Underground’s powerful enslaved women and why we need this show

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Over on Civil War Pop, Christian McWhirter finally chimes in on WGN’s Underground and he does so by praising the TV show’s main female protagonist, the character Rosalee (portrayed by actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell). I think his observations are dead on, yet there is another female character on the show that is an even better depiction of female slave power—Rosalee’s mother Ernestine (actress Amirah Vann). As of now (5 episodes in), she has proven to be the show’s most cunning and resourceful character, wielding considerable power to control her environment and life. Her actions at the end of the  5th episode were difficult to swallow, but no one can deny that this character is a formidable survivor that makes her own rules and manipulates things to her and her children’s advantages. Have we ever seen a slave character like this one, much less a woman? Kizzy in Roots (herself a powerful survivor) pales in comparison to Ernestine, and the fact that the character inspired an essay like this one from TV critic/writer Shannon M. Houston is a perfect example of why, as Christian put it, slave fiction needs these type of characters.

Further, I have been following the Underground’s official Twitter feed, and the comments and emotions this show is stirring up from audiences is also demonstrating how it challenges engrained perceptions of the Antebellum enslaved community in ways that has its audience excited and thrilled. Their reactions are even more proof of how much we need this show.

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2 thoughts on “Underground’s powerful enslaved women and why we need this show

  1. Just got caught up.

    Ernestine is certainly also shaping up to be an interesting character, but I think she’ll ultimately end up a tragic one. While you’re right that she’s skilled at using whatever she can (including her body) to influence her master and the course of his plantation, I wouldn’t say she’s an “even better depiction,” just a different one. Rosalee is the runaway, asserting herself by physically leaving her master’s control. Ernestine tries to operate within the confines of the same system. The writers respect plantation resistance, but I think they’ll ultimately reward those who reject the system entirely over those who don’t or can’t. My prediction is Ernestine will end the season knowing her daughter is safe but suffering some sort of extreme, potentially fatal punishment at Macon’s hand.

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    • The reason I think she is an “even better depiction” is because she is more representative. Most slaves did not take the risk of running away, and as you know, my big assertion is that we need slaves depicted as being heroic/powerful even when they did not run away or engage in open rebellions. You are most likely right about Ernestine’s ultimately tragic fate, but her operation “within the confines” of the system is exactly why I think she is a more realistic/representative depiction of slave resistance.

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