Shortly after tripping down the dark tunnel of research into aspects of our history for a project I was working on and a conversation with a friend about why we (black people) sometimes reject the re-telling or remembrance of this aspect of our history (yes, I’m talking about the enslavement of our ancestors), I was reminded of this piece I wrote back in June just as Roots, the reboot, was getting ready to air (and Snoop was encouraging his fans and followers to boycott). That’s the context; read (and, if so moved, share and share your thoughts).
Watching Roots? Good.
I also wish to applaud WGN America for ordering a second season of Underground.
I know we’re tired of these slave narratives – and really Hollywood does need to do better in terms of telling stories that reflect the full spectrum of the lives of people outside of their default white setting then and now. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. There’s a lot we, descendants of the real life equivalent of Kunta and Noah, still stand to learn about ourselves from the stories; no not of us being beaten down by racism, but surviving it. They did not break us.
One of the things the series, Underground, reinforces is contrary to their status as mere chattel, enslaved Africans or Africa-descended people, naturally built community even during the darkest days of their enslavement.
The series is about the bid for freedom via the Underground railroad from America’s south to its north, and I was naturally curious in part because I’ve never seen a series deal specifically with the Underground railroad. I think about the daring escape attempts in to the dark, blind, and the ingenuity and intelligence it must have taken to map a way to freedom. That interested me, the ways that system worked. Plus, in general, history (and especially our story) intrigues me, and, I’m noticing, especially those points of history that reflect our darker impulses – enslavement of Africans in the Americas, for instance, and the genocide of Jews during the Second World War.
There’s a part of me that’s trying to understand not only how these things happen but how they continue to happen as people go about their lives – not the people on either end of the extremes of the Happening but so-called good people turning a blind eye to the evil being normalized around them. There’s a part of me that has an awareness that such moments are happening in our times – after all slavery has not ended, not for whole swaths of people, victimization of marginalized groups persists even in free societies, political activists are locked up for their words – as we go about our lives; and that history may be as unkind to us as it is not just to the slave owners and the Nazis but the people who took the path of least resistance or willful blindness.
There’s a part of me that’s fascinated by not just how the oppressed people survive such times while the silent majority pretends what’s happening isn’t happening, but by how they manage to make life. How do you make life when your life isn’t even your own? In Underground’s first episode a new mother kills her baby. I understand this as the ultimate act of love and sacrifice for a woman enslaved and brutalized who can see nothing but more of the same for her newborn child – maybe she was post-partum, we understand now that such a thing exists, but maybe there were no hormones involved at all, just a rebellious desire to save her child’s life and deny her oppressors more of the godlike power they enjoyed. More baffling to me – although it makes perfect sense – is the daring to love when not even your intentions are your own to own.
And so when I saw the episode with the cotillion, questions buzzed. How remarkable that this social practice – a courtship and/or debutante ball associated with black high society – has its roots in slavery; a reminder that they didn’t just scrounge a living, they made life. A human heart beat in their chest and it beat with desire just as ours does today; and it embraced the rituals of community, a reminder to themselves that they were people, building new traditions from a blend of half-remembered traditions from home and the aspiration to mirror the society they’d landed in. The Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture describes cotillions and the male-equivalent beautillions as an enduring part of popular African American culture “preparing youth for their entrance into society” and points to its roots in the Emancipation era American south “when the budding but fragile middle class recreated activities held by plantation owners”. Underground goes a little further back still, as the characters involved in the filmed cotillion are definitely intended to represent the practice, pre-Emancipation. As filmed, the women wear ribbons and the men wear flowers and they line up in pairs and they dance
– and for a few hours are just a boy and a girl, engaged in as described in the Encyclopedia “a lively dance”. I like this moment for its reflection of the humanity that persists even in darkest days, of the ways people find to build society, build community, at such times.
Beyond this early episode, I found many other reasons to write and blog the insights born of watching Underground’s first season. (You can search ‘Underground’ for those postings on this site)
I don’t feel diminished by watching and engaging this history though my ancestors came to the Americas (in my case, the Caribbean) as enslaved people, because the thing I always remember is that they were people first, enslaved, yes, but still people; and that because of them, I am.
post-script: I didn’t think I’d like the Roots re-boot because, raised on the original which showed every year here in Antigua (you know when), I was like but-why. But you know what, it was its own thing while being respectful of the original, and the one didn’t take away from the other for me. Plus I liked the Chicken George character a lot more in this new version.
Article by Joanne C. Hillhouse, still a student of life and history, and the ways they intersect, still. Feel free to reblog with link and fresh press (please do) but Do not re-publish without permission and credit. Click the links for my books and/or my services.