Slavery is having a pop culture moment

By Rosalind Bentley

It seems as though the difficult story of American slavery is having a pop culture moment.

The U.S. Treasury Department said last week that Harriet Tubman, a former slave and Underground Railroad conductor, will replace President Andrew Jackson, a slave owner, on the $20 bill.

MORE: Jubilation at Tubman Museum in middle Georgia .. Ben Carson pans $20 bill change .. 20 things you didn’t know about Harriet Tubman

A remake of the landmark television miniseries “Roots” airs this summer. And actress Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for her searing portrayal of a real-life slave in “12 Years a Slave” was just on the cover of InStyle magazine, her latest in a string of high profile layouts since her star turn as the brutalized “Patsy.”

Yes, the “peculiar institution” is being reckoned with, anew. Nowhere is it being retold in a more daring fashion than with the new WGN America show “Underground,” which airs at 10 p.m. Wednesdays on WGNAmerica.

Anti-slavery activist and author William Still (Chris Chalk, right) talks with a runaway slave in WGN's new series "Underground." Photo: WGN AMERICA

Anti-slavery activist and author William Still (Chris Chalk, right) talks with a runaway slave in WGN’s new series “Underground.” Photo: WGN AMERICA

PAST COVERAGE: Jurnee Smollett-Bell discusses “Underground” series at Clark Atlanta University

About to wrap up its first 10-episode season, this has been a one-of-a-kind depiction, one that takes an unflinching look at one of the most important, difficult and fundamental parts of the nation’s history.

Network officials announced this week the show has been renewed for a second season. Set in Georgia, not far from Atlanta, it deliberately feels like an old-style thriller, with a band of fugitives trying to outrun the law. And the band of seven are fugitives; fugitive slaves running for their lives and liberty from a lawful but immoral system that could legally deny them both. The fictional characters leave a Georgia plantation and follow the real-life Underground Railroad–that patchwork of safe homes, barns, secret routes and hiding places that stretched from the South all the way to Canada—in their flight from bondage.

 

AJC reporter Rosalind Bentley

AJC reporter Rosalind Bentley

There are tough moments, such as an older sibling taking a severe whipping for her much younger brother, barely seven years old. And there are lighter moments, including one where the slaves are allowed to adorn themselves and gather for an evening dance. The soundtrack includes more tracks from artists such as Kanye West and The Weeknd than traditional spirituals.

The show’s creators and executive producers, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, have said they wanted to tell the story in a different way, “not the shame of it, but the revolutionary nature of it,” as Green said. At a time when racial tension in the nation has been rising, the story of its roots is timely, said Pokaski.

“We live in a world where we think a Facebook post changes things, and it doesn’t by itself,” Pokaski said. “You have to act.”

In that way, the show prods viewers, black and white, to ask themselves if they’d have had the courage to run, or the courage to help an escaped slave make it to freedom. 

Photo: Library of Congress

Photo: Library of Congress

Still, there are facts and then there are truths. In February, Leslie Harris, an African American history professor at Emory University, author and scholar of American slavery, was a panelist at the White House during a Black History Month celebration featuring “Underground.” She has been watching it since.

Viewers should be careful not to conflate history with depictions of history, Harris said in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but overall the show accurately hits important elements of the slavery experience.

“I have students who come into my classroom who say they were shown ‘Gone With the Wind’ in their high school classrooms as a legitimate source to understand the Civil War,” Harris said.

A show like “Underground” helps in breaking misconceptions many people have about that period and it serves as a counterpoint to efforts to sanitize an ugly chapter of shared history.

“It comes at a moment when slavery is being removed from curriculum or curtailed in text books from Texas to Georgia,” Harris said. “We have this TV show and that’s cool, but we’re still fighting to get this part of American history into school curriculum. The misreading of history has been linked to a deep misunderstanding of the current condition of African Americans.”

A still from "Underground." Photo: WGN America

A still from “Underground.” Photo: WGN America

We asked Harris to truth-check the first four episodes of the show. Here’s what she had to say.

EPISODE ONE

Where were the first stops on the Underground Railroad? Were any of them in Georgia?

The Underground Railroad existed wherever people decided to leave slavery and head North, as most did, or south into Mexico, as a smaller number did.  Enslaved people from rural plantations might run first to cities, such as Savannah or Macon.  Either boats of ships in coastal cities, or railroads, wagons or horses in land-locked cities could provide fugitives with the means to move from place to place until crossing the Mason-Dixon Line.  Of course, enslaved people also walked through rural areas as well, attempting to avoid slavecatchers or others who would turn them in.  More fugitives escaped from the border states, such as Maryland and Virginia, because the distances were shorter; but enslaved people escaped from farther south as well, by land or sea.  Among the most famous fugitives from Georgia were William and Ellen Craft, who escaped from Macon via Savannah, with Ellen passing as a sickly white male slave owner, and William posing as her enslaved manservant. 

