Monday, April 04, 2016

Underground An Oasis In A Vast Wasteland

       
                                        

                                                From The Ramparts
                                               Junious Ricardo Stanton
                                  Underground An Oasis In A Vast Wasteland

           
            In 1961 Newton Minow who at that time was the newly appointed Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission gave a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters where he chastised the owners for the poor quality of the programming on their stations. He said, "When television is good, nothing--not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers--nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you--and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience-participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials--many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it." http://www.janda.org/b20/News%20articles/vastwastland.htm.
            Not much has changed in television programming since 1961; in fact we could say things are far worse because of the proliferation of cable channels, additional over the air stations, satellite and streaming companies that are airing some of the exact same programming Minow complained about in 1961. These stations and channels show evn more reruns along with additional original programming on hundreds more stations, channels, streaming and viewing platforms. The vast wasteland is metastasizing and infecting all the broadcasting and streaming options. Now more and more generations of Americans are being exposed to the mindless drivel, intelligence insulting lies, corporate and government propaganda. They don't call it programming for nothing. We are being programmed  to see the world in a certain way by the six media conglomerates who control most of what we see on television, in the theater, read in the newspapers, magazines books and even on the Internet.
            Media outlets like WGN America mostly show reruns of former network programs like Law and Order, Walker Texas Ranger, 30 Rock, How I met Your Mother along with a smattering of original programming. But just like in any desert you can find an oasis. One  of WGN America's original programs is extremely good, very well written and shows African people in a positive light. If your cable company or satellite provider carries WGN America, I  strongly encourage you to tune in on Wednesday evenings to watch a very good series entitled Underground. It is the ongoing chronicle of a group of plantation slaves in Georgia who plot and plan to escape using the words of a song as their map to freedom.
             Singer John Legend is one of the Executive Producers as is Anthony Heminway, Mike Jackson John Legend's long time talent manager and Misha Green is one of the show's Executive Producers, creators and writers. It is unusual for a US television series to have this many people of African descent at the helm of a show. The other key producers are: Ty Stiklorius, Joe Pokaski and Akiva Goldman.
            If you have On  Demand you can see the first four episodes using your On Demand selector on your remote control device. Or you can go to the WGN America Website  to see what the series is about, read about the actors who play the characters, learn about the producers and other information about the series. I don't usually recommend Hollywood type productions but Underground is a riveting drama, it keeps your interest, it is based upon actual historical events, the characters have depth and are not caricatures or stereotypes.
            The series depicts the callousness, grit, grunge and viciousness of slavery but also the resourcefulness of enslaved Black folks and their determination to be free despite the constant scrutiny, oppression and punishment in their daily lives. The series challenges much of what we think we know about slavery, the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. It shows the real deal not the fairy tale narrative of happy, dancing darkies or shiftless, trifling Blacks.
            American slavery was an insane, vicious institution created and maintained by whites for their benefit and enrichment. The ruling class created an institution based upon class, color and racial divisions and the legacy of that system is still with us to this day. This series is well cast, well acted and looks at slavery primarily from the perspective of enslaved Africans but it also shows the motivations of the ruling class, poor whites, abolitionists, their complex interpersonal relationships and power dynamics. 
            In the series we see historical figures like Black abolitionist and underground railroad operator William Still played by Chris Chalk working assiduously to free his people and enlist the aid of sympathetic whites to operate safe houses and transport the Africans from safe house to safe house. References are made to real events such as Henry "Box" Brown shipping himself to freedom in a wooden crate. Plantation life is depicted in its fullness. We are shown the social hierarchy, the power dynamics of the Big House and the slave quarters. We see the lavish lifestyles of the plantation owners and the upper class whites. But we also see the ugly underside of slavery, how that system was propped up and maintained by the sweat, genius and free labor of Africans.
             We are also shown poor whites who served as the overseers, slave patrollers ("patty rollers"), slave catchers, bounty hunters, US Marshalls and their interactions with enslaved and free Africans. The various levels and threads of the White- Black plantation power dynamic are depicted through the characters; one is a house servant named Ernestine played by Amirah Vann. She is head of the female house servants. She is a mulatto who uses her wits, her beauty and her sex to protect her mulatto daughter who also works in the Big House and her youngest child who is about six or seven.  Her daughter Rosalee played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Eve's Bayou, The Great Debaters) is one of the main characters who becomes one of the Macon Seven.
             The story line has Ernestine having sexual relations with the master and it is probable that at least two of her children are for white men probably the master played by Reed Diamond. Ernestine welds authority in the service of the master and mistress of the Big House but she is still a slave so she uses her wiles and sexual allure to ensure she and two of her children have a better life.
            We see the cruelty the overseers used to punish Blacks for the slightest infraction or mishap. In one scene the master's son and Ernestine's youngest son are running playing and they run in front of a horse drawn wagon causing it to drop some of its contents when the driver pulls the reigns to stop from hitting them. The white driver jumps off the wagon and pulls out his whip to go after the Black boy totally ignoring the white boy who caused the horse to draw up. This still happens today, Blacks get punished for the same behavior as whites but the whites go free.
            There is unspoken tension in the Big House because Ernestine's young son plays with the master and mistress of the house's young son and the mistress of the house threatens to send him to work in the field when he gets a little older; something Ernestine doesn't want to happen. Ernestine's oldest son is the plantation carpenter but he lives in the slave quarters. He resents his mother for leaving him, for her working and living in the Big House.
            Ernestine is a shrewd pragmatist, she uses her wiles to get the master to promise he will not send her youngest to the fields but let him be her oldest son's apprentice in the plantation carpenter shop. Ernestine has the master totally under her spell and he agrees to comply with her wishes.
            I will not spoil any more of the plot and sub plots. I just wanted to let you know the story deals with what actually happened to our ancestors on those plantations for several hundred years! Underground is an engrossing story about the indomitable human spirit, selfless sacrifice and our ancestors' determination to be free. In the midst of unfathomable and horrific cruelty, abuse, oppression and violence our ancestors attempted to mete out an existence, maintain some semblance of dignity, seek better lives for themselves and their families, even if it meant they might not live to see it.
            Underground is doing fairly well in the ratings, it is good programming and needs our support! It airs Wednesday evenings on WGN America at 10 PM with an immediate repeat at 11 PM. I know a lot of you watch Empire; but give yourself a break from the vast television wasteland, treat yourself to quality programming, check out Underground.


                                                            -30-

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