Promised land: Citizens, superheroes and the Gullah Geechee Nation

WGN’s “Underground” gives us another moving season that asks not just what would you do, but what are you doing?

Published April 2, 2017 9:30PM (EDT)

Amirah Vann; Queen Quet ; Aisha Hinds   (WGN America/Queen Quet/WGN America)
Amirah Vann; Queen Quet ; Aisha Hinds (WGN America/Queen Quet/WGN America)

Rather than on the run, Season 2 of “Underground” opens in an enslavement cabin. A man — Daniel, played by Bokeem Woodbine — bolts upright in the dark, briefly considering his sleeping children. He shoulders his bag and departs to pass the day toiling as a stonemason. Framed by white columns of a plantation, he counts out his lucre. Suddenly, an unknown white man emerges to snatch the money, and Daniel, expressionless, trudges away in the gloaming. Once home, he empties his bag, spilling out scraps of contraband newsprint. He studies a corner of a newspaper that reads, "soldier funeral," slowly sounding out the syllables, until like the biblical Daniel reading the message on the wall, it hits him:

“Soldier,” he says, the lyrics of Beyoncé's “Freedom” swelling in the background. “Soldier.”

This is the first spoken word of Season 2 and as such it defines not only the thrust of the episode but also the arc of the entire season, an arc that, according to creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, forms the question, Are you a citizen or a soldier? A question whose relevance continues to resonate starkly for anyone currently concerned with any of slavery’s current manifestations: mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, or the lesser known but equally dire plight of the Gullah Geechee — descendants of enslaved Africans who live in coastal South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

“It’s not about the occupation, it’s about the revolution,” Joe Pokaski says. “We don’t shy away from how harsh it was, because there are a lot of great movies that show the whippings and the abuse and the suffering. We stand on the shoulders of giants to tell a different aspect of the story. The fugitive slaves are some of the first American superheroes. You want people to ask, what would I do in this situation?”

“In ‘Underground,’ you have to write for everyone, even the bad guys,” Misha Green adds. “People need to laugh and love and have voices and do bad things. Even slave owners need to be people. This is how we see how close we are to the bad guys even when we all like to think we’re heroes. It’s easy to let ourselves off the hook and say, ‘Oh, I would never own slaves.’ Because this is in the DNA of this country, like we saw in Ava DuVernay’s film ‘13th.’ The cycle keeps repeating itself. Now the country is maybe waking up and not hiding.”

While Season 1 opened with Kanye’s “Black Skinhead,” behind series lead Noah (the intense Aldis Hodge) — a character who, we learn from his first thwarted escape, does not play by the rules but rather defines them — Season 2 opens with Beyoncé's “Freedom” and Noah’s better half Rosalee (stunning superhero Jurnee Smollett-Bell), now free and leading other formerly enslaved men along the path of the Underground Railroad. Along the way she meets up with none other than Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds), shotgun and ax akimbo. The two women confront a pair of armed slave catchers. This is not business as usual. Or is it?

In “Underground,” the powerless have skirted and subverted the known hegemony, flipped the script and look tough as hell doing it. This season also introduces the quiet radicals of the sewing circle, a group of women who use the activity of sewing as a cover for gathering and sharing illegal information. “They were communicating with people who couldn’t read,” Jessica De Gouw says. De Gouw plays Elizabeth, the secretly rad-femme abolitionist who joins the sewing circle after tragedy strikes. “They are a hundred percent breaking the rules and doing everything they have available to them.”

“Underground” reminds us that at the very foundation of the abolitionist movement is the untold history, formerly relegated to what Joe Pokaski calls a “little square in a history book,” of the one woman who defines what it means to rise up, no matter the personal cost.

“To know the obstacles stacked against Harriet Tubman and then have the opportunity to play her was so overwhelming,” Aisha Hinds says. “The depth of how intense it was. How she could fall asleep at any moment when she was traveling by night because of the injury she sustained to her head. She walked 600 miles from the South to the North and at first she had no idea where she was going.”