There’s a friendship between the youngest son of the slave owner and the son of the lead house slave. Were those uncommon relationships between the enslaved and their owners?

Many slave narratives and reminiscences by slave-owning whites recall friendships and relationships between adult enslaved people and white children. At the same time, members of the slave-owning class used such relationships to train their children in how to wield power over slaves; and such relationships also taught enslaved people the limits to their own power as well. 

The show has a mix of fictional and real characters, for example,William Still, but what about John Hawkes?

William Still was a real anti-slavery activist and author. During the antebellum period, he operated as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, actively assisting fugitives to freedom. He also worked closely with the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, an important group in the local and national struggle against slavery. As he assisted fugitives from slavery, he collected their stories, and after the Civil War, he published them in a book entitled The Underground Railroad, which was reprinted a number of times during the late-nineteenth century, and remains one of the best sources on the Underground Railroad. 

John Hawkes (played by Marc Blucas) is not a real person, but he stands in nicely for the attitudes of white anti-slavery activists. There is a subtle dismissiveness in his attitude towards Still in the first episode, when Still asks him to join the abolitionist movement in a more active way than just delivering speeches.  Hawkes goes home to his wife and says, “some listened, but not the right people.”  But Hawkes and his wife’s eventual decision to begin assisting fugitives also reflects an important element in the story of the Underground Railroad, even as their assistance in the movement comes less from their knowledge of blacks as people like themselves. 

The slave Seraphina drowns her newborn. How common or rare was infanticide during slavery?

It’s impossible to know, but it’s clear that enslaved women sometimes refused to contribute their children to the slave system, and used infanticide to do so. The most well-known account is the Margaret Garner case, which was the basis of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved.

EPISODE TWO

Two slaves seal themselves in a box and try to ship themselves to freedom. While based on a true account, how often did this happen?

Over the course of the antebellum period, several enslaved men and women shipped themselves out of slavery via crates. The most famous is Henry “Box” Brown, who had friends seal him in a box in Virginia and ship him to Philadelphia, where he was met by William Still, among others.  Brown became a fixture on the anti-slavery lecture circuit, first in the U.S. and then in England. 

There’s a reference to ‘breeding farms,’ where slaves were bred like horses. How many of those existed?

Enslaved people did give testimony on the ways in which slave owners attempted to encourage them to have children.  These practices ranged from material and financial incentives following the birth of a healthy baby; to forcing particular men and women to marry in the belief that they would produce healthy children; to a few known cases of owners attempting to get large numbers of women to become pregnant, with plans to sell the babies; or the use of strong enslaved men as “studs,” for the impregnation of women.  Although such practices could and did happen throughout the south, Virginia and Maryland had the largest numbers of slaves sold into the Deep South, and are often associated with these practices.  With the decline of tobacco as a cash crop in these states, slave owners were not able to make as much money from the field labor of slaves, and began to sell slaves further south, where there labor was used on cotton plantations. Some slave owners appear to have thought it possible to “breed” slaves for sale. Such practices are akin to rape, in the level of physical coercion they entailed. 

Ernestine, the head house slave has a sexual relationship with the plantation owner. It’s suggested that she did so not out of pleasure, but to protect and bargain for the lives of her children. Was that portrayal a stretch?

Enslaved women were coerced in multiple ways into sexual relationships with male slave owners. Underground also shows how slave-owning women also coerced enslaved men into such relationships; and enslaved men and women were coerced into same-sex relationships with slave owners.

Some enslaved people did hope that such relationships would secure them and their family members safety on the plantation—perhaps prevent sale, or lead the owner to treat their sexual partner and his/her family members (including the children they had in common) with greater kindness.  But just as often, promises made were broken; or no promises were made. In addition, if the slave-owning partner were married, the enslaved partner was subject to violence from the frustrated spouse. 

EPISODES THREE AND FOUR

What was the difference between the overseer and the driver on the plantation?

Drivers are subordinate to overseers. Overseers are white; and drivers are enslaved, usually men.  Overseers have a larger range of responsibilities on the plantation; have a direct line to the slave owners; and might ultimately save up enough money to purchase their own plantations and slaves. Drivers make sure that enslaved people keep up with the work schedule; and get enslaved people to carry out the orders of the overseers and owners. Sometimes, plantations don’t have overseers and are run only by drivers, who then have a direct line to the owners. But the slave status remains. 

We see Rosalee’s brother does not run when the opportunity presents itself. What percentage of slaves ran away to free states and what percentage stayed? 

Historians estimate that only 100,000 made it out of slavery; by 1860, there were nearly 4 million slaves in the southern states. So, that’s a very small number against those who lived and died enslaved. Leaving was difficult emotionally, and treacherous physically—indeed, life threatening. When one made the decision to leave, she or he was almost certainly deciding that s/he would never see his/her relatives or friends ever again.  And the journey north was fraught with danger. It was never an easy decision to leave, but staying wasn’t easy either. 

— When it airs: “Underground” on WGNAmerica, Wednesdays, 10 p.m. EST

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