There is a new television show I thought I would tell you about. Underground is currently showing first run episodes on WGNA, Wednesdays at 10:00PM.
Underground is 4 episodes into its first season and I must admit I was skeptical when I heard about this show. I worried it would not be historically accurate. I am happy to report it is extremely accurate. For example: We know that a slave named James Brown shipped himself to freedom in a wood crate. He almost didn’t survive the trip. In Underground, they speak of this true event as the abolitionist characters break open a box containing two runaway slaves who tried to ship themselves to freedom as well. One of the two did not survive the trip, a reality that any who might have tried would surely have considered before going through with such a plan. This was an outstanding way for the TV show to give viewers, those who may not have known to what lengths some slaves would go to try to gain their freedom, a sense of the absolute and determination by some to be free. Running away was a crime punishable by anywhere from a penalty of beating to a punishment as severe as death.
Underground is doing a terrific job of showing the harsh realities of slavery, as well as the division of labor that existed on plantations. The violence perpetrated by the plantation overseer is also accurate to what we know from records and first-hand accounts from those who had been enslaved. There is also an accurate depiction of the bigotry that existed amongst the slaves themselves for those who were mulatto. There is also a clear resentment depicted by field slaves of those who were house slaves. These are all important facts if one wants to truly know and understand the institution that was American Slavery.
I would be remiss if I failed to tell you the only weakness I see in the writing/production of Underground. There are many aspects of life for the enslaved accurately depicted, but there is not enough explanation as to what the viewer is to understand about the many important situations shown that would make clear why the situations were depicted in the first place. For example: an enslaved woman gives birth at the start of the series. Childbirth is hard and both the mother and infant might die. Both make it through and all is well, but then, in a later episode, the mother drowns the infant. The lack of explanation of this sacrifice is almost irresponsible. It leaves the viewer believing that enslaved women were violent and capable of killing there own. This is a harmful perception that can exacerbate what some viewers already believe to be true about those enslaved. The viewer should be made aware of the facts within slavery, that many enslaved women either killed or wanted to kill their babies to spare them from a future of hard labor and work in the fields and/or a life of being enslaved. This is important because the story told, even today in the South, is that those enslaved were content with their enslavement because they were treated as members of the family who owned them. We know from many oral histories of those freed after the Civil War, that freedom was a constant thought and desire of those enslaved no matter how kind that master.
Underground has more benefits as a show based on history than it doesn’t. Especially for an American society that truly does not fully know or understand the entire reality of the institution of slavery. I am eager to watch each episode and I hope you’ll do the same. If nothing else, it will open your mind to something that we should have all been taught in school.
If you tune in, let me know what you think. If you have any questions about what is depicted, please feel free to ask me….I’d be happy to work to make clear any questions Underground raises for you.