7 Ways Underground Speaks to the Realities of Modern Black Women

WGN’s Underground aired its Season 2 finale yesterday. It has accomplished the seemingly impossible — building an audience around a weekly series about slavery. Immersions into the most painful parts of black history are difficult. But this season’s strong female-driven storylines held up a mirror to the lives of contemporary black women.

Here are just 7 of the ways:

1) Hand Me Downs

When they were together in Season 1, Ernestine was constantly teaching her daughter Rosalee the realities of how to survive in a world that is ugly towards black women. Through a flashback, we saw another of these moments this season. Jumping on a bed with a young Rosalee, Ernestine spoke to the need to find moments of joy in life.

The sum total of her guidance was on full display this season. Pregnant and running away from slave catchers, it’s clear that Rosalee’s strength, persistence, and intelligence resemble Ernestine’s. This Ache episode’s artfully juxtaposition of the two women’s stories illustrates just how much our mothers (and really all our foremothers) live within us. This is true even when they themselves have moments when they want to give up. It’s real when they are no longer physically with us.

2) What Seeps In

In this second chapter of Ernestine’s story, she is in a new relationship with an enslaved man who regularly beats her. Life on the plantation is clearly difficult. Violence and degradation are everywhere. They even seep into these two people’s attempt to share love.

Today black women are more likely than white ones to experience domestic violence. Over the course of their lifetime, 45 percent experience physical violence, sexual violence and/or stalking. Black women are also more likely to be poor. Old school plantations are gone but life in low-income neighborhoods is clearly difficult. When many families can’t afford basic needs and there are bad housing conditions, stressors are everywhere. These stressors are likely affecting relationships.

3) The Dance with the White Working Class

August, a low-level slave catcher, was freed from jail this season. A striver, his actions are at least partially driven by a desire to build a comfortable life for his family. Men and women of greater means use him as a tool to promote their own interests. He is a slavery-era version of the white working class.

There is constant tension between August and the black characters seeking freedom and a better life. This dance is playing out in the Trump era. One belief has endured the test of time — the survival of whites depends on maintaining a lower social status for all other racial groups. True believers are hurt by their own attitudes. August loses his family. Members of the modern white working class may very well lose their healthcare.

4) Things Fall Apart

Ernestine was in the depths of depression this season. She has every reason to be. One of her sons was violently murdered. She is physically separated from her other children. She lost her home and everything that is familiar to her. She has been raped and physically abused. She spent all doing work that was well below her skills and abilities. And, lest we forget, she is still enslaved.

It’s not hard to find 2017 versions of Ernestine. Sadly, they are dealing with the exact same traumas (and often more than one at the same time).

Depression symptoms remain the same throughout history. Ernestine was emotionally numb — even to further abuse. Self-destructive behavior, including violence and drug abuse, helped to deaden the pain. She attempts suicide. She needed help, which continues to be out of reach for many black women.

5) Heartbreak Hotel

Perhaps the best part of Season 2 was the hour-long “TUB Talk” with Harriett Tubman. It included a seemingly minor tidbit. Tubman had her heart broken. After escaping slavery, she put her life in danger in order to return south for her husband. She was devastated to find that he had a new woman who he was refusing to leave. She was angry.

I’m pretty sure this is the theme of roughly half of Beyonce’s songs. Harriett illustrated the best possible example of a black woman turning her lemons into lemonade. Instead of freeing her husband, she answered the call to start freeing other slaves. Humanizing historical icons makes it easier for today’s women to see ourselves as potential change makers.

6) Faith

Harriett was a woman of faith. In one scene, she is praying alone in a church. It’s evident that she has fears and doubts. But they seem to feed her deep relationship with God. Surviving (and thriving) in a society that devalues your humanity has caused black women from the slavery era to today to take similar walk of faith.

7) The Crossover

Underground successfully immerses its audience in America’s distant past. Its talented actors have audiences believing that they are trapped in a world in which they are desperately trying to escape slavery. That’s why it can be a little jarring when they pop up in a modern context. This season, two Underground stars simultaneously appear in another series — Fox’s Shots Fired.

One of them was DeWanda Wise. She is Clara, Ernestine’s plantation protégé and enemy. She is also Shameeka, a mother whose son likely died in a police-involved shooting. In both worlds she is a woman struggling to gain some sense of control after events that revealed they had limited power to protect their children.

There is a sense of poetry in this likely coincidence of casting. Familiar faces from a show about slavery appear in another focused on police shootings and 21st Century struggles for racial justice. There is power in reflecting on how the two eras are related an how certain cycles can be broken and destroyed.