Dear Miss Ernestine,
Years ago in a wonderful poetry workshop, my professor asked us to write a letter to one of the poets we’d read that semester—the one who’d most shaken us to our core. My choice was easy. Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly was one of the most incredible collections I’d ever laid eyes on. I fell asleep, dreaming of the words on those pages, mouthing them in my mind as I fantasized about the kinds of poems I would write with those stolen words.
The great thing about reading poetry is that you’re always, in some way or another, falling in love. And now that we’re in the Golden Age of television, there’s a similar effect provided by good TV. For many of us, there’s no longer a great divide between an excellent book and an excellent TV show—it’s all storytelling and when it’s done well, certain characters just stay with you.
Miss Ernestine, the way Amirah Vann is bringing your story to life on Underground is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. As of episode five, “Run and Gun,” you join the ranks of a handful of TV heroines who I could write a million love letters to—Buffy, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Tasha Mack, Peggy Olson, Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating—these are my superheroes, my top specials, my favorites. Miss Ernestine, in just five episodes, how have you accomplished such a feat?
I suppose it began with “War Chest.” I knew then, in the wine cellar, that I’d be writing a letter like this some day. That episode changed everything, especially my expectations for this series and for your character. But “Run and Gun,” changes everything again. Watching you bathe Pearly Mae, you offered up one of the most tender moments between two women that I’ve ever seen on TV.
As you covered her body in warm water, soap and red rose petals, I knew I’d write, once again, about sensuality on this show the uniquely tragic intimacy between two women at a loss. I’d liken the scene to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet; or perhaps I’d compare it to that sinner woman with the alabaster box, who washed his feet with her tears and her locks. I’d draw a parallel between black women, caregiving and spirituality. If Underground is asking us, every week, “How does one break free?” then this was yet another answer: care for one another. Get down on your knees and bathe your sister, when she’s broken down to nothing but raw skin and bones—and bring her back to life. After all, Pearly Mae had been hanging from a horrifying contraption that looked just like a wooden cross. This scene between you and her was so clearly about the ability of black women to rally around and resurrect each other.
Let it out. Ain’t no shame in these tears. The sacrifice you made for your daughter—you should be proud of that. I remember the day Boo was born. The day I brung her into this world…
But then, Miss Ernestine, in the next scene where you appeared, everything changed. Again. You began to coach Pearly Mae on how to deal with Master Tom Macon. This scene was less about sisterhood than it was about male weakness—or it was about both. How you, Miss Ernestine, told her precisely the right way to handle her would-be handler—how to listen to him, engage him, all while keeping your eyes on the prize. You told her exactly how to give the white man in power what he wants—again, a form of sensuality for survival.
Massa wants to be liked. Appreciated. You got to be grateful… I know firsthand how massa get what he wants.
At this point, I decided I was going to write a dangerous, boldly feminist piece about how the black women of Underground prey on the fragile, white male ego to achieve freedom; how Miss Ernestine represents a kind of liberation we don’t like to talk about—the kind where you use your resources (sexual and otherwise)—to break free as best you can. I might have even thrown in an Amber Rose reference, because so many feminists don’t like when women with a platform suggest that women should use men to get ahead. Maybe I would have used the great Cardi B as a more recent example of a possible feminist icon, not unlike Miss Ernestine, who doesn’t quite fit the mold of what empowerment is supposed to look like.
But I can’t write that piece either, because the next time I saw you, everything changed again.
How far would you go? is another question Underground asks us every week, but this week it was different. It’s not the first time we’ve watched a character take a life, but this wasn’t Rosalee and Bill, or even Seraphina and her baby.
This week it was, somehow, even more personal because you, Miss Ernestine had to take the life of a fellow sister—a woman I believe you loved, a woman you bathed, a woman whose child you brought into this world. More than anything else that happened in this, one of the most shocking episodes of the season so far—more than Cato putting a bullet in Zeke’s leg (“Ain’t gone be no we”); more than Zeke, in his final moments of glory, taking down those slave catchers; more than the shoot-out at the cabin; more than Sam, with the rifle pointed at Master Macon—was the moment when you took one more, drastic, morally questionable step to keep your daughter safe. It was the moment when you answered the question, “How far?” It was too far. Or, maybe not—maybe just far enough for a woman of few options. That’s when I knew that this week I’d have to officially declare Underground a show that would not be the same without you and the formidable talent who brings you to life every week.
Like TV’s other feminist icons (who are often at their best when they deviate from what we typically identify as “feminist”), I feel I am not worthy in your presence. Like the poetic tale of a blues icon that captured me so many years ago, I fear I am under your spell. And after watching you work in “Run and Gun”—like the great gospel song says—I know I been changed.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.