There’s an African Proverb that states, “Until the Story of the hunt is told by the Lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Those words couldn't ring more true as we anticipated the return of WGN's Underground. The slave-revolt narrative of 6 Macon, Georgia runaways became a critical success its first season pulling in as many praises as it did critiques. I engaged in many of debates with individuals who couldn't find the relevancy of another "slave" story. No matter how hard I argued that this was not a trauma-porn ridden tale through the white gaze that often casts slaves as victims in need of white saving-- Underground was different, it took the pen from the lion and showed slaves determined to shape their own destiny--nay-Sayers couldn't be convinced. At the close of Season 2’s first episode, Underground is about to change some minds.
Episode 1, “Contraband,” opens with the chilling sounds of Beyoncé calling for freedom as we watch a young black man engage in one of the most illegal acts during slavery; reading. We don’t yet know who he is or where he will come to fit into the story, but we are left with him stumbling until finally being able to pronounce the word “soldier.” Quickly we’re thrown into a chase scene. Rosalee is leading a pack of presumed runaways through a forest. “Run to the water,” she urges as a tree is being chopped down to bar the mob from catching them. It works, until a man falls and injures his leg. Rosalee stops to help him up. Just as she successfully hides the man in a bush, a slave-catcher comes upon her with his gun. “Make another move and I’ll shoot your head clean off,” he warns. But before any trigger can be pulled, the camera swings up and zooms in on a woman with her outstretched arms holding a gun in one hand and an ex in the other.
“I could say the same,” she warns the white man. It is none other than Harriet Tubman, the greatest conductor of the Underground railroad who brought over 300 slaves to freedom. Confidently, she stands, ready to kill, ready to protect her cargo. After negotiating to buy the runaway from the mob doesn't work Tubman is mistaken for being outnumbered, but Rosalee cocks a gun square at the man and informs him he “ain't got nothing yet”. In the face of possible death, recapture, even rape, these two black women stand fiercely with their weapons drawn offering a choice: “ten dollars or two bullets,” Tubman offers. "I ain't scared of no nigger bitches” the slave-catcher responds. Tubman doesn't flinch as she looks the white man directly in his eyes and informs him that, “ain’t nobody scared” of him. The men drop their guns and we witness a reversal of power. A black woman, the most oppressed in the hierarchy of slavery, looks the white man, the most privileged, and challenges him. Immediately Harriet’s hero status is established.
But she is no hero in the mythical sense; void of humanity and emotions. When Rosalee and Harriet take refuge at the home of the abolitionist couple, John and Elizabeth hawkes, they discuss Rosalee’s plan to stay behind and free Noah from prison despite Harriet’s recommendation to move forward. “He ain’t blood,” Harriet tells Rosalee, family is who Harriet has agreed to help Rosalee rescue. Rosalee assures that this is nothing like when Harriet when back for John, the husband who’d remarried and refused to leave with Harriet when she came back for him. Harriet turns away, showing no sign of emotion, but in that pause we the human behind the legend. We learn that she was a woman who has loved and been hurt. She was also a woman who rose from that hurt the greatest hero America has ever come to know. We also learn of her strength and the emotional sacrifices one is forced to make under the inhuman regime of slavery. Harriet recovers from her pause, squares her shoulders and insists that she will continue on.
Rosalee remains in Ohio as John pleads before the court to the Fugitive Slave Act's potency to override any charges of murder. It's a guise John is using to fight for the life of Noah whose been imprisoned for months. John argues that the crime is theft, not murder. Noah is stolen property and the Fugitive Slave Act demands his return to his rightful owner. It’s this faith in the law that John has also convinced Rosalee to rely on. For surely the judge will abide by the law and they will be able to proceed with their plan to rescue Noah. Rosalee believes John and admonishes the warnings of Harriet. She asserts that she will not leave Noah for he isn't just someone who who risked his life for her freedom, he's the man she loves. And love can inspire the most naïve hope.
Hope is what has propelled Noah through his indefinite imprisonment, that and staying ready to run. In between staying on guard and facing torture, Noah fashions a wedding ban out of wire, a band intended for Rosalee.
He persists that he will be free and such hope spills into the conversation he has with two other slaves determined to break free. Noah confidently assures them that they'll be free sooner than they think. Again, Noah has informed us that he is not a subscriber to individualistic thinking. It’s his altruistic hope in community that helps and harms him. He too, though, is waiting on John and the law. It’s a dangerous act, and no one understands that more than Ernestine as she now toils the field along the coast of South Carolina.
Gone is her red servant dress, neat hair, and purported role as keeper of the “big house.” Gone, too, is her white savior—the master who fathered two of her children—she killed him. It was an act of retribution for his betrayal; after giving her body, her life, and her dignity none of it could save her eldest sun whose lifeless body swung over the same plantation home she managed in season one. It is these memories she suppresses with opium, sex, and physical violence from her partner. But neither can bar Pearly Mae from returning to Ernestine like her conscience to speak voice to all she’s tried to silence.
“Just kill yourself” Pearly Mae offers as a more dignified option to waiting for someone else to beat her to death. While it may be Ernestine’s way of self-flagellation, Pearly Mae calls it giving up. Ernestine serves as a cautionary tale for those who placed their fate in the hands of white heroes.
Such proved the same with Noah and Rosalee. The judge in Noah’s case dismissed John’s argument and declared Noah guilty. The blow hit hard for John who could not understand the law working against them. But there was no shock for Rosalee, “the law don’t work for black folk,” she argued. And it’s a truth that’s been proven more times than not. Rosalee’s dependence on John resulted in the threat of losing Noah forever. She’d have to take matters into her own hands. And that’s exactly what she does as she sets fire to the square where Noah is being prepared to hang. The explosions prove as the perfect distraction to free Noah from the noose and get a head-start to freedom. A chase ensues.; guns are fired, fists fly, a man is stabbed.
When the melee ceases, Elizabeth comes upon her injured husband while Rosalee asks where Noah is. He's gone, captured by the mob. Hurt and failed again, Rosalee looks on in despair next to Elizabeth and John, a clear distinction of their privilege. We see Noah, caught again, with a sack over his head as he travels to an unknown place where he is sure to face even more torture for his attempts at freedom. In the darkness he situates the wedding pan on his pointer finger.
The episode ends with the murder of John--shot in the head on the steps of the courthouse after just finishing signing his name on the ballot. This death signifies a multitude of things: violent opposition to abolitionists, the unreliability of the law, etc. But, structurally, it eliminates the white savior. Many 3rd person slavery narratives center around the kind, brave white individual who lifts the slave up from oppression. Underground does away with that option, further centering the gaze on the slaves, more specifically, women. From Harriet Tubman to an all-women abolitionist group, Underground reasserts the position of unsung key players in the fight for freedom.
This reassertion is crucial at a time where history is facing extreme erasure. From being erroneously misclassified as immigrants to indentured workers, Underground reminds us why it is necessary to tell the true narratives of our ancestors in all their dimensions. Because if we don’t, the hunter will hold the power to rewrite it—if not completely erase it. It is in this time of chaos and threatened regression that Underground is most necessary. It not only tells the truth of our history, it reminds us that we can and we must fight back.