Blood on the Leaves: Black Flesh and American Freedom in the Underground Premiere

Episode 1.01

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Blood on the Leaves: Black Flesh and American Freedom in the <i>Underground</i> Premiere

As a critic, I know when I’m too biased to write a proper review. When I’ve become so deeply enamored with a series, I leave the reviews to my colleagues, and opt, instead, to write love poems disguised as interviews, essays, or reflections on certain shows. I’m always amazed at those writers who can consistently do both—love a series and keep their critic’s composure.

I can’t do that with Underground, and before you say it, I’ll say it: it’s partly because I’m a black woman. And, perhaps more to the point, I was raised by a black woman and a professor of black American history. So I previewed the first four episodes of the series through the lens of a black woman raised by the kind of black woman who sat down and watched Roots (and Eyes on the Prize, and Sarafina!, and countless others) with me before I was old enough (by most standards); and when I was on vacation from school (or, okay, that one time in 8th grade when I got suspended) she took me to sit in on her African-American History courses at Boston University. Our living room was a library and every vacation was really a research trip, including the summer we spent in Zimbabwe and South Africa. So this is one of those rare times when I actually find myself too close to the material to view it properly. I watch Underground not just as a TV-lover and TV critic, not just as a descendant of the types of characters at the center of the narrative, but as a daughter still grieving my mother and the lessons she taught me. Underground is precisely the kind of series my mother would have watched with me, and its mere existence reminds me of my great loss. Oh, if Mom were here she’d be fact-checking the hell out of this premiere, I thought last night. And no, she probably wouldn’t approve of the Kanye West-infused soundtrack, though I’d have done my damndest to convert her.

Now, all that being said, I still have a job to do. I must write about this incredible show. Let’s begin with a brief recap of the season opener, “The Macon 7”: A birth. A party. A funeral. A beating. A baby thrown out with the bath water. A little boy holding out his hands for a beating. A young woman sacrificing her wrists for her brother; or, flesh for flesh. A little boy fanning white women at the party. A savior, a sadistic captor. Birth, party, funeral, plotting, planning, whispering, limping, but most of all blood. Blood and flesh for freedom.

The term “black bodies” has become, like other great terms popularized by a culture that may not seek to fully grasp their significance, overused. It’s lost the power it held in the hands of people like Claudia Rankine and Ta-Nehisi Coates. And, anyway, it’s always a little dangerous to talk about black people, and focus on the flesh—for many of us, there’s this deep-rooted fear of being reductive. So when I say I want to write about the significance of flesh and blood in Underground’s premier, I already know I’m wading in somewhat troubled water. But there can be no freedom without great risk, so let’s dive in.

Early on we discover that actual blood must be shed for the map to freedom—the map which will lead those enslaved off of this great Georgia plantation—to even come into existence, and that sacrifice is no small thing. Aldis Hodge’s Noah meets a man after he’s been captured. The man has been shot by slavers, and somehow finds the strength to carve this description on the wall; he uses his last breath to tell Noah that the directions work—he must run. Noah uses the man’s blood to cover the words, then takes a piece of cloth, and imprints those bloody words onto it, creating the map he believes he’ll use to escape. This map wouldn’t exist without the physical sacrifice of the first man, and his literal blood on the text. This is a show about the body; how black flesh that was legally owned by white men and women, was also the very means of escaping to freedom.

Noah has faith that he’s found a way out; and at the same time, it’s important that we see characters who have no such faith—no reason to believe in a future for them or their children. A baby is drowned, and it makes perfect sense. What that child will have to endure in this life—it doesn’t seem worth it. So the mother chooses an ugly death.

Noah’s creation of the map might be further read as an implication that black freedom in America is directly connected to the flesh and blood of other black people; in other words, that there is power in the blood. And for Underground, this physical power is not separate from an intellectual power. For one, the map would not exist if the man Noah encountered hadn’t found a means to learn how to read and write. But beyond that, the map has been written in a coded language, otherwise known as a Negro spiritual. Take a moment and consider the sheer brilliance of writing seemingly innocent song lyrics that actually provide an escape route. This is one reason why Paul Vigna at the Wall Street Journal rightfully likened the series to a caper. As the show progresses, we’re going to see how cunning and even manipulative some of theses characters are—and I’m not speaking of the white characters.

