I thought but for black women enslaved to have a child that you were responsible for that was really yours, that was really freedom. - Toni Morrison
Season 1 of Underground asked us what freedom looked like and they presented everything from grand-scale schemes of running away, burning cotton fields, and killing white folks to subtle acts of stealing ribbons and keeping secrets. One angle I find particularly interesting is the role of motherhood in this multi-layered exploration of “breaking free.” Motherhood is presented as a form of freedom for black women who legally could neither own themselves nor the children they gave birth to. To call one’s self a mother and to actively care for, and attempt to protect one's children as one's own is an act of rebellion. It is in fact, criminal. Through the controversial decisions of three mothers: Seraphena, Ernestine, and Pearly Mae we see how motherhood provides agency for these women. No matter how drastic their decisions, what remains true is their unflinching assertion of motherhood and their right to protect their children—as extensions of themselves—by any means necessary.
Underground’s first episode introduces us to Seraphena as she is going into labor. Rosalie and Ernestine assist the mother in the trying task of delivering the child. As we hear the crying of the baby and see the jubilee on Zeke’s (Seraphena’s husband) face there is a more sinister, opaque reality hanging over the baby.
That reality is slavery. It’s a reality where the only hopes for the child is whether or not he will be in the field or the house, whether or not he will be sold away or allowed to grow up under the care of his “parents,” and whether or not his desire for freedom will burn too hot that it costs him his life. These decisions rely solely in the master’s power as Seraphena has no rights nor claims to the child she’s just brought into the world. So rather than allow someone else to decide her child’s fate, Seraphena exerts a form of rebellion when she drowns her baby.
“He free now,” Seraphena exclaims to Rosalee. In the eyes of slavery it is the destruction of property, in the eyes of Christianity it is the worst sin, in the eyes of the mother it is freedom. The same freedom the Igbos took when they turned their backs on slavery and walked into the depths of the Atlantic to return home.
Seraphena’s child couldn’t make that choice, he was too young to understand the life he’d been born into. And because she has no power to truly protect him or change his circumstances under the law, drowning him was her only power. It was her only way to return her child home to freedom.
“I just can’t understand how someone can do that to they own baby,” Rosalee’s confusion speaks for the outsiders viewing Seraphena’s act as a violent crime. “I can,” Ernestine says as she provides context for her daughter: “I ain’t never truly felt fear, real fear, till I had you and your brothers. The minute ya’ll were born, I was afraid of losing you. […] There ain’t no fear like that you have for your child, make it so you can’t see straight.” Ernestine, just like Seraphena, understands what it’s like to be a mother at a time when the very act is a crime. Ernestine understands that decision is not without it’s share of sacrifices, but like most mothers Ernestine is willing to do what she can to protect her children. Even if we can’t understand it.
“It’s complicated,” Amirah Vann says of her character’s conflict,
“It’s complicated, because he owns me—so then it’s rape. It’s complicated, because I’m also a sexual woman, and I’m sure there are moments when it feels good to be touched by someone. It’s complicated, because I’ve been there, and I’ve been sleeping with him for—how long? How old is Rosalee? You know what I’m saying? How long has he been my only ‘lover,’ if you can use that word, for this? It’s complicated, because he is the one person who has the power to stop Rosalee from getting her arms whipped—but I have to beg him to do it. It’s complicated, because he’s also the one who stops me from cutting off my own son’s heels. But then, it’s complicated, because he hangs my son. So, at the end of the day, when you look at all that, it’s not complicated. You still hung my son, you still own me, you’re still a leader in this institution of slavery—so, pardon my French, but—fuck you.”
Ernestine has entered, however willingly, into a bartering system with her master, Tom Macon. While he seeks sexual satisfaction from a body that, legally, belongs to him she seeks the security of not being sold away from her children and having them protected. Yes, “I dream of thousands of lives,” Ernestine tells Rosalee. Lives lived by Sojourner Truth who, “borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when [she] cried out with [her] mother's grief, none but Jesus heard [her]!”
When we see Ernestine pleasuring Tom we see that same assertion of motherhood that was in Seraphena. While Ernestine may not be able to consent to her master’s sexual advances, she has consciously made a decision to use the situation as a way to barter for the protection of her children.
“Ernestine is doing everything she can to protect her son, even though the truth is that there is nothing she can do, because it’s not up to her whether he lives, dies, picks cotton or builds desks,” Shannon Houston reflects when writing about episode 7, “Cradle”.
