WGN’s new show “Underground” seeks to expose a new generation to the dynamics of slavery with the assistance of John Legend as the Executive Producer on the show. Many Americans are still unaware of the long-term effects of the institution of slavery and the psychological repercussions. Ending the physical slavery of African-Americans was only the beginning of a psychological healing process that will take many generations. African-Americans were forced to adapt to a societal structure that placed them at the very bottom of the totem pole – women are dually disenfranchised, unspeakable things were done to avoid being lynched, raped, and branded. Mothers were threatened with having their children sold away and men were threatened with castration. Calls to “Make America great again” are an echo of “The South will rise again” and are troubling to people who know this time period as being romanticized by racists.
At a very young age, I was exposed to the complexities of racial injustice throughout American history. Films like Alex Haley’s Roots, PBS’s Eyes on the Prize documentary series and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X helped shape my perspective. My Mother, who grew up in Atlanta in the midst of the civil rights movement and attended sermons by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, was surrounded by many other prominent civil rights activists. As an adult my understanding has graduated from theatrical reenactments and sentimental documentaries to experiencing jarring real life moments of racial insensitivity and ignorance.
In spite of some incredible strides we have made as a country, race remains one of the most polarizing dynamics in American society. Many believe, the election of our first black president heralded a post-racial society – this is far from the truth. The pervasiveness of racist sentiments is evident. Whether it’s South Carolinian’s refusal to let go of the racist symbol of rebel pride that hung over their Statehouse 150 years after they lost the Civil War or the vitriolic comments made during Republican Presidential debates. So we have to ask ourselves, “have we really made any progress?,” I pose this question because there are still places in the United States where African-Americans are not comfortable and frankly are not welcome.
“Underground,” is replete with the typical “slave narrative” dynamics vicious whippings, white people freely saying “nigger” and large plantation houses. The Pilot has many cringe-worthy moments depicting slaves being docile while attending to their white masters every desire. Viewers will see slaves become victims to the fragile egos of poor whites and the perversions of the wealthy predatory ones. Some of the character traits slaves were forced to develop are interesting in the most tragic ways. This is how we have to measure our progress as a country — not just how far the oppressor has come but how far have the oppressed come. Slavery did not end with a group of politicians passing the Emancipation Proclamation; as if their quills and parchment were the force holding African-Americans back from a life of freedom.
The psychological effects of slavery are something that is typically so nuanced it goes over the head of most Americans. Fear of motherhood, aversion to intellectual thinking, self-hatred, false logic and an overall surrendering of self-respect to get ahead are things the majority of African-Americans can attest to, to some extent. My hope is that beyond entertaining, this show will open the audience’s eyes to the very real consequences of this climate.
“No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow-man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” — Fredrick Douglass
Morality is at the crux of slavery’s reprehensible nature but from an economic standpoint, it also creates some interesting problems. White characters in “Underground” are forced — some would say by necessity, to participate in the slave economy. Hinging someones financial stability on a morally repugnant practice – like slavery – the worst kind of evil. In this show, we see that during slavery the title of Bounty Hunter turned financially strapped whites against runaway slaves. It’s a dynamic we see remnants of today. It manifests itself through the prison industrial complex and local police officers carrying out their “duties” in order to meet quotas in predominantly minority communities. How many atrocities are committed by people “doing their job” or “following orders”?
Audiences never tire of seeing depictions of American icons like Lincoln or America’s other Founding Fathers, and rightfully so. These were the men who established this “shining city upon a hill”. Many will question the relevance of slave era dramas, but when I look around and see a country still tearing itself apart because of racism, supporting a leading presidential candidate that does not immediately condemn an endorsement from the KKK, hosting victory speeches at “the Redneck Country Club”, I have to wonder if we are really beyond these narratives or if we still need them to inspire empathy. Because without empathy there can be no understanding and without understanding there can be no progress and without progress we’re back in 1776 and “We the people…” does not include me and the other 8.8 million African-Americans.