Don’t be afraid of the word “womanism.” Sure, Alice Walker’s term is a complicated ideology, but Underground recently taught me a very important lesson about things that seem complicated: once you break them down—I mean, really lay it all out, and break it down—the answers are simple. I learned this lesson from Amirah Vann, who plays Ernestine on the show. In last week’s cover story, she said something to me that I think I’ll keep with me always. The way I’m keeping the lyrics to Beyoncé’s “I’m Sorry,” or Rihanna’s “Woo,” I think I’ll keep hearing Amirah Vann say, “It’s complicated, but then again it’s not.”
By the way, have you met Amirah Vann?
“It’s complicated, because he owns me—so then it’s rape. It’s complicated, because I’m also a sexual woman, and I’m sure there are moments when it feels good to be touched by someone. It’s complicated, because I’ve been there, and I’ve been sleeping with him for—how long? How old is Rosalee? You know what I’m saying? How long has he been my only ‘lover,’ if you can use that word, for this? It’s complicated, because he is the one person who has the power to stop Rosalee from getting her arms whipped—but I have to beg him to do it. It’s complicated, because he’s also the one who stops me from cutting off my own son’s heels. But then, it’s complicated, because he hangs my son.
So, at the end of the day, when you look at all that, it’s not complicated. You still hung my son, you still own me, you’re still a leader in this institution of slavery—so, pardon my French, but—fuck you.”
Vann may or may not know it, but I interviewed her because of womanism. Or Black Girl Magic, or whatever you want to call it, when black women come together and recognize a certain godliness in one another, and then work to support and expose it; all while protecting and uplifting it. See, it’s my duty (and privilege) as a womanist to use my position at a place like Paste Magazine and interview the likes of Amirah Vann (though I admit, I’ve never encountered anyone or thing quite like her). See, womanism is complicated, but then again it’s not. If feminism can be simplified on the following terms—women deserve equal treatment, pay, rights and agency to their male counterparts—womanism can be understood as concern for black women to receive the same equality. But what I’ve always liked about womanism is that it assumes intersectionality. Whereas there can be such a thing as “white feminism,” there can be no “white womanism.” Womanism already, always has concern for those marginalized by race, gender, sexuality, class and other such isms, so it has within it the things needed to succeed in toppling the [exceedingly white, wealthy] patriarchy.
But all that sounds more complicated than I want it to sound. In reality, womanism is simply the moment in “The White Whale,” when Elizabeth, Boo and Rosalee rode off in a horse and carriage, looking like madmen (madwomen?) as they attempted to escape the clutches of August. Womanism is, simply, Rosalee deciding to jump out of the carriage to take on August herself, so that Boo could make it to safety. Womanism is concern for the whole, for future generations.
Ain’t none of us free, till we all free.
But womanism doesn’t end there. Womanism gets a whole lot more interesting when Elizabeth secures Boo, then shows up to fight August, alongside Rosalee. Sure, I want to tell you that Rosalee could have taken on August herself. I want to tell you that Rosalee didn’t need Elizabeth to join her in the forest—and maybe that’s all true. But dammit if Underground didn’t just show us how it’s so much more fun when we topple the patriarchy (shouts out to Jill Soloway for this, one of my new favorite phrases) together. Chris Meloni’s August has been this unshakeable force during the season. Noah has shot him, Native Americans have slashed him up, and other white slave catchers have wanted him dead. Two women—one wearing a dress, the other in a button-down shirt and suspenders—took him down, and left him for dead. Oh, what a time to be alive.
The very specific decisions Underground has made for its women characters is what carries the show. From Ernestine, to Rosalee, from Seraphina to Pearly Mae, we have not only been bearing witness to American slavery in a new light; we are seeing the stories and emotions of black women at the center of a tale that could have easily been dominated by male characters. Misha Green and Joe Pokaski have repeatedly said that they set out to create a superhero show, and if they were at all interested in following the rules, then they would have made sure that those superheroes were mostly men. But from the first time we heard “Black Skinhead,” blaring out in the opening scene of the pilot, we knew that following the rules wasn’t of much concern here.
That’s why we have a character who just oh-so-casually hung the same man who gave her her children, and took away her children. Did Ernestine tip her wine glass at Tom’s body as she watched him die? And did she do this both before and after her prayer (which bookended the episode) to be made an instrument of peace? Does she contradict herself? Very well then, she contradicts herself! And, similarly, wasn’t Rosalee the one who looked at Noah like he was crazy back in episode four when he said, “I’m going back for the others”?
And here in the finale, we see her taking his place in a way, determined to go back for more.
We have seen great moments of feminism on television over the years. The women characters on shows like Mad Men, Being Mary Jane, The Good Wife. Transparent, Scandal, Orphan Black and The Leftovers are just some of those responsible for peak, feminist TV. But there is room for more, and there is room for womanism. Last night’s finale proved that making space for such perspectives will only increase the thrill of it all.
Because I know I’m not alone when I say a very real chill went through my body when I saw that figure standing above Rosalee, shotgun on her shoulder. Maybe it’s the same chill Alice Walker got when she wrote the words, womanist is to feminist what purple is to lavender.
And maybe it’s the same chill you got when you listened to this exchange:
They said you was lookin’ to steal slaves?
Can’t steal somethin’ that ain’t property in the first place.
Well, I aim to teach you how. Name’s Harriet.
That chill—that excitement over meeting a real, living, breathing superhero (AKA the Moses of her People)? I believe that chill was brought to you by womanism. That fear you have, for Cato, for Noah; those tears you shed when Rosalee spoke about this season’s fallen soldiers (spoke about them, while Boo ran after a bright yellow butterfly, while wearing a bright yellow ribbon), were brought to you by womanism. And yes, of course, they were also brought to you by great TV writing—great character and plot development, talented musical composers and formidable actors. But this finale was the culmination of a story that was always bursting with womanist thought. I can’t even begin to guess at what’s in store for Season Two, but with Rosalee and Harriet taking the reigns, I know we’re in good hands.
For TV critics everywhere, Underground has proved that it is not a show to be missed. For TV watchers, it has proved the same. But this first season of Underground, now, feels like it was much more than a show that would delight critics and audiences. Maybe I’ve been sippin’ on too much Lemonade, but Underground now feels like a love letter to black women. By all means, compare it to The Walking Dead, and liken it thrilling capers. Bring in Ta-Nehisi Coates to explore its themes. But, watching Harriet reach out for Rosalee, I know now that it also stands alongside The Color Purple, Daughters of the Dust, for colored girls, Butler’s Kindred, Morrison’s Paradise, Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx, Dee Rees’ Pariah, and yes, Lemonade and Anti and other strange and powerful depictions of black women and black womanhood in America.
I’m a critic and I’m meant to write for all audiences, but I’m grateful that Underground gave me an excuse, if only once a week, to say, not this time. This one—these reviews, these essays—are for my sisters, my kindred. Come through, black girls. Come through and take those chills and thrills that Underground gave you, and make something of it. In other words, if you felt that this show, well, freed you in some way—don’t sit comfortably in the new space you’ve been given. Pass the story on, and find a way to go back and free some others. Until we all free.
See y’all in Season Two.
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.