“There’s no room for compromise, only survival,” says the show’s brilliant and conniving magna mater, Ernestine. “It makes Ernestine human. She doesn’t say, ‘I’m going to kill everyone.’ What she does to Pearly Mae comes with a cost. It weighs on her spirit. People have gone through some tough stuff in this lifetime and they want to see truthfulness. Part of overcoming something is you have to make difficult choices.”

What continues to be noteworthy about “Underground” is that it neither sugarcoats the atrocities of slavery nor resorts to what Misha Green calls “torture porn.” Meantime, the slave catchers are allowed a certain degree of humanity, or, at least, motivation: poverty, loneliness, the death of a child, while  the enslaved are not all “good.” Alano Miller plays a thorny and cynical overseer whose seemingly questionable morals keep us guessing. Rob Riley plays Hicks, the brooding and emasculated drug connect on a rice plantation in South Carolina where Ernestine ends up enslaved. Hicks, who is also Ernestine’s love interest, alternates between tenderness and rage, occasionally lashing out at Ernestine and becoming physically abusive, acts of domestic violence for which Amirah Vann and Misha Green shot one of two important PSAs. (The other addresses suicide prevention.)

“I play a person who’s committed his own atrocities,” Riley says. “It’s been hard. You’re seeing abuse that’s being passed down. You’re seeing someone who’s mimicking the behavior of the oppressor. I was brought up by my mother and grandmother because my own father was abusive. It impacts who you are.”

“Ernestine’s resilience is unlike any other and then it sheds light on the issue of domestic violence,” Amirah Vann adds. “She was in a similar situation before Hicks with Tom Macon. Only now, on the Roe Plantation, the difference is she has vision. She sees the atrocities. She wants to live, not just exist. She’s thinking, ‘You have control of my body but you cannot control my mind and my spirit or hold on to my humanity.’”

“We’re demystifying the monolith of slavery,” Misha Green says. “We all see it as a big white house with columns and cotton fields. But we will be going to a different plantation every season. We will be showing the Underground Railroad operating as the spy network for the north during the Civil War. We picked the Roe Plantation with the Gullah Geechee in South Carolina because it’s a freer, task-oriented environment and a different kind of culture — so for Ernestine it’s the freest she’s ever been and not been free.”

“The Gullah Geechee were the first freed enslaved Africans,” Rob Riley says. “They are the closest tie we have to Africa as African-Americans. But now their land is being raped and taken from them. Hilton Head is Gullah Geechee. It’s something most people don’t know.”

Queen Quet, chieftess and nationally recognized head-of-state of the Gullah Geechee Nation, served as the show’s Gullah Geechee consultant for Season 2. She is also devoted to preserving the culture, language and dwindling acreage of the Gullah Geechee as well as continuing to raise public awareness of their struggle.

“When the Civil War began on the sea islands, black people were a majority,” Queen Quet says. “All the white people stayed inland because it was too hot in the township and there were mosquitos and malaria and they would die, whereas black Africans would merely get sick because they had some immunity built up. So we were pretty much autonomous and our culture — the sweetgrass baskets, the praise houses, the language, the songs — stayed pure. When the Civil War began, the white enslavers went north and west and all the Gullah Geechee stayed to work their land for themselves.”

According to Queen Quet, the Confiscation Act of 1862 set a precedent for much of the subsequent real estate dealings in Beaufort County, Plantersville and in various other Gullah Geechee communities where increases in taxation, land grabs and other forms of infrastructure chicanery continue to force people out of ancestral property that their families have held since the Civil War to make way for retirement communities, golf courses and and condominiums. The barriers to stop this encroachment are multifold: For complex reasons, Gullah land is often communally owned by numerous family members, which can help to force a sale via the Heir’s Property Law. To make matters worse, since many of said family members no longer reside in South Carolina, they have no emotional attachment to the land and thus sell it to developers for pennies on the dollar.

“Once they started developing that land, everyone went crazy because they realized how valuable it was,” says Theresa White, founder of the Pan-African Family Empowerment Network. “It was a brilliant marketing strategy. They marketed to cold, landlocked places like Ohio. People were interested in buying property from all over the world.”