Even in this first episode, it’s important that we understand Noah as a man with a plan. He’s not unhinged, and he’s not going to make this escape as a frantic move towards freedom—not that we would blame him. Noah may not be one of the few enslaved people who can read, but his intelligence (that fake limp was a very smooth move, for example) is what keeps him alive in spite of having been caught running. His ability to “perform” as a slave is his disguise, but his awareness of this performance is what’s lighting that fire in him to run.

Rosalee: You said we’s all pretending. What’d you mean?
Noah: We’s all know we’s supposed to be free.

“The Macon 7” also reminds viewers of the particular ways in which white slaveowners viewed the flesh they legally owned. I’m not sure if there was another more terrifying character than Andrea Frankle’s Suzanna Macon. Of all the sadistic and racist vile she spits in the season opener, her reference to young James was arguably the worst. When she sees her daughter hugging James’ mother Ernestine (who has gone to great lengths to prepare for the upcoming birthday party), she threatens, in the most Southern belle-esque manner, to sell the boy away.

James is sure getting big these days. I bet he fetch us a good price on the block. Finally make some money off one of these niggers.

She ages James up, saying he must be about eight now, when he’s really six years old. You can’t watch the icy exchange without thinking of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy prosecutors said was “big for his age,” as part of an explanation for his shooting, at the hands a Cleveland police officer in November, 2014. For Ernestine (played brilliantly by Amirah Vann), this all speaks to a certain turmoil—knowing that every year her son is closer to working in the fields, away from what little protection she might be able to offer him in the master’s home—or worse, he grows closer to the auction block.

A similar fear applies to her daughter, which she alludes to when she tells Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Rosalee that she was terrified she’d give birth to a pretty child. A fair-skinned, black woman working in the master’s house during these times might be protected from the brutality of the fields and the bloody, backbreaking work of picking cotton, but rape was as common as any whip. The physical appearances of both her children has weighed heavily on Ernestine, and as the season unfolds, we’re going to see how fiercely she’ll work to protect them. But we’ll also have a difficult time putting a name on her behavior and decisions. In the same way that Rosalee cannot conceive of a woman killing her own newborn child, we won’t be able to make perfect sense of all these great characters and their motivations. There’s a hint of that at the end of “The Macon 7,” when we find Noah and Cato standing side-by-side—the bad guys of the series may be obvious, but there’s still room for plenty of grey.

Although I knew of the concept, I hadn’t heard the word “epigenetics” until I watched the powerful second season of Amazon’s Transparent, which made the argument that the main characters could not be understood without looking back to their Jewish ancestry. The notion that trauma can be inherited, passed down from one generation to the next, is powerful—but we never really talk about it, or not nearly enough. I’d argue that Underground is asking us to seriously consider having that conversation in popular discourse.

What, beyond flesh and blood, can we trace back to our black and white (and other) ancestors? Or, if flesh and blood are more than just the physical representatives of the self, but also things which point to the emotional and mental states, what do the flesh and blood experiences of black people in the time of the Dred Scott decision say about us today?

Is it too much to hope that a story like this—one about people who didn’t wait for their freedom to be granted, but planned, and then chose to steal away (as another Negro Spiritual advises)—might work like its own map to a certain liberation, still out of reach for many black Americans? It’s only a show, and it’s so damn entertaining, it’s hard to believe there’s another agenda underneath this “slickly executed and expensive-looking piece of television.” But I do believe creators Misha Green, Joe Pokaski, the writers and even the composers working on the series have something beyond must-watch TV in mind. Like Noah, they’ll be slick enough to veil what I presume may be deeper intentions—with a little Yeezus, and some fantastic directing and cinematography. But something tells me they’ve put their own flesh and blood on the line to send a powerful message about contemporary notions of black American freedom, and the face of oppression as it has and has not changed since antebellum South.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. 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.