If You Can Keep Breathing: On Watching UNDERGROUND and Surviving


His name is James, and he has the healthy, plump cheeks of a boy sheltered by his mother's love and her position in the Big House. In the seventh episode of the first season of WGN's Underground, the story of seven enslaved people escaping to freedom, we witness James's first day working his father's cotton field. His father is Master Tom Macon, to be referred to as Master always. We don't know for certain James's paternity, but there are enough narrative clues to infer the truth behind his hue of brown skin.

James, played by Maceo Smedley, is the son of Ernestine, the elegant mistress of the big house, if by mistress I mean in charge of domestic duties, if I also mean the master's lover who is not his wife. She is the shadow wife that can be sold away, humiliated and hurt by Master Tom, or by anyone white who is by default her ruler in the labor theft system of his Georgia plantation.

In this opening scene, Ernestine sings to her son, teaches him that music is survival, a way to keep ourselves going when there is no stopping. Ernestine is played by Amirah Vann, and she performs her own arrangement of "Move, Daniel" that I later learn is a slave shout song originating from coastal Georgia and South Carolina. "Ring shouts" were ritual circle dances with coded songs about pain and dreams. They could also give warning. The circle dances could go for hours, even after a long day's work.

Watching Underground, I am learning. I thought I knew. Correction: I thought I knew enough. Slavery is so painful I've resisted reading too much. I still haven't seen 12 Years a Slave. And definitely no Django. I read Edward Baptist's heart-stopping The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism one chapter at a time. But I was pulled into Underground. The power ensemble cast where enslaved people and their points of view are centered, where they are heroic, especially when doomed.

Ernestine is urgent as she shows James the padding she sewed into the knees of his pants. His brother Sam is there, rubbing salve on his hands, to use until he has grown protective callus. Until this moment, James has been the Master's son's playmate. The Master's son has considered him a best friend. In a stroke of narrative brilliance, Master Tom has decided to run for the US Senate, and in his search for support, he becomes the Master serving others. Including a sinister pastor who is outspoken about plantation affairs. In pleasing the pastor, Master Tom has broken a promise to Ernestine and pushed James to the hellhole. In this opening scene he is still falling, cosseted by family who desperately want to soften a landing into flames.

Then comes morning. We will see the overseer hungry to whip him, to show him who rules. We will see his confused, hurt face out in the heat, how he doesn't drink enough water for as his brother says, he's used to the clean water of the Big House. We will see his bloody hands. And if you can still breathe, or, after you stop breathing, you might realize that Underground is your pastime horror house in HD. That as you lay on the couch, lights off, watching these scenes, you have been transported back into the past your society, and maybe your own family, has worked decades to forget, or erase. Shame is one reason. Survival another.

I have to ask: do white people have these television moments? They must, depending on their roots. If you descend from displaced people, or have known atrocity, you may know the shock of recognition after years silence. Diaspora blacks don't have a lock on this kind of trauma. Maybe this is what it's like for veterans to watch the first war movie they find realistic. Or if you are person who has experienced rape, torture, or degradation of some kind and suddenly see your plight dramatized on screen. Maybe you've had this feeling before. But I lay there and think: I'm walking through this. We're walking through our past. Our buried past. And it feels so fresh I can smell the air. And sometimes, I can't breathe.

Earlier that night, I attended a reading by Ghanaian-born, Jamaica-raised poet Kwame Dawes. He told a story about journalism, and how as a poet, he could sometimes be a better truth-teller when he told a story with his art. He recalled interviewing a wife infected with HIV by her husband, and asking her whether she loved him. She said "yes." As a journalist, he'd have no choice but to record that "yes" for that is what she said. But as a poet, as a human, he could read her body language. He could read that she really meant "no." In a poem, he could tell this truth.

Just like Underground. We have a precious, limited collection of recorded narratives from formerly enslaved people. And even in those published pieces, survivors could not say everything. In Underground, the creative artists led by show-runners Misha Green and Joe Pokaski are recreating for us the psychology and sociology of slavery. The dynamics of the Big House. The whole plantation. They are showing us how our ancestors--black, white, Native American--persevered so that we could be here today, trying our best to thrive in this America they built.

If you can keep breathing, if the trauma of all of these past lives doesn't give you the asthma symptoms I've heard an energy worker attribute to unprocessed grief, you will see the bravery of brother Sam (played by Johnny Ray Gill) as he switched bags with his brother, for he knows what torture awaits the cotton picker who comes in light. You will see him try to give up his life savings to buy James out of the field. And then, you will see him run.

Where would we be without these survivors? Even if we forget the ancestors, they are always with us. They can't be outrun. They live in us. Their traumas are ours. Art like Underground helps us read them, and ourselves.