Cover Photo: Freedom Like An Omen by Kelisha Graves

Freedom Like An Omen

Episode 209

By Kelisha Graves

2 May 2017

Episode 9 opens with Cato sliding behind corners, snooping through hallways, and scavenging for any loose details he can take back to Patty Cannon. He finds his way into an office where he encounters Harriet Tubman. Tubman, who masquerades by day as a domestic, reads straight through Cato’s suspicious excuses and warns Georgia to keep an eye on him. Whatever Cato is up’s guaranteed to be messy and profane. At this point, I’m ready to throw Cato in the trash….mainly because I can never accurately determine whether he is for us or against us!Cato’s greatest (and worst) quality is that he understands himself to be solely and utterly an individual. He doesn’t allow his physiological condition as a black man to pre-determine his loyalty to his color-community.What I know for sure is this: Cato’s loyalty is only as long and as wide as his own self-interest.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth has jumped head first into a life of arson and crime; she has incurable ambitions to be entirely bad and it just might get her kicked out of Georgia’s friendship circle! Elizabeth is becoming increasingly sympathetic to John Brown’s revolutionary rhetoric (which doesn’t sit well with Georgia). Even if Georgia harbors dozens of shotguns in her cupboard and even if she has threatened to shoot a clergyman (as we saw in episode 8), she is not convinced that violence is a satisfactory (or productive) form of abolitionism. In other words, whereas she extols self-defense as a necessary strategy, she reneges on the idea that direct instigation of violence can yield anything constructive or redemptive in their Cause.

Perhaps the most powerful scene in this episode occurs when Harriet Tubman is in prayer. The Matriarch anticipates a higher Calling, a deeper duty, and she spills out all of her soul and insecurities through prayer. While we know Tubman is undefeatable and unbreakable, she questions her own ability to lead humbly. Harriet Tubman’s moment in the church crouched against a wobbly pew is important because it foreshadows the perseverance of faith that she will have to exhale into Noah. That being said, Noah’s greatest burden as a “free man” is how to navigate wounded trust and fluctuating hope.

There is a growing sense among each of the characters that there is something gargantuan and bloody on the horizon: War. Daniel leaves home in search of John Brown’s Cause because even while his sight has been snuffed out, his manhood is tethered to the fact that he can still use his wits to make a difference for his family.To be sure, John Brown represents the omen that has haunted this narrative from the beginning. was an American abolitionist who believed that armed insurrection was the only way to end slavery. Brown believed that slavery represented a state of war; thus it was his belief that violence could be redemptive in the process of abolishing the wretched institution. John Brown’s insistence on violence as central to abolitionism was at odds with the nonviolent ideology promoted by popular 19th century evangelical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison. It is important to note that both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were allied with John Brown. In John Brown’s mind, an event like the Civil War would be inevitable.

The theme that frames Underground season 2 is: citizen versus soldier. We see the Macon triplet (Noah, Rosalee, and James) make it to Ohio. The real deal is this: even if Noah, Rosalee and James are “free” in America, physical freedom doesn’t automatically make them citizens. The idea of citizenship for black folks has always been a tenuous and difficult question. The challenge will be to see how these characters transform their physical “freedom” into a strategy to fight towards the goal of equal citizenship. The challenge will be to see how they perform citizenship in a nation that doesn’t recognize blackness as central to its foundation or future trajectory.

In Underground, black freedom dangles over white fear like an freedom is an impatient inevitability waiting to pounce.

There is still no word on a season 3 renewal for Underground. WGN would be wise to renew.

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