“‘Destructionaires’ is what I call the developers,” Queen Quet says. “They come in with bulldozers and take out burial areas and ancestral land and clear out the trees and take down the historic homes all in the name of development and gentrification, but you have to ask yourself, for whom? The sewers, with their high connection fees and monthly taxes, became another way to disenfranchise and re-enslave people.”

“One of the many problems is that people who can only afford mobile homes are sitting on all this prime land,” Theresa White says. “Meanwhile, the white folks in the big mansions are not required to tie into the sewer line.”  

“The irony is, when you take people to see the historic enslavement cabins, the tears are falling down their eyes. ‘Oh Queen, we weren’t here,’ they tell me,” Queen Quet says. “But I want to ask them, ‘Are you still benefiting from the system of chattel enslavement?’’’

Queen Quet then goes on to describe the story of the Angel Oak Tree of John’s Island, a stunning centuries-old tree that is also sacred to the Gullah Geechee. Apparently, the Destructionaires planned to develop the land around it in such a way that would harm the tree’s shallow root system and ultimately kill it. In a month, $1.3 million was raised to protect the tree.

“You have to couch it all in a tree or a waterway if you want to raise money,” Queen Quet says. “Helping the Gullah Geechee people to save their homes does not seem the same level crisis. They continue to re-enslave us through servitude and ongoing ordinances and schemes and land grabs. It’s the way they continue to try to return the land to the hands of the people who held it, and us, in bondage before.”

“We need to turn our eyes to the Gullah Geechee Nation and help them now,” Rob Riley implores. “There’s a very nefarious reason this is being kept from people. We have to make sure the Gullah Geechee aren’t wiped off the earth!”

Joe Pokaski adds, “Look, you can believe in a lot of things like a Facebook post which is ultimately only making your cousins mad. Harriet Tubman actually has a line about this in ‘Underground’ where she says, ‘A passionate debate ‘bout action is important but it should never be mistaken for action itself.’”

This clarion call is reminiscent of Daniel and his scraps of paper. The season’s mantra and call-to-arms for the righteous, none more so than Harriet Tubman. Aisha Hinds recounts her all-consuming preparation and intense experience filming Episode 6, which she describes as one of Tubman’s “TED talks.” Apparently, Hinds became violently ill, developing a fever and getting her period just before shooting. She becomes emotional, getting choked up and then breaking down in tears as she describes how she and director Anthony Hemingway held hands and prayed together in her trailer. “It was literally blood, sweat and tears,” she says.

But then the whole first day went off without a hitch. When there was static in the earbud and the teleprompter went bust, it turned out she didn’t need any assistance with her lines. They shot the rehearsal, as though it were as divinely orchestrated as Harriet Tubman’s own visions. As though Hinds had somehow channeled the spirit of Moses herself.

“Harriet Tubman came into this world with limitations,” Hinds says, becoming emotional again. “She was born as property. She sustained a horrible injury. She’d only known one thing: to be enslaved. She had no context for freedom. She had an innate knowledge of more and she took that first step. She had a calling that was bigger than herself and her family. We are living in a time where we have to open the vestibule of our hearts and consider the whole of humanity not just the village of our family. It starts with one person.”

“You have to have constant disruption,” Misha Green says. “Like the sewing circle. You can’t keep letting people live their happy little lives in oblivion. To move forward they have to be uncomfortable.”

She pauses briefly before adding, “Of course this business needs to support diverse voices. You have to keep calling everyone out on it.  Oppression is not limited to people of color, but if you feel guilty that’s something you should confront.”

This is what “Underground” is saying: In order to “rain on the thunder” we have to recognize the divine flaw in the deepest part of who we are and soldier on, both individually and as a nation.

By Emily Jordan

Emily Jordan is a YA writer living in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @EmilyBeJordan.

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Beyonce Bokeem Woodbine Gullah Geechee Joe Pokaski Misha Green Television Underground Wgn