Nonfiction | Resist

Who Gets to Cry

Episode 2 of Underground explores the challenges of allyship and the luxury of grief

grief, wallow, even inhale the scent of her husband’s clothes. Rosalee can do none of the above. While Elizabeth retreats into one of Georgia’s boarding room as a way to “get out of that house,” Rosalee is in the kitchen plucking turkey feathers to line her jacket as Harriet coaches her through the next mission. 

Not once has Noah’s name been uttered except for Rosalee being told to forget him. Not once has Rosalee sat, processed, wallowed, or sulked. She can’t afford to. It is this juxtaposition of privilege and restriction that Underground does brilliantly. Both women are engaged in the same fight against slavery, but they are on either ends of the hierarchy, thus their experiences and consequences are far from equal. 

While Elizabeth is allowed to grieve publicly and speak of her thoughts of children; Rosalee has to conceal her growing belly. Like Ernestine and Clara, children bore by black slave women are far from dreams. They are property, targets, often evidence of rape. Children are beings for whom the mothers have limited power in protecting.

She cannot steal a moment to herself because she is a slave. Underground is so brilliant in their delving into the minutiae of slavery that we truly begin to see the layers of its oppression. Slaves were not allowed stewardship over anything—not their body, their safety, their fate, their emotional health, their time, nor their grief. Ernestine has to inhale opium not solely to numb the pain of the loss of her children, but so that she can work. Because that’s what she’s forced to do. Day in and day out, sun up to sun down she has to be bent over, underneath the sun, feet in the dangerous swamp, working. We’ve seen what happens when one dares to refuse—they are beaten, savagely like Ernestine’s “lover” and Noah whose second major attempt at escaping from slave catchers leads him to being beaten and chained.

As the camera slowly zooms out, leaving both women sitting in front of the courthouse whose name reads: “Let Freedom Ring,” we could take it for a sign of solidarity and, perhaps, in part it is. But there is another part to Georgia’s refusal to leave. Elizabeth’s sudden selfishness poses a threat to Georgia, her operation, and the functioning of the Underground Railroad–at least in their town. There are repercussions for Elizabeth’s actions that could pose a threat more harmful to others than to her own self. Such consequences are revealed in the scene where the white family is taken hostage by Patty Cannon, the famed slave-catcher. How quickly their allyship changes when the violence of slavery looks them in the eye. We cannot forget these choices. They remind us, again, of the danger of unchecked privileged in an ally. The elder white woman exerting her privilege to revoking her ally card, thus saving her child, comes at the expense of another child and their mother–Rosalee, who, when up against the same danger persists to bring as many as she can to freedom.