7 “Cradle” | Next review: Episode 9 “Black & Blue”

Kelisha Graves is a scholar of Africana Studies, her work focuses on African American intellectual history, African American philosophy and the philosophy of education. She  also writes on black film. You can follow her on Twitter at @KelishaGraves