Over the last few years, I have spent a lot of time thinking, talking and writing about the war on drugs, particularly how it affects black women. And it is clear that the writers of WGN’s Underground, the exceptional runaway hit show that tracks the movements on the Underground Railroad, have been, too.
There are spoilers here, so proceed at your own risk.
Over the course of two seasons, viewers have been able to witness not just the larger struggle for freedom that enslaved black people fought—and continue to fight—but the more intimate struggle for identity, love and interpersonal relationships that took place behind the blood-soaked cotton walls of oppression.
I have been riveted by Underground’s treatment of sex and love. That black women and men still yearned for touch, for release, despite their chains is not something that is often discussed. Showing black bodies as erotic and beautiful and sensual while they’re covered literally and figuratively with the scars of white supremacist violence is groundbreaking and necessary work. Read the article “Searching for Climax: Black Erotic Lives in Slavery and Freedom,” the brilliant work of Treva B. Lindsey and Jessica Marie Johnson, for more on this.
While there is a clear trajectory from black bodies as erotic and vilified during slavery to black bodies being fetishized and criminalized now, it is the season 2 character arc of Ernestine, played by the incomparable Amirah Vann, that pushes “the underground” squarely into the present as it collides with the war on drugs.
Ernestine has lost everything.
Her son Sam has been hanged to pave the way for Tom Macon’s political and racist ambitions.
Macon, her rapist, master of the Macon Plantation in Georgia, is dead—which is a loss of tenuous protection.
James, her son with Macon, has been forced out into the fields after enjoying the superficial privileges of being raised in “the Big House.”
Rosalee, her daughter with Macon, ran away to freedom and is risking her life as an abolitionist under the tutelage of Harriet “Moses” Tubman.
And Ernestine, who played “good nigger” for the sake of her children and herself, has been sold by Macon’s viciously insecure and jealous wife to a South Carolina plantation. For the first time that we’ve seen, Stine is in the field, thick scars on her back, suffering abuse from her new lover, Hicks, and fighting the urge to kill herself by breathing in—and subsequently becoming addicted to—laudanum, or “tincture of opium.”
This is the reality for many black women battling addiction and being criminalized for it today.
In a previous interview with The Root, Samuel K. Roberts Jr., Ph.D.—director of the Columbia University Institute for Research in African-American Studies, associate professor of history at Columbia’s School of Arts and Sciences, and associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health—and I discussed this nuanced and painful reality in depth.
Specifically, Roberts is a pioneer in reframing the concept of harm reduction to encompass what harm reduction looks like for black people, and it focuses on much more than the ways in which society can make it safer for those addicted to drugs to seek help and rehabilitate. Harm reduction of color is focused on how critical it is to dismantle white supremacist systems of oppression that often lead black people—black women specifically, in this context—to self-medicate.
There’s really so much in terms of drug policy and criminal-justice policy that affects black women in very specific ways. Black women’s incarcerated population mushroomed in the early ’90s, late ’90s, and the first decade of the 2000s.
Black women in particular are more vulnerable to the problems of fraying community bonds, such as domestic abuse, the state incursions and state violence, and so there’s certain ways in which substance use with black women has its own particular dimensions, as clearly an indication of self-medication. And once they’re in the system, they are particularly more vulnerable to the sexual assault and violence, either in encounters with police officers or with correctional officers. This is a critical issue.
In a previous interview with The Root, Susan Burton—founder and executive director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, a not-for-profit organization that currently helps 32 women re-enter society after incarceration equipped with the support system they need—and I discussed the many ways that societal stigma around drug use and mental health, oppressive and violent conditions, and a criminal injustice system conspire to keep black women in a cycle of enslavement in which drugs often provide the only relief.
Burton became addicted to crack cocaine in 1981 after a Los Angeles police officer ran over her 5-year-old son as he played outside their home and never looked back.
“When my son died, the grief, the pain that I was in, you know, I needed something to help me cope with that,” Burton said. “I’ve seen people in physical pain, and I’ve seen people in dire mental distress. The level of grief I was in, I needed something to deal with that pain, that rage. I don’t know what I’d have done to get through that. So I used drugs; I used until I found another solution.
“I was never offered help when I stood in front of the judge and told them what had happened in my life,” she continued. “They hit the gavel and sent me to prison, had me stripped down and inspected like a slave. Handcuffed and sent me to work for 8 cents an hour.”
I remember in a movie I saw, it may have been Roots, and I remember the woman saying, “Master, master please don’t sell my baby. Master, master please, I’ll do anything, don’t take my baby.” And I watch black women go through the court system and they say, “Judge, judge, please let me have my baby back, I’ll do anything. Judge, judge please let me have my baby back.”
I watch that judge, regardless of what that woman tries to do in dire, dire circumstances, not give that woman back custody of her child. And it’s heart-wrenching and it’s heartbreaking.
So, what do you do? Where do you run to? That woman is pretty much powerless to do anything but curl up in a ball or self-medicate, right? So, you know, I know what it feels like to lose a child. But sometimes, it’s that that child gets put in the foster care system and, many times, they end up feeling abandoned, no love, and they self-medicate that pain, too. I see the breaking, the criminalization, the hurt and the pain through these systems that is just, oh, it’s unconscionable.
Do you see Ernestine?
Once Burton conquered her addiction, broke her chains, she dedicated her life to freeing other women from the same. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, calls her Harriet Tubman.
The parallels between her story and Underground’s second season, in which Harriet Tubman is played by Aisha Hinds, are clear.
During this season, viewers watch black women fight against their chains, both visible and invisible. We watch Stine suffer through intimate partner violence, grieve the loss of her children and the loss of her identity. We watch her self-medicate in order to survive the genocidal system of slavery.
We watch her give up, walk into cleansing waters, weighted down by stone (which is a poignant metaphor for the weigh she carries), to find release—only to be saved by a community of those who love her, who remind her that isolation is often a death sentence in and of itself.
It is clear that every single conversation from this day forward about black women and the war on drugs should include Underground.
It is reminder that slavery has not ended; it has only shape-shifted. It is a reminder that the harm society causes—the violence black women face, the systems designed to bury us beneath its foundation—is the criminal, not us.
It is those systems that deserve our scorn, our rage and our judgment, not black women who self-medicate in order to survive it all.
This season’s Underground is a much-needed reminder that the shame has never been ours.