On the most recent episode of the very good American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the inflammatory audio tapes of Detective Mark Fuhrman are heard. Johnnie Cochran, played with devious excellence by Courtney B. Vance, says the tapes show “what black people have always known”. At one point, one of the white members of the “Dream Team” says he knows how Cochran feels, and Cochran explodes. There is simply no way a white person can truly understand what it means to be black in America.
Underground is a new series on WGN America. All I knew of WGN prior to this is that they were an early “superstation” that showed Major League Baseball games for the Chicago teams. Underground is one of their first original series, and without decent reviews, I doubt I would have found it. It tells a story of the Underground Railroad, with the primary setting being a Georgia plantation where some of the slaves are planning an escape. It’s a tricky show, trying to be true to the history of slavery in America while still giving the audience something they will want to see week after week. So there is a lot of melodrama. But the extensive cast (hello, Adina Porter!) does wonders with the material, and we care about the characters.
While the focus is on the escape plans (we’ve seen three episodes so far, with the fourth airing tonight), we also get a clear picture of why escape is necessary. The plantation owner and his friends are suitably inhuman, and the slaves live in constant fear that some perceived mistake will be severely punished.
There is always a chance that this will be presented in a way that encourages the audience to enjoy the misery ... giving lashes to the slaves is barbaric, but it is also a part of a show that in part has entertainment on its mind. So far, Underground avoids this. I once taught the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and one student actually wrote that the slaves in the book were happy. There are no happy slaves in Underground.
A few years ago, I posted excerpts from the will of my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, who died in Virginia in 1757. If I remember correctly, I was finding my way through Ancestry.com files ... my sister had an account. I knew my mom’s family came from Kentucky ... my grandmother was born there. I never really thought about the implications of those Kentucky roots. But then I found that will. Here, I’ll repost the excerpts:
To Thomas Cralle Lamkin, son of Mary Jones, widow and relict of Charles Jones, late of Northumberland County five negoes vixt: Little Ben, Isaac, Peggs Bess, Blacka Top and Aggy. If he should die before he arrives to age or day of marriage, his mother Mary Jones to enjoy two of the said slaves that may be left at his death, she to have her choice during her natural life, then to revert to my children the remaining part
To son William Matthews Cralle nine negroes vizt: Chnce, Cate, and their daughter Bess, Frank, Alice, Stephen, Cate, Dominy, and Edmond.
Mulatto man Will, may be free at my decease.
To son Rodham Kenner Cralle three negroes vizt: Harry, George, and Nanny and my watch.
To daugher Mary Foushee my silver tankard, and negro wench Rose Anna
Rest of my estate both real and personal to be equally divided between five children Kenner, John, Rodham, William, and Mary, except Ben and Matthews whom I give to my son Kenner, son John to have Rachel, Old Ben to make choice of his master among my children.
I think it’s the matter-of-fact tone that is most disturbing. Mary Jones will “enjoy” her slaves. Old Ben isn’t given his freedom, but he gets “to make choice of his master”.
What was really most disturbing to me was that this was in my family’s past. I had certainly never owned up to any of this, beyond a general despair over slavery, and the role of whites in the “institution”. What this will showed me was that, beyond the general despair, I had, through my family, a specific responsibility. I can’t change the past, and I don’t take the blame for what my ancestors did centuries ago. But I also understand that it is too easy for white Americans to dismiss any thoughts of this evil stain on our history ... “oh, that was then, we didn’t do that”. Well, yes we did. Just ask my great-great-great-great-great grandfather.
After last week’s episode of Underground, I said to my wife, “that’s my family”. I don’t know if my great-great-great-great-great grandfather had a plantation. I don’t know how he treated his slaves. But I know he had them, in numbers ... that will specifically lists 23 slaves. That’s 23 too many.
I find myself falling into a trap I have set for myself all of my life, making everything about Me. That shouldn’t be what’s happening here. My feelings about my family’s past are not equal to the suffering of the slaves my family owned. Underground can’t only be a “good show”. It also gives context, a context that includes the past of my own family.