Despite all of Ernestine’s bartering, her youngest son is sent to work in the field and her eldest son is hung by the man who has been raping her. It’s a moment that reminds us her body and her sex, under the laws of slavery, are not her power when she can neither consent to nor refuse their exploitation. But even when her efforts to protect her children seem futile, it is her assertion of motherhood that gives her freedom. When we see Ernestine kill Tom Macon, we see a rebellion as gruesomely grand as Cato’s burning of the cotton fields, as Zeke’s combat with slave catchers, as Rosalee’s stabbing of the overseer. Ernestine may not have ran with the Macon 7, but her motherhood, a right that is legally not afforded to her, is as violently toiled for as physically escaping the plantation.
This fight is not without consequences: Seraphena is ostracized from her community on the plantation and eventually sold away, Ernestine is not only sold away from her only remaining child on the plantation, but she takes the life of a dear friend and the third mother of Underground, Pearly Mae--whose fight for motherhood costs her the ultimate price.
Like Rosalee, Pearly Mae is the daughter of her master. Perhaps that strange privilege afforded Pearly Mae the ability to read, which in turn became a gift she gave to her daughter, and the most vital asset for the Macon 7 making their trek to freedom. But unlike Rosalee, Pearly Mae’s biological connection to the big-house was not enough to grant her entrance in it as a house-slave. Instead she toils in the cotton-picking-field with her husband on one side and her daughter soon to join. It’s an unimaginable life for anyone, especially a child. Watching the younger black children on the Macon plantation running around gleefully unaware that soon they will assume the positions of their parents reminds me of ( Black Shack Alley La Rue Cases-Nègres).
La Rue Cases-Nègres
The semi-autobiographical novel by Joseph Zobel, recounts José’s childhood in post-slavery Martinique where the skeletons of the inhumane institution remain in the colorism, poverty, and sugar cane fields. José’s Ma’Tine makes the excruciating physical and emotional sacrifice of cutting sugar can so that José will never have to break his back doing the same. I imagine Pearly Mae with Ma’Tine’s conviction to sacrifice her own flesh in an attempt to spare her child from such a life. But under slavery Pearly Mae has no ability to control her daughter’s fate, which is why talk of running away appeals to her. It’s a chance for her daughter to know a new life, to be able to read without the threat of death, to extend the hopes and dreams of the women whose ancestral history live inside of her. Those hopes that propel Pearly Mae to risk everything the night Cato burns the cotton fields and yells "Run!"
With her child and husband in tow she takes off toward liberty, but she doesn’t get far. White men with guns and horses are on their tail and before they can fire Pearly Mae lifts her hands, turns, and kneels before the barrel of a shotgun.
"Please," Pearly Mae pleads, "not in front of my daughter." At the mouth of the gun Pearly Mae asserts her motherhood as loud as Seraphena and Ernestine. She is willing to give her life in exchange for her daughter’s opportunity at physical liberation. It is no accident that her consequence is to be strung up under the sun crucifixion style.
She’s not only exhibited the love of a mother, she’s shown the love of Christ. Love and Motherhood are two things not within Pearly Mae’s legal grasp yet she snatches them anyway. Perhaps it’s the fear Ernestine spoke of, but I would argue there is love in the actions of these mothers. Their love is a rebellion against the tyranny of slavery that ascribes them as solely breeders. They exist as odes to women like Margaret Garner who sliced the throat of her child rather than see her returned to slavery. Her actions created a fierce debate over the Fugitive Slave Law and illustrated the ways in which black mothers were exerting their freedom through assertion of motherhood.
Thomas Nobel's painting of Margaret Garner
“She had the intellect, the ferocity, and the willingness to risk everything for what was to her the necessity of freedom,” (Morrison’s forward to Beloved, XVII) Toni Morrison said of Garner, the woman who inspired Beloved. Through Garner’s life, Morrison makes the case of motherhood being a source of freedom for black women. She also defines mothering as being more than the act of birthing children, “You didn’t have children. You may have produced them but they weren’t yours. They could be sold, and were sold.” Motherhood was the act of claiming your children as your own and the resulting actions needed to keep and protect them.
“...When Margaret Garner cut that girl's neck, she was saying this child is mine and to claim her, even if it had to go and become bloody, nevertheless that was the freedom, that was the ability, that was the mothering.” - Toni Morrison
Underground propels the notion of black motherhood as a form of freedom. Through the depiction of Seraphena, Ernestine, and Pearly Mae we see how each woman’s differently drastic method equally illustrate their exertion of freedom through their assertion of motherhood.