by Kelisha Graves
March 16, 2017 | Recap: Episode 2.02
It was an anonymous bullet that ruptured a lethal message inside John Hawkes's skull and ripped asunder perhaps the only stable marriage relationship we had on Underground.
Elizabeth is alone. As a white woman in an era before the emergence of such a concept of as "an armed sewing circle white women’s rights," Elizabeth’s identity, bodily property, and civic rights were purely the responsibility of her husband. It will be interesting to see how Elizabeth will navigate a patriarchal environment as a husband-less white woman who finds her best company among negroes, a body-snatching-pregnant-niece, and . It remains to be seen how the premature porcelain widow will emerge from her shell of domesticity. Nevertheless, after “ride-or-die Georgia” dissuades Elizabeth from shooting up the court-house where her husband’s brains were splattered, we can be sure of one thing: whatever Elizabeth does…she’s going straight rogue! Grudges die hard on Underground; wounds bleed openly. If Elizabeth does in fact go beast-mode on the world in her all-black widow’s regalia, perhaps we will need to refer to her anew as the Black Widow.
"I didn't mean to hurt you. You know that, right?" --Hicks
I had hoped (selfishly) that Ernestine would encounter a good muscly mocha man to wrap her arms around this season, a broad brotha with shoulders of safety, but obviously what I want is insignificant and my imagination is abnormally romantic in comparison to the thornier narrative Underground wants to tell. There are no roses to smell here, there are only prickly things that cut.
The relationship between Ernestine and Hicks is dangerous. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. You know that right?” His apologies sound barely sincere because they are attached to a request to induce an abortion on a young woman (Clara) he’s impregnated – “There’s a girl that’s gonna need your help. You gonna help her for me?” The same fists that leave behind bloody lips and bruised cheeks relax into the fingers that wash Ernestine’s feet and cuddle her into forgiveness. Whether Hicks is tender or rough, in this numbed state Ernestine will agree to almost anything. When Hicks drags Clara kicking and screaming into the tent and demands for Ernestine to give him the abortive, Ernestine follows directions like a bullied little girl and remains emotionally detached. Even so, in those moments when Hicks is "tender" we know immediately that we’ve seen this behavior before…the sexual manipulation, the lusty apologies, but without the stripes on Ernestine’s back and against a more prestigious backdrop. I am referring to Tom Macon.
Although we never saw Tom physically hit Ernestine, the absence of physical violence in the Big House can never minimize the perversity of its precincts. It would be a miscalculation of history to romanticize any enslaved woman’s forced concubinage in the Big House as a more suitable position far away from the ugly drudgery of the fields. The Big House merely institutionalized abuse beneath a gloss of grandeur and orderliness. Even if we never witnessed Ernestine get slapped, punched, or beat in the Big House, it doesn’t make her former enslavement to Tom Macon any less abusive. And, like Tom Macon, Hicks twists melancholy into erotica. I wrote last season, “ This is the worst kind of abuse because it’s tangled up with the human body’s most basic desire for touch, tenderness, and intimacy.” It is precisely this continuum of open wounds mixed with eroticism that is unfortunately most familiar to Ernestine.
It makes me wonder whether or not Ernestine knows how to be alone; if she knows what it means, feels, and tastes like to exist in unmolested womanhood? The reality is, she doesn’t. In a brutal world where a black woman’s body was worth more than her brains, she can’t know what it feels like to be protected unconditionally, to be cared for without having to make a carnal exchange. All of the men in Ernestine’s life have been forced upon her, but we eventually learn that French (Jordane Christie) is the one man she chose of her own free will.
French (played by Jordane Christie)
The reality is this: the one love of her life is dead. So, Ernestine learns how to cope (always) at the cost of her womanliness. As an enslaved woman, there are no discounts to anticipate, she pays in full even if the price requires both her dignity and integrity.
Without a child to defend, it remains to be seen how Ernestine will protect herself. It’s quite evident that she will need to learn how. In the meantime, we are on standby for Mama 'Stine to bring the funk and bounce back with a kick-butt rise up! She has that much and more inside of her.
Meanwhile, Noah (Aldis Hodge) is a mad scientist in chains. No white man can keep any parts of this onyx brick-body bound! Even when his hands are bound his feel still hustle. His eyes are global (both in size and in scope). What’s beautiful about Noah’s character is that even while his body is bound, his brain is free. Bondage can never be his destiny and he knows this. Freedom is instinctual, its an impulse, and it’s as close to him as his own heartbeat. His manhood is affirmed through his ability to completely defy the obedient Negro syllabus he’s expected to follow. All I need in my life now is for Noah to stop getting caught!
On the other hand, Noah’s troubles are Cato’s gain. For a brief moment, we catch a glimpse of Alano Miller in episode 2. Yes, Cato 2.0 has more than a few coins to his name. Yes, he is still grand and thriving. He has white folks working for him and he’s obviously buying slaves? We will have to see where this goes…
“We hang da bottles fuh trap de evil spirits that threaten us” –Table Tapper
Whereas season 1 was quarantined to the overly familiar southern inland and the routine acres of cotton, Underground’s sophomore season adopts the Gullah-Geechee Nation as central to the narrative structure for Ernestine’s storyline. In episode 2 we are greeted by one of the Gullah-Geechee community’s grandest offerings: an overwhelming tree from which dangle dozens of cobalt blue (called “haint” blue) bottles sashaying in gorgeous glory to the harmony of the coastal breeze. It’s the brilliance of nature adorned by the paraphernalia of African creativity.
“Bottle trees” are an ancient tradition carried over into the western hemisphere by enslaved Africans. This aesthetic and spiritual tradition is a kind of “makee de Africa where de fetch us;” or, better said, engraving a bold slice of Africa into the American landscape. Nourished by foregone ancestors whose blood mingled with the soil to produce this new genre of Africana folk, the spidery limbs of this tree are revered as sacred. In this case, art serves a more paranormal purpose. The tying of bottles to trees served to protect the community from evil spirits; once the spirits ventured inside the bottles they were trapped. According to William Arnett’s Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South: " The African American tradition of hanging bottles on trees to trap or repel evil forces has parallels all over Africa, where charms, plates and bottle-like gourds perform similar functions. They are also used to scare off trespassers. This art is not only used to embody aesthetic values, but also to honor and communicate with the supernatural."
The Gullah-Geechee are a beautiful folk whose community looks like, smells like, eats like, talks like, and behaves like a miniature Africa. Contrary to the more uniform color palette of the Macon plantation last season, in this community, splashes of turquoise, lavender, tangerine, and coral abound everywhere. Women’s heads are embellished with wraps and sweetgrass baskets; their tongues conjure a talk that is identical to the vernacular patterns in West Africa.
The Gullah-Geechee Nation represent a community of African Americans living primarily in the Seas Islands and coastal regions of the southeastern United States (from South Carolina to the northern coast of Florida). The word Gullah derives from the word “Gola,” a people from Liberia and Eastern Sierra Leone. As explained by Queen Quet, the chieftainess of the Gullah-Geechee Nation, “Geechee exists due to the transliteration of the name ‘Gidzi,’ an ethnic group from the Windward Coast of Africa [otherwise known as the Rice Coast].” European enslavers specifically sought out Africans from this particular region because of their superior knowledge in rice cultivation. For more information check out the documentary, Will to Survive, on the history of the Gullah-Geechee Nation here.
The incorporation of the Gullah-Geechee Nation adds a delicious African fullness to the show. The writers were wise to engage this particular history. Two snaps up for relevant edu-tainment!
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