Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage... There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible – that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden.—Ta-Nehisi Coates, author, MacArthur genius, atheist
What do we do with the God of the people who legally owned our ancestors? Early on in Underground Noah confidently stated that, if there is a God, “he’s not on our side,” and that fact seemed abundantly clear. It’s not going to be a God—and certainly not the same that God white slaveowners worshipped—who gets them to freedom. It’s going to be the coming together of flesh and blood, in the name of freedom.
Underground is no longer dancing around the question of the relationship between black Americans, liberation and Christianity. “Troubled Water” introduces a new villainous character in the way of the Reverend Willowset (Wayne Pére), who comes armed with an especially dangerous tool for black Americans living under the oppression of whites: Christianity. Underground has shown some brutal scenes, but instead of bombarding us with images of black men and women being beaten to within an inch of their life, the psychological warfare of slavery often takes precedence on the show. Every character on Underground is unique, but is also informed by his or her particular upbringing in slavery. Cato has been scarred, and behaves as such. Rosalee has been sheltered, and behaves as such. They all deviate from our expectations at one point or another (Rosalee does so in a huge way, this week), but Noah probably stands out as one who has worked to maintain his true self, even under bondage. Perhaps this is because, in the same way that he never believed himself to be a slave, he never believed there to be a God who would save him.
This week, we’re forced to face the issue of Christianity as a means of psychological warfare. I know in saying this, I’ve already alienated some readers—and it won’t help to tell you that I grew up in the church (Baptist), that I accepted Christ as my personal savior when I was 14, or that this is my absolute favorite internet meme of all time. The truth is, I no longer worship the Christian God, and the history behind what unfolds in “Troubled Water” is one of many reasons why.
I can’t think of a more brilliant way to keep an oppressed people oppressed, than to tell them that their suffering brings them closer to a God. I can’t think of a better lie to tell a group of enslaved people, than one that declares that their lives on earth do not matter, because their true reward is in the afterlife. Freedom comes to those who obey their masters; freedom comes to those with the divine patience to wait for a better life in heaven. Black lives don’t have to matter on Earth, because God is the one true judge and the meek shall inherit the Earth… and so on, and so forth—all of the things our ancestors were taught by the same men and women who legally owned them.
Ernestine learns this week that the Reverend is not here to save her. He immediately takes note of the influence she has over Tom Macon, and makes it his mission to take her down. We see two scenes this week, where Ernestine is violated—in the house, when Macon begins to lose his composure and we fear, for a moment, that she will be raped. And then again, as she wears all white with the other enslaved, and is baptized. The Reverend calls her a “Jezebel,” and holds her under water, until she begins to struggle and choke. A woman of color in America exists under myriad forms of oppression, all of which are informed by a patriarchy that seeks to violate the flesh and the mind. As Master Macon takes hold of her body, we are reminded that she has no real say in where and when they have sex; and as the Reverend takes hold of her body, we are reminded that she has no say in how or whom she chooses to worship. He has chosen a God for her, and he has chosen for very specific reasons.
In other words, Underground is reminding viewers that Christianity was thrust upon black America, along with slavery and the violence that came with it. The Bible was not a means of liberation—even if it was the first book many slaves read (because they were permitted to read it, because it was useful to their masters and mistresses)—but rather a tool with which to further convince them that they were slaves, rather than enslaved people. This is why the Reverend chastises Tom for not reading the Bible to them—because he knows that conversion to Christianity breeds more obedient slaves. The Bible as they present it is, therefore, no less diabolical a tool than the whip, the chains or the Big House, which—as Ernestine points out—also does a violence to the mind of an enslaved person.
But like my old pastor used to say, I have a good word for you today. And the word, according to Underground, is that there is a way to break free from that violence which seeks to destroy the body and mind. As Ernestine kept it realer than real and got drunk in the rocking chair, take note of who was on the receiving end of her confession about Pearly Mae: another new character, Herman (played by Jeffrey Poitier), who was carefully mixing his own blood into the paint that the Reverend would later use. Perhaps we’ll learn more about him in future episodes, but for right now I believe Herman has developed his own means of “eternal life,” by inserting himself into the portraits created by the white men who believe they own his flesh and blood.
And then there’s Rosalee, who Cato will no longer be able to refer to as “housegirl,” because she has broken free (though this is just the beginning). It’s not a God, or a prayer, or a white savior that gets them to safety—it’s Rosalee. She put her own flesh on the line, left the only protectors she seemed to have—the men on the boat—and found help among the Native Americans (those “savage” creatures, many of whom would go on to choose death over the white man’s Christian God). Like Noah, she’s not going to sit around and wait for freedom to come to her in the afterlife, because perhaps she knows—like so many of us do—that this life is the life that matters, and that it has to matter most.
Otherwise, what are we fighting for?
Sidenote: Each week I try to hone in one particular aspect of the episode, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to do that. I love the introduction of Jeremiah Johnson and his gang; I loved the letter Elizabeth was reading at the beginning, about preparing her home for new life; and I loved every single wide-angle shot of the runaways on the water. Along with the amazing shots of the mass baptism on the plantation, this was just a beautiful episode to watch.
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.