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“Oh Lord, Pray, Sinner, Come:” The Cultural Reverberations of WGN’s Underground

21 April 2016

KELISHA GRAVES

“Oh Lord, pray, sinner, come. Move, Daniel. Move!” -Ms. Ernestine’s song. opening sequence to episode 7, “Cradle”

Since it’s premiere on March 9, Underground has been everything and more! Arguably, the best show of the decade, each episode is chock full of the kind of drama that leaves its viewers both emotionally invested, endlessly engaged, and increasingly greedy for more. A gritty cocktail of promiscuity, innocence, violence, love, loss, ambition, and power, the show’s writers (the invincible lyrical duo Misha Green and Joe Pokaski) have crafted a daring narrative that challenges our optical spheres with icons and characters whose lives and choices are indicative of the contradictions that upheld the antebellum South.  Green and Pokaski execute and excavate these dynamics marvelously. The writers approach their craft almost as archaeologists –excavating the nuances of  enslaved life from its merciless entrenchment in an often white-washed American metanarrative.

In the opening sequence to episode 7, we are introduced to Ms Ernestine (played by the impeccable Amirah Vann) intoning one of the many “slave shout songs” sung during the antebellum period, “Move, Daniel.”

Hear Amirah Vann’s commanding rendition (scene from episode 7 “Cradle”):

Ernestine’s pivotal and prefacing bellow, “Ohhh Lawwd,” is accompanied by a rhythmic staccato foot stomp. It’s the kind of profound incantation that immediately situates us in concert with our ancestors. This is the kind of African pathos that cannot be bought or taught. We are transported back in time. Wednesday night I immediately shifted to Twitter to talk about the significance of the ring shout tradition. This poignant moment features Ernestine and her two sons, Sam (portrayed by Johnny Ray Gill) and James (portrayed by Maceo Smedley). Vann’s Ernestine is infused with every bit of moxie and gravitas this brilliant thespian can muster (all of her mannerisms are intentional and poignant; her diction is superb; her countenance is scenic). Similarly, Gill (whose nuanced portrayal of Sam achieves perfection) and the young Smedley breathe into their characters the kind of ineffable depth, vulnerability, and honesty that makes for perfect cinema. The interaction here between a mother and her sons is organic and sincere. There is no doubt, the camera and the audience gravitate, by default, toward this triumvirate of thespians!

Sam (Johnny Ray Gill) and James (Maceo Smedley)

Sam (Johnny Ray Gill) and James (Maceo Smedley)

The “shout song” or the “ring shout” tradition, in particular, was an enthusiastic  ritual performed by enslaved people living along the Georgia and South Carolina coast. During the “ring shout,” worshipers moved in a circle while shuffling and clapping in tandem.  Shout songs, often chanted during field work, not only served as a prism through which to express our pain and pathos, but also represented the ways in which the existential agony of toil was made rhythmic through song.

McIntosh County Shouters: Gullah-Geechee Ring Shout from Georgia

McIntosh County Shouters: Gullah-Geechee Ring Shout from Georgia

And yet more than that, this sequence represented a moment in which Ernestine is communicating a particular cultural wisdom to her son.  There’s a lesson in the song. It’s a generational transference. She tells him: “You gotta keep a song in your head. Go through it a couple times over; you should make weight. It’ll help you pass the time too.” In this scene, James, portrayed by the infinitely adorable Smedley, is readied for the fields by both his mother and older brother. At this moment, the man-child James is inducted into the precincts of enslavement (a reality he has been shielded from, his mother admits). He’s pushed into manhood abruptly.  And through Ernestine’s sage counsel –“Remember what I told you about the two masks we got to wear?”– we are made privy to what could easily be interpreted as an antebellum hint at Paul Lawrence Dunbar 19th century poetic moan: “We wear the mask that grins and lies. It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.”

The opening sequence in particular took me back to my own family history and my great grandmother who labored as a sharecropper in the early 20th century. As Ernestine sewed knee pads for James and as Sam greased the novice’s yet unscathed hands, I remember my great grandmother’s scarred hands. I’ll never forget: “Pickin’ cotton was back breakin’ work,” she said. She added that sometimes they would pee on the cotton in order to make weight. Underground’s success is not haphazard, and while its demographics spans the racial gamut, the historical echoes and cultural nuances it offers resonate with African American viewers  for a very particular reason.  There is no doubt that for many of us, Underground is more than a Wednesday night show. It’s an emotional and visceral experience.

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Indeed, I consider Underground to be a collective journey and such is demonstrated by the collective pronoun commentaries and kinship nouns viewers commonly use in conversing about the show. Social media commentaries will reflect comments like, “Mama Ernestine, #OurQueen;” “Can we trust Cato?” “Is August on our side?” “How are we gonna get to freedom now?!” Why, perhaps more than any other show on television, is Underground held as a collective journey shared by both the fictional characters themselves and the viewers who watch them? There can be no gainsaying of the fact that this show resonates so strongly among African American viewers because so many of us know that 200 years ago any one of us could have been (most likely would have been) on a plantation in the South somewhere. Each one of us, quarantined to our respective places: either the field or the house. And if not there, any one of us could have been a Solomon Northup or a Frederick Douglass endeavoring to maintain our freedom in a precarious northern territory often invaded by body snatchers.  Just 60 years ago, many African Americans still toiled on former plantations as sharecroppers. And many of us with family in the South know the stories about how our kin (some of them illiterate or operating on minimal formal education) always seemed to “come up short” or barely break even at the end of the season, or at least per “Mr. Charlie’s” dubious calculations.

So many of us still retain the genetic memory, the songs, the oral history (the generational transference of cultural wisdom) that our ancestors passed down to us. I know I do. I hold ancestor memory dear and I’ll never forget my great grandmother’s hands. I thank Underground episode 7 for reminding me of that.

Next review: Episode 8 “Grave”

Kelisha Graves holds a Master of Arts degree. As a freelance writer, she writes on: black film, African American history, black intellectual history, Africana philosophy, and theology. You can follow her on Twitter @KelishaGraves
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