With Black History Month mere days behind him, housing and urban development secretary Ben Carson chose to chip in this week with a little history of his own, telling an audience that kidnapped Africans who arrived in America in chains were just “immigrants” of a different kind. According to Carson, they “came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters, might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land”.
Carson’s track record on the subject is suspect – he did once compare Obamacare to slavery, so perhaps he’s not the person to approach for answers about the moral quagmire of slavery and Jim Crow. He might benefit from a marathon viewing of season one of WGN’s Underground, in readiness for the start of season two on Wednesday.
Created by Mischa Green and Joe Pokaski, who have written for Sons of Anarchy and Heroes, Underground is a slick, daunting and very entertaining look at one of the least examined stories of the antebellum south. The underground railroad (which was neither underground nor a railroad) was a network of individuals and safe houses that helped escaping slaves flee north along multiple routes to the free states or to Canada, or in some cases, south to French-owned Louisiana and Florida.
The railroad’s legendary heroes were black businessman William Still (Chris Chalk), whose Pennsylvania home was a major way-station and refuge, and former slave Harriet Tubman, who after her own escape returned south several times, at enormous risk to her newfound freedom, to help family members and many others find their way north. Over a 20-year period leading up to the civil war, they and many others helped an estimated 20,000 former slaves reach the free states.
Underground’s great virtue is its complexity. The two main black male characters, Noah (Aldis Hodge) and Cato (Alano Miller) can’t stand one another, even though they must cooperate to survive and escape. The slaves who work in the domestic sphere, including Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) are viewed with contempt by the field slaves who toil in the hot sun all day, while not all the white characters are evil racists – some of them are active, idealistic participants in the railroad, including socialite and abolitionist Elizabeth Hawkes (Jessica De Gouw). Ernestine (Amirah Vann), the powerful and influential head house slave at the Macon plantation, is fiercely devoted to her own children, and is in a loving, long-term relationship with their father Tom Macon (Reed Diamond), who is also her owner and master.
Railroad imagery – and other dreams of free transit and unencumbered movement – proliferates throughout African American culture and politics, from Soul Train to People Get Ready. Think of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters(still the most beautiful and dream-freighted name ever confected for a labor union) who made beds, cooked, fetched and carried for white passengers all over America, and who maintained a nationwide communications network for African Americans by distributing the black nationalist newspaper the Chicago Defender to small towns across the country. Their chairman, A Philip Randolph, was the moving spirit behind the March on Washington, which he lobbied in favor of for over 20 years before it came to fruition in August 1963.
Or think of The Negro Motorist Green Book, published between 1936 and 1966 by a New York mailman named Victor Hugo Green. It aided black motorists navigating their way through southern and Jim Crow states, guiding them to sympathetic safe houses or to inns, restaurants and gas stations that would willingly cater to black customers, and steering them clear of notorious hotbeds of racism. Like the underground railroad, the Porters’ nationwide reach and the Green Book offered parallel maps of an America that white people couldn’t or wouldn’t see.
Well, they, and modern white and black people, can see it now, or at least the 1840 version. Season one of Underground ended on a cliffhanger: the silhouette of Harriet Tubman’s face, hitherto unseen, at the far end of the shotgun she’s brandishing. Tubman, played by Aisha Hinds, will move to front and center this season, as the journey northward continues. Making American history with every step they take.
Underground season two starts Wednesday 8 March at 10pm ET on WGN America