Love Is Not the Answer to White Supremacy on Underground‘s “Citizen”
(Episode 2.09)WGN America TV Features Underground
In this country, who is allowed to fight back—with force, violence and/or rage—and who is expected to turn the other cheek? Who is allowed to go to war, and who is supposed to protest peacefully? Who gets to be angry in the face of injustice, and who gets to champion love, hope and light? America has always had a double standard when it comes to violence, and from the time I’ve understood this, I’ve had a problem with America.
Son of Baldwin recently said, “A one-by-one genocide is the kind that will escape the analysis and condemnation of history.” Earlier this week, we learned about the killing of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards at the hands of a Texas police officer (whose name has not been released yet, because he is protected in every way under American law), and I thought about a question I asked last year: Why Shouldn’t Black America Revolt? At what point do we thank those who came before us for protesting quietly, for sitting in at lunch counters, for being beaten by cops in the street, for walking into schools with white men, women and children screaming and spitting on them—but decide that we are not going to fight back with love for our enemies and nonviolence against our oppressors? At what point will we decide that we are, in fact, at war? Just because black people are not being rounded up in large numbers and shot (though we are indeed being rounded up), it doesn’t mean we’re not at war. Only when black people believe that they are still being systematically destroyed will we allow ourselves to embrace the very natural rage that comes from such realizations, and literally fight back.
But white supremacy is a helluva drug (and so is the fear that comes with it), and even during the time of slavery, those who wanted to revolt had a difficult time trying to convince other enslaved people that they were at war with white America. Underground has always been a show that celebrates black revolt, violent and otherwise, and in Season Two—with the introduction of Harriet Tubman and John Brown’s followers—we’re getting even more talk about the necessity of violence. In this season’s “Minty,” Harriet brilliantly captured the distinctive and purposeful violence of a slave revolt:
“Slavery ain’t just a sin, it’s a state of war… Violence with no cause is brutality. But beatin’ back against those tryna kill you? That’s hope. That’s prayer.”
In “Citizen,” Elizabeth takes the reins and proves her commitment to the cause. Now, if this were a different show, or a show I didn’t watch regularly, I might roll my eyes at the idea of one of the few white characters being presented as one of the most militant. But this is Underground, and the writers have done their due diligence, allowing the rage of our black characters to take center stage. So I’m excited to see Elizabeth, still grieving her husband’s murder and newly inspired by John Brown’s crew, to take up arms. She clashes with Georgia because she doesn’t want to sit around and wait for another attack from the white men in town. She no longer believes that there’s a way to get through to these people, and even connects with Cato (oh, shady-ass Cato) in a conversation about fear in the face of white supremacy: “The idea that they could—knowing that they can do, have done and will do whatever they want.”
I heard her words and thought, again, about Jordan Edwards. And I thought about Alton Sterling, whose killers will not face federal charges—because police officers never do.
Jessica De Gouw’s performance as Elizabeth has always been compelling, but in “Citizen,” both the actor and the character seem to evolve into something new, and perhaps even “dangerous,” as Georgia puts it. How far will Elizabeth go, now that she’s answering this call to war? When someone decides that love is not the answer, what tools will they use to try to dismantle an entire system?
“Love or hope is not what’s gonna end this fight. Not even rage. It’s fear. Total and unforgiving. It’s the only thing that moves us. Until we all feel it, nothing is going to change.”
It’s not biblical, or especially poetic. And it doesn’t sound anything like those MLK quotations that always make the rounds when black people start looking like they might be in the process of finally beating back against those trying to kill us. But I support this theory wholeheartedly, and I’m excited to see all that happens when Elizabeth puts it into practice. When she insists that the son of the slave catcher isn’t “innocent,” she makes a powerful point about her emotional state—refusing to feel guilty over the pain she’s caused a child is not synonymous with being heartless. She’s all heart, actually, but her heart is as politically enraged as it is emotional. Liz, you’re alright with me.
Of course, rage isn’t the only thing you need to fight back against those in power and their way of life. You need people on your side, and Elizabeth may have lost a friend and an ally in Georgia. Now that Daniel has finally (finally!) made his way to our main cast, I suspect they all may be of different minds when it comes to how to get involved with him. The team is a bit of a mess right now, with Cato now having infiltrated the organization in cahoots with Patty Cannon, Harriet/General Tubman having doubts about her leadership abilities and Noah and Rosalee in a very real beef—I know you gasped when he told her, “You’re just like your father.” It sucks when your boyfriend compares you to your dead, slave-owning father, but it also sucks when your girlfriend hides her pregnancy from you so you’ll agree to run back down South with her (after finally managing to escape slavery yourself) to free her little brother.
I’m not entirely sure, but I think my body is ready for this finale.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.