You would think spending the better part of my life living in the South I would know more about slavery, but I don’t. The truth is the subject of slavery was never something we learned about in school. I mean we learned about it, but it was the watered down, sanitized version of slavery. It happened. It was bad. There was a war. It was over.
In a way, I can understand why they were quick to gloss over that part of their history. Who wants to forever be associated with a time in history when we enslaved an entire race of people. Generations of people. Children who were born into and died the property of someone else. I get wanting to remove yourself so far from that part of your history that you start to believe the watered down version found in history books.
But just because I get why doesn’t mean I agree with it and yet, I never went out of my way to learn about that time in our history. The way I saw it I wasn’t alive back then and I wasn’t a racist person nor would I ever enslave another person under any circumstance so why should I apologize for something I had nothing to do with? I had naively and arrogantly believed that because the days of slavery were behind us they no longer held the same weight as they once had.
I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I heard southern whites exclaim, “you know not all slave owners were bad people, some even treated their slaves very well.” As if not whipping, beating, raping, terrorizing people made it okay that you have stripped them of their right to be people in the first place. Or they talk about how the Civil War was about state rights and the Confederate Flag was a symbol of that struggle. They’ll say anything to downplay the ugliness that was/is slavery.
I’m sure those same people are staying away from the WGN America’s new period drama Underground from creators Misha Green and Joe Pakaski. Which is a shame because it should be required viewing. Underground is a show that doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of slavery nor does it parade that ugliness around for entertainment value.
There were two moments in the series premiere that stuck with me more than any others. One was when it was revealed rather than help the runaway slave, as I had assumed he was doing, we learn August Pullman had really been luring her into a trap so he could get money for her capture. The second moment was when Rosalee was whipped by the plantation’s overseer, Bill Meeks.
With Pullman, played by Christopher Meloni, I wanted, almost needed for him to be a good guy. And not a good guy with grey areas, but just a good guy living through a bad time in history. I can’t even begin to explain why I needed this, but I know I did. Perhaps it is because I’ve been conditioned by society and white culture that we are the heroes in every story. Perhaps it is because with every other terrible crime committed against a race of people I was desperate to hold on to the belief that they weren’t all bad. And logically I know they weren’t. I know this, but it didn’t seem to matter. I even found myself searching for a reason that would justify his behavior as though anything ever would or could justify something like that. Like I said, I don’t know why I felt that way, I just did.
When Rosalee, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, was whipped by Meeks as punishment I audibly cried out in anguish. Why hadn’t no one stepped in to stop this from happening? Why were they all just standing around acting like treating someone like this was okay? Surely they knew they were witnessing evil. How could they not? Did they see how brave and strong Rosalee was? Did they even see her at all? I doubt they did. To see her would be admitting that she was human.
I almost turned it off at that point. Not because , wasn’t a good show, but because I wasn’t sure I would be able to continue to be able to witness acts of cruelty that while in the context of this show were fictional, they were pulled right from our history. I was weak. I was one of the people who continue to turn their heads away from the moments in history that need our attention the most. I didn’t turn it off, I kept watching. I kept watching and I’m glad I did. Underground may be a fictionalized version of true events, but considering most history books treat that time as a fictionalized version of true events I trust they will, at least, do the men, women, and children who lived, died, and survived that time in history more justice than our history books ever did.
Underground airs on Wednesdays at 10 pm ET on WGN America