I recently read a blog post by Piper Huguley about a historical show called Underground. The TV run for the show’s first season just ended, so if you haven’t watched it, the show takes place in the 19th century on an American plantation. It focuses on a Georgia plantation’s slaves and the group that tries to make a 600 mile escape to freedom.
Piper’s post asked why some people weren’t watching the show and it got me thinking. I am not African American, but Jamaican. However, we do have often have similar emotions with our African American brothers and sisters because of our shared slave history. So while most depictions of slavery in the media focus on America, the topic is still very personal to black people from the Caribbean, Central and South America.
The truth is, if you’re like me movies and TV shows that center around slavery are very difficult to watch. I find them distressing and have to prepare myself for them. It’s one of the reasons why I avoid depictions of things like slavery or war. TV is an escape for me so I avoid harrowing topics. I have never seen the original Roots miniseries in its entirety for this reason. I’m still debating whether I will watch the upcoming remake. And while I have watched Amistad, to this day I have family members who refuse to watch because they feel it would be too difficult to see. I had to prepare myself emotionally to watch Twelve Years a Slave. And even after watching it I had pretty bad dreams about it.
Which brings me back to Underground. If you’re like me, on paper, Underground is the last thing you’re going to want to watch. But, because I saw so much enthusiasm online I decided to give it a try. And I’m glad I did. There are difficult scenes on the show. I understand the fear of this. The way slavery is taught often takes the humanity of the enslaved out of the equation and makes them happy, childlike workers or faceless, mindless property. And media depictions of it sometimes veer into being very problematic and while this is more of a problem with older films, the legacy of those films hasn’t disappeared.
But Underground is not full of gratuitous violence though the enslaved people live under the constant threat of it. Underground doesn’t shy away from the cruelty and evil of slavery, but its characters aren’t nameless, faceless black people with no story, no wants, no opinions, no desires, and no agency. Despite its subject, Underground is actually a very uplifting show for me. It’s a show about slavery but also about freedom. It’s about the courage of enslaved people who resisted and fought in small ways and big ways. It’s about the courage of free black people who risked their lives for their enslaved brothers and sisters.
Underground shows that even through the worst suffering imaginable enslaved people refused to be dehumanized. They held on to their dignity and humanity in the most harrowing conditions. Parents still fought for their children. There were still jokes to tell. They still fell in love. They still had skills, and talent, and ingenuity. They had all this knowing that their friends and family members might be sold away, never to be seen again. It takes immense courage to love fiercely and unconditionally when you know your loved ones might be gone the next day.
So, if you put off Underground because it might be difficult to watch, give the pilot a chance. Though the season has ended (here’s hoping there will be more), I think it’s available on Amazon Prime and the DVDs will be out later this summer.
Thanks to Piper for writing the original post and posing the question!