A Bitter Crop: White Super-Predators and the Myth of Agency on Underground

(Episode 1.08, "Grave")

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A Bitter Crop: White Super-Predators and the Myth of Agency on <i>Underground</i>

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
—Abel Meeropol/Billie Holiday


It’s difficult to choose a single scene that captures the essence of the latest installment, as has been the case with every Underground episode so far. This week we saw Cato and Rosalee dressed up as a free man and woman, and we saw how differently they were treated as a result (and how, in many ways, they were treated the same). A somewhat softer side to Cato seems to be revealing itself, and, like Rosalee, we can’t help but wonder at the effects white slaveowners have had on this character (“They beat all the love and trust out of you, didn’t they?”). But by the time this episode ends, it’s easy to forget everything else that happened in the first 50 minutes or so. After eight episodes of a series set in Antebellum South, there has finally been a lynching.

But before we saw it—Sam’s black body swinging from that big white house—we saw another scene that served as a warning of the disaster to come: powerful white men gathered together, plotting and politicking on the black bodies they believe they own.

Niggers are child-like, in need of our protection. Slavery provides a civilizing influence.

The images of those men in the room, congratulating themselves on a job well done, controlling the blacks they think they own and keeping America safe might be aligned with another photo we’ve been seeing more and more of, especially since Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration story.

Bill Clinton signing the 1994 Crime Bill

Hillary Clinton used the term “super-predators,” to describe the type of people her husband’s bill would get off the streets, which is precisely why a Black Lives Matter activist interrupted a recent campaign speech of hers, holding a sign and stating, “I’m not a super-predator.” Underground is a reminder that this country’s “safety” has historically been determined by whites in power, and it’s a safety that has come at the expense of black Americans. On Underground those whites in power are the super-predators in politicians’ clothing. And the brief montage of Tom Macon cozying up to his would-be supporters was just as sickening as anything else we’ve seen on the show. Slavery, like so many other legal systems, was justified as a necessity, a means of saving poor, ignorant, brutish blacks from themselves. The men Macon needs in his corner are obsessed with maintaining control over the blacks they have enslaved. They are obsessed with proving that their dominance has been predetermined by science (hence, eugenics) and God (hence, Troubled Water).

Tom Macon’s campaign has continuously worked its way into the Underground narrative, especially since the arrival of the Reverend. But in “Grave,” a massive shift takes place. Because it’s the night of his big campaign announcement, he’ll need fireworks if he’s going to get these powerful white men on his side. When Sam is captured at the beginning of the episode and returned to him, it presents an opportunity for him to put on a show—one that will devastate Ms. Ernestine, and delight the men in the audience.

Ms. Ernestine’s role in tonight’s episode is, as we’ve come to expect, overwhelmingly powerful. Sam’s initial punishment is supposed to be the loss of his foot, and for a moment, we believe that Ernestine will actually be the one to cut it off. Yes, she’d do it to her own son, because she’d rather perform the amputation than let someone else do it, and make an error that could cost him his life. And it’s also because she believes that, if she can be the one to help him through this, he will heal, and survive.

Ernestine: We can survive anything.
Sam: That’s what I’m afraid of.

This scene is the perfect example of Underground’s presentation of the myth of agency. We saw it when James was forced to go out into the fields, after all that Ernestine was doing to keep him out of them. And in “Grave,” she can’t help but believe, once again, that she can do something to lessen her child’s pain. This time it’s Sam, and she would sooner cut off her own son’s foot than see another do it, and bring him more harm. Have I mentioned how much I love this character lately? This woman’s gangsta knows no bounds.

And I don’t use the word “gangsta” lightly. To bring in Coates again, we might think of Ernestine alongside the young black men in Baltimore, who Coates wrote about in Between the World and Me. Those men with the tough exterior, men who believe that enough gangsta will ensure their survival, when the reality is that they are not in control. They cannot beat the system anymore than Ernestine can beat hers. Yes, she’s a gangsta. And she’s still losing her children—she’s lost them all now, in some way. Nevermind that they’re not just her children.

Tom: Your children gonna be the death of me.
Ernestine: Ain’t just mine.

That myth of agency is, in a way, what destroyed Sam. He ran because Macon refused to take the $100 he saved up, and free little James. Sam had been told that if he worked hard enough, and saved up long enough, he would have control over something—but that was a lie. Again, Underground chooses to stress the psychological damage of slavery; it wasn’t so much the fields—the manual labor—that Sam couldn’t bear. It was the realization that there was literally nothing he could do to better his lot, or his brother’s. White slaveowners like Tom Macon would give the enslaved hope—for freedom (that they would not actually be granted, no matter how much they saved), and/or for a heavenly afterlife free from pain. “Hope” is a word that often gets thrown at black Americans, but Underground (as I see it) is suggesting that the concept of hope as we know it may not be useful—may be too mythical for those oppressed. Anyway, how can one maintain such a mythical beast as hope, when we’ve seen so man black bodies swinging from southern (and northern) trees?

I’d say it wasn’t death that frightened Sam either, but the thought of surviving—as his mother suggested they would—that terrified him. How much a person can survive is no measure of life. Survival, like hope, is simply not enough. And the suggestion that it should be, or that it could be, well that’s all a part of the myth that kept black Americans slaving in fields back in the 1800s, and it’s a part of the myth that makes it difficult to fully break free today. We still accept the morsels of “hope” and “survival,” like colorful bits of candy meant to hold us over, just a while longer until things get better.

The heroes of Underground beg us to remember how much those in power want us to do little more than hope and survive; how much they conspire to make America safe again, and great again—as if those who’ve been oppressed are responsible for its current, diminished state. The heroes of Underground beg us to remember how much we have, indeed, survived, but also to consider how much we’ve lost in the name of mere hope.

But all is not lost.

At the end of the episode, we see one character transform in a way none of us could have predicted. Of all the enslaved who ran, Alano Miller’s Cato has alway appeared to be the most in control—the one most sure of his own agency and ability to survive. He has done the unforgivable (RIP Zeke), and has always played like the most irredeemable black character on Underground. But as “Grave” draws to a close, and we see Rosalee captured by Jeremiah, he changes. He actually changes.

His instinct is to go back for her. Perhaps something died in him, as he lay in the wooden coffin that served as transport; perhaps it happened when he saw her playing the piano; or maybe it was watching Rosalee continuously risk her life for the others. Whatever it was, he does the unthinkable and thinks beyond himself. In that moment, I would argue, Cato is no longer wearing the costume, or the mask of a free man: he is finally free, if only for a moment. It’s Noah who stops him, and we don’t know yet what that means. But we do know that if Cato can change, anything is possible. Because it means that they didn’t beat all the love and trust out of him. And so maybe there’s hope—and much, much more beyond that—for us all.

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.