Police & policies have been rioting on our bodies; destroying people & property every single day of your lives. So Exactly What Kind Of Violence Don’t You Like?—Jesse Williams
In school, every February, my kids learn about Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and the importance of peace. It’s a fine lesson for a kindergartner or a second grader. But last year, after the Baltimore Uprising, I kept my boys out of school for a day, and took them to the library to teach them some other lessons. Nobody really wants to have these conversations with their young children (a recent episode of Black-ish takes on this conundrum, specific to black parents in America), because no one wants to hear questions like the one my 7-year-old asked me: “So, who’s gonna save me from the police?”
At the same time, I think every parent can relate to my response: “Me. Mommy is going to fight to make sure nothing happens to you.” And I also told him that there are people all over the world who are angry, and fighting for him—angry like King was, angry like Malcolm X, angry like Fannie Lou Hamer, like my mother and so on. Black anger—black rage—is a sacred component to any fight for freedom or civil rights. My kids will know that King preached nonviolence, but they’ll also know that King understood the power (and usefulness) of violence, and spent much of his time in a rage over the treatment of black Americans. What he did with that rage certainly made for better optics than what Malcolm X did with his rage, but people seem to forget that both men were considered a threat to America; and so they were both cut down.
I’m not allowed to say that watching black rage unfold—whether in a news segment covering an uprising, or on a show like Underground (though, to be clear, there are no shows like Underground)—gives me satisfaction. As a black American, I’m to watch a movie like 12 Years a Slave, weep for Solomon as he hangs from a tree—barely conscious—and then receive my satisfaction when a white savior intervenes and helps him find his way back to freedom. This is justice. No white people or property owned by whites (or cities where whites and white privilege are in control) have been harmed. This should satisfy me.
That is not the story Underground is telling, and that is why I write about the show every week. The stories tell me that I’m not alone in wanting to see an entire cotton field on a Southern plantation light up with the flames of a freedom fighter whose own face has been lit up by slaveowners. I’m not alone in wanting to see—wait for it—a white man get his back opened up (by someone he loves, no less). I’m not usually allowed to say any of this, but in a recap of the events of “Firefly,” I get to make the suggestion that black rage—and the violence and destruction that sometimes must, necessarily, come with—it is more than okay. I’m not ashamed to say that ever since Django Unchained my body and mind have been waiting for a story where black rage is a sacred tool in liberation.
What does it take to break free? is the question Underground keeps asking us every week. In episode one it was a freedom map born out of flesh (the one the dying man gave to Noah). In episode two it was sensuality for survival (or, Ernestine’s wine cellar performance). And in episode three it was straight-up violence (RIP Bill). In episode four the plan continues to unfold, and black rage takes center stage. When Cato finally reveals himself towards the end of the episode—the source of his burn scars, and his direct role in the flight of the Macon 7—it’s his rage over his mistreatment that shines through, and lights up an entire cotton field. His rage, even more than the flames, is what we see lighting up the screen. And it’s as beautiful and luminous a scene as the one where Rosalee finds herself amidst a swarm of fireflies. Everything is aflame in episode four, and it’s glorious.
I’m going back. For the others. I was Henry’s age the first time I heard my own massa talkin’ about free blacks. Up North, they just walkin’ around! It lit a fire in me. I knew I was s’posed to be free… I won’t leave any of them behind.”—Noah
But the creators and writers of Underground have done their philosophy homework, and they know that any virtue can become a vice, if it’s pushed far enough. Jussie Smollett is the other flame burning in this episode, and although his character Josey provides an excellent, cathartic—and yes, entertaining release, he’s been blinded. One of his eyes has turned blood-red, and it’s clear that he hasn’t been able to see or think straight since his wife Tippy was sold away from him. Unlike some of the other characters we’ve met, Josey has, perhaps, become more preoccupied with vengeance and retribution than freedom. And that certainly doesn’t make him a villain; it makes him human. In fact, he may be the most human black character we’ve seen so far on Underground. Noah and the others have been carefully channeling their rage into a plan to escape—they are our superheroes.
Josey is different. Like so many of us, he can’t quite get past a particular trauma in his life. He’s struggling for answers, but getting distracted by his rage along the way. Not only is he interested in “dinin’ like white folks,” but he also wants to exact violence and pain like all of the white folks he’s ever met. But freedom lies not in mimicry, or using, to quote Lorde, the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house—which is partly why Josey meets his end. But then again, his friend—a black runaway who is not blinded by rage and is actually interested in helping the Hawkes—meets the same fate. With or without black rage, black lives can be cut down at any moment (which is why there’s some satisfaction in witnessing so many characters go down swinging).
On another note, and just because I’m shipping incredibly hard for Noahlee, black love is a key part of this conversation as well. It’s not just rage, but a passionate love for his wife that sends Josey to the Hawkes’ home. Rage and love inspire Noah to run, to get Rosalee to a safe place, and to return for the people he left behind. Rage sends Pearly Mae running… and love sends her back to the slave catcher (so that her daughter can be carried off by her husband Moses) with her hands up, above her head: “Please. Not in front of my daughter.”
I can’t speculate. I wasn’t there. But I don’t believe there’s an enslaved person who ran on foot, from the South to the North (and sometimes all the way to Canada), without rage in his or her heart. That rage wasn’t dangerous to anyone, except for the white people who feared the loss of their power. That rage wasn’t anti-God or anti-Jesus (John 2:13, anyone?). That rage was sacred, and on Underground, when that rage is concentrated and joined with the rage of others —it’s a necessary means of achieving black freedom in America.
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.