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.
Noah, too, is grieving, but his tears have been replaced with determination to make it back to Rosalee. That determination has manifested itself into a wedding-band of wire. The slave catchers pick up on this and threaten to steal it. Noah is forced to remain calm. He cannot, like Elizabeth, express his rage. While Elizabeth is able to return to the scene of her husband’s crime with a gun in her purse and revenge in her heart, Noah has to drive a nail in his hand in order not to buck at the slave catchers. Justice is what Elizabeth claims to be after, but Georgia checks Elizabeth’s motives. “You wouldn’t be doing it [shooting someone] for John, you’d be doing it for yourself,” Georiga says.
It’s a reminder of the privilege allies experience despite their commitment to join the fight. While engaged in the abolitionist movement, Elizabeth has experienced a consequence experienced a thousand times over by her black counterparts and slave that has passed through her home on the route to freedom. In her direct affliction of slavery’s violence, she has relapsed into thinking of herself—as she does in the scene where she expresses her anger for Rosalee not being at John’s funeral. As Elizabeth sits in another state of sorrow, the black man she’s helped dressed in John’s clothes talks of how he used to stay up at night thinking about the 39 lashes the overseer was allowed to whip the slaves with.
Though Underground gives respect to Elizabeth’s grieving, they don’t allow it to happen without juxtaposing it with the sorrows of the black enslaved individuals she is to be helping set free. It’s an act to remind her she’s not alone, it’s a checking of her privilege, something any good ally must do if they intend to be an asset to any cause of the oppressed. I respect the creators of Underground for this nuanced portrayals of differences within these women engaged in the same fight. I appreciate that Elizabeth is not a saint–her acts of selfishness are used as illustrators of the danger a supposed ally poses to a movement when they forget their context in society and the luxuries they are afforded. Elizabeth tells Georgia to leave her alone, but Georgia responds,”I am not going anywhere.”
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.
Most of us would like to think we’d be Rosalee or Harriet; fighting the fight head-on. Most allies would like to believe that they aren’t blind to their privilege—some even would like to believe they have none at all. Very few, in any, would imagine themselves as Ernestine, whose actions have stretched the notion of morality. Ernestine is reminder of the gray area that exists in our ideas of heroism and respectability. When she sells Clara out and tells her lover with the abortion mix is, one could instantly cast her as the villain. But it would be an inaccurate characterization. Slavery, and it’s upholders, are the villains creating the trying circumstances in which these individuals are forced to live and survive. Before Ernestine sells Clara out, there’s a pause, a moment of contemplation. We don’t know the exact motivation behind Ernestine’s choices; perhaps it was to save herself from a violent attack, perhaps it was to save the woman from her own fate, perhaps it was to save that baby from a life of enslavement. But what it reveals is that chattel slavery was a beast developed by the most sinister and cowardly members of humanity. It tested humanity to the zenith and yielded results that we can never afford to ignore. Underground doesn’t allow us to.
As Rosalee prepares to go on another mission after the death of John. A man, presumably a friend of the cause, urges her to focus on her “family.” He tells her that Elizabeth is going to need her. There’s a brief pause before Rosalee nods. In that pause lies the question of who will be there for Rosalee. How long will her tears and agony be ignored. Surely we cannot place a value on whose loss is greater, but we can remark on the ways in which one’s pain is valued and acknowledged over the other’s.