Underground’s dissection of the ‘Strong Black Woman’ in episode 3

In a response to racist-sexist attacks as old and disgusting and disgraceful as the man who uttered them, Congresswoman Maxine Waters confidently declared herself a strong black woman who could not be intimidated. It was a response that roused social media into a chorus of support and inspired the hashtag #BlackWomenatWork where Black Women exposed […]

In a response to racist-sexist attacks as old and disgusting and disgraceful as the man who uttered them, Congresswoman Maxine Waters confidently declared herself a strong black woman who could not be intimidated. It was a response that roused social media into a chorus of support and inspired the hashtag #BlackWomenatWork where Black Women exposed the double standards of oppression faced due to their racialized gender. This hashtag and congresswoman Waters’ declaration of strong black womanhood illustrates an experience and a manifested strength forced upon us from generation to generation dating back to slavery.

In the article, “The Price of Strength: Black College Women’s Perspectives on the Strong Black Woman Stereotype,” Lindsey West, Roxanne Donovan & Amanda R. Daniel connect the linkage of ‘strong black woman’ stereotype to slavery, highlighting that its origins were not from black women themselves, but the white male and white female slave owners: “Portraying Black women as innately strong enabled White southerners to justify the practice of forcing Black enslaved women into the fields to labor beside Black enslaved men, while simultaneously upholding beliefs of white women as weak, helpless, and in need of (white) men’s protection and control (Collins, 2000; Harrington et al., 2010; hooks, 1981; Wallace, 1990; Welter, 1966; White, 1999).” This very fact is portrayed in Episode 3 of Underground when it opens with the following quote from Patty Cannon’s biographer: “It is widely believed in some scientific circles that the negro woman has an almost supernatural ability to bare pain.” It allows an explanation for Patty Cannon’s inability to catch Rosalee without blaming it on her ineptitude. Instead, the biographer perpetuates the myth that Rosalee, aka ‘Black Rose,’ is superhuman with the power to bear enormous pain.

Little do they know Rosalee is miles ahead of them tending to her wound. Indeed Rosalee is strong — it takes a particular strength to dislodge a bullet from your chest, sew yourself back together, and shock your heart back into beating, all while being pregnant. It’s the kind of strength that can be mythologized if the viewer erases the context that not all women (or men) have to have this kind of strength.

Situated at the lower rungs of the social hierarchy where gender and race intertwine, one informing the other, black slave women were forced to face the physical, emotional, and psychological brunt of slavery without support or protection — they often faced double oppression from the men with whom they toiled the plantation (Ernestine and her lover, Hicks). In the words of Master P on Solange’s A Seat at the Table, “Black kids have to figure it out! We don’t have rehabs to go to. You gotta rehab yourself,” though delivered in a contemporary context this truth applies to the black women of Underground. Rosalee has neither the time nor the ability nor the security to find someone who can doctor her gunshot wound, so she must do it herself. This is not a superhuman strength; it’s an utterly painful survival technique she, and other black women, were forced to learn early on.

We see such teachings take place in two ways in this episode: a slave-man reads his daughter Sojourner Truth’s historical ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ speech while telling her that she is not only strong in her body, but in her mind. It’s the truth given in a palatable form. Another girl’s interaction with a root woman describes it more bluntly: “cut out your insides,” is what the woman tells the girl, for she does not own herself and there is no one to protect her; she’s bound to face a world of trouble if she believes otherwise. Underground shows us how these women aren’t born this way: Ernestine wasn’t born that way. Someone taught her to be so. Society forced her to be so. In fact, we see the transition when she washes the lash-ridden back of her husband and closes his lifeless eyes, “Is that gone happen to me,” her son asks. Instantly any sign of grief leaves Ernestine’s face and it is then that we see the transition, the cutting out of one’s inside and disappearing behind a mask of strength. “As a demand, strength requires that Black women act as if they were invulnerable to abuse; and in adopting strength as a self- protective strategy, Black women present themselves as capable of weathering all manner of adversity. In other words, many Black women fight strength with strength,” Tamara Beauboeuf writes in her book, Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance. Ernestine was already perceived to be “strong” due to her blackness. It meant she could work back-breaking hours in the sun, it meant she could take physical and emotional abuse. Strength was her superhuman ability that mythologized her out of humanity — under the white gaze. But when her face hardens into stone we see her adopt this “strength” as a form of protection from the institution that murdered her husband and could do the same to her son if it felt compelled.

To the world, Ernestine appeared strong and in control — of her master, her children, the plantation and its fate — it is only now in the private moments that she steals that we are able to see how thick and dark her turmoil is. It haunts her in the visions of those she has loved, lost, and forced her into a strength that silenced her emotional, mental, and physical pain. This turmoil is so deep that Ernestine finally chooses to surrender herself and drown in it, literally. As her body sinks to the bottom of the ocean, she has thrown off the shackles of strength and revealed the pain that has festered and rotted her from the inside out. This is her moment of vulnerability and like Rosalee it is seen.

Ernestine is pulled out of the ocean by an army of fellow slaves determined to rescue her. It is idealist in a sense, as black women are often refused such acknowledgement and rescuing. But it is a vivd reminder of what can happen when we neglect the black woman’s humanity and reduce her to a myth.

Kathleen Collins, writer and filmmaker, makes note of the danger of mythologizing blackness in narrative structures. It is no mistake, she says, that black characters are mere caricatures, “the notion of ordinary existence is denied.” This denial is, she states, due to blackness being an ‘outsider,’ therefore resulting in black humans/characters being “super good…[or]…super evil; super sexual…[or]…super ascetic,” they are unable to “arrive at normality because that is the one thing that has been denied you.” We see the way in which black women have been denied their humanity, their right to an ordinary experience, their right to an exploration, evocation, and exorcism of their pain. What we don’t see, thankfully, is a mythologizing of these women and their experiences.

Underground is not perpetuating this myth of hyper-strength in black women. We see the cost of Rosalee and Ernestine and the other black women of Underground bearing pain. The blood and tears pouring from Rosalee reminds audiences that she is human and carrying a child — the child and the love for it acts as her motivation to continue forward despite the leeches, gunshot wound, and physical attacks. She is no freak of nature able to take gun shots to her chest without a flinch. We see the tools and resourcefulness she has to patch herself up. It is a remarkable strength, but it is her only alternative to the death biting at her heels. The strength that she is forced to exert is physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. Underground spends 90% of the episode on Rosalee’s journey, forcing audiences to see that this is no genetic mutation; this is blood, sweat, tears, and fears that must be cast aside if black women were to survive.

Even the perpetrator of this myth is confronted with this truth when he faces Rosalee; pregnant, wounded, and severely dehydrated. In that moment she is not the object of his ignorant theory. He is now being forced to witness the empirical evidence of Slavery’s traumas. In that moment, Rosalee is not the strong superhuman he defined her as. She is vulnerable prey whose fate, however involuntary, lies in his decision to turn her over to Patty Cannon or act as if he doesn’t see her. It is in this moment that theory meets reality and perhaps that is what drives him to cautiously give Rosalee his canteen of water. It is an act of recognizing not only the error of his calculations, but a recognition of Rosalee’s humanity. A humanity he and his pen has had as much hand in erasing as the Patty Cannon and her gun.

Underground has firmly rooted itself in a womanistic perspective and it successfully de-mythologized the trope of Strong Black Womanhood revealing that the women of our ancestors, and the women of today, have been forced to equip ourselves with an armor that allows us to make through a day of micro-aggressions, violent oppressions, intra-racial stereotyping without going insane. But that same armor is not a mechanism to erase our humanity or the simple fact that no human being should be tried as deviously as the black woman is tried.