Ain't It a Woman's Right to Choose: Power from Pain in Underground’s "Ache"

(Episode 2.03)

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Ain't It a Woman's Right to Choose: Power from Pain in <i>Underground</i>&#8217;s "Ache"

What is the best way to revolt and resist? As many of us have been asking ourselves that question over the past few years (yes, even before Trump), some of the best films, TV shows and other works of art have been offering possible answers. I feel angry lots of the time, but I also feel this strange warmth—to be able to exist in a time when so much art is offering countless examples of resistance: In the past few years, I’ve fallen in love with projects like Underground, Transparent, Lemonade, ANTI, Moonlight, Fences, I Am Not Your Negro... the list goes on. I am overwhelmed with possibilities of resistance, and so are you. It’s a terrifying time, and yet it’s a beautiful time to be angry, to be in pain. And so when I watch a show like Underground, I can’t help but feel I’m in good company.

I’m not just talking about the company of people like Misha Green, Joe Pokaski and Anthony Hemingway, who brought us last night’s “Ache.” I’m talking about women like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and the many women who inspired characters like Rosalee and Ernestine. While the series has really been coming through on the womanism tip, this latest installment of Underground is an unforgettable reminder of the importance of women—and especially black women—having the right to choose how to resist.

It was shocking and beautiful, wasn’t it? Watching Stine and young Rosalee jump on that bed together. I’ll admit that one of my concerns about this new season has been the emphasis on flashbacks. On the one hand, I don’t think so much of the plot should rely on these kinds of scenes. On the other, there have been some moments that are incredibly important. This has always been a show about the power of revolts big and small. One of my favorite moments from Season One, for example, is young James refusing the candy from his half-brother and soon-to-be master. It’s an act of resistance that you’d miss if you blinked, but it symbolized a small child’s refusal to be pacified—to accept the concept of a kind master or a sweetened oppression. That is no small thing. Similarly, Ernestine closing the door and jumping with Rosalee on the bed is an act of resistance that insists on giving an enslaved child some semblance of a childhood. To think of how many parents living under slavery did the same thing is to realize that so many of our people were never not resisting. And that is no small legacy to pass on.

“Every once in a while, we can steal moments like this one.”

But present-day Ernestine is being haunted by men who do not approve of her forms of resistance (not unlike the men who disapprove of what’s happened to Clara), particularly those that involve sleeping with her masters. But ain’t it her right to choose how best to attempt a grasp at power? I understand that the hallucinations are representations of Stine’s own subconscious thoughts, fears and insecurities, but I think it’s important to consider how we do or do not respect the decisions of women with limited options. When Stine breaks down during that gloriously insane performance among those white men, it’s partly an answer to Donahue’s earlier suggestion: “The negro woman has an almost supernatural ability to bear pain.” No, she does not. The negro woman, if I may, is a human who has out of necessity developed an almost supernatural ability to transform pain into various forms of agency. The negro woman has found infinite ways of empowering herself in a world that seeks to hunt her down and drain her of everything. So I wonder if Underground might be asking, Who are we/you to judge how she resists?

Rosalee, as a character, has almost always worked in contrast to Ernestine. In “Ache,” she relays to Harriet in a flashback her concerns about going back to get her mother. “What if I can’t make my Momma run with me?” she asks. We’ve had the pleasure of watching Rosalee transform from someone who seemed destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps—to resist from the “safety” (that is, the illusion of safety) that the Big House represented. But then she became a runner. And now, she’s a thief, stealing bodies (including her own) as a form of revolt. Her mother chose, instead, to steal moments for her children. And ain’t they both powerful women?

“I’m trying to protect myself. The only one trying. So I’ma use what I got.”

This episode opens with a scene of great resistance: an enslaved father reading (reading) the “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech to his enslaved daughter, and telling her that she is powerful in both body and mind. I couldn’t help but imagine a world where fathers woke up every day and, like Daniel, read such speeches to their daughters. I couldn’t help but think about how far that speech has come—how Laverne Cox gave a speech with the same title a couple of years ago, how she, too, had found her own way to transform pain into power. Underground has been one of the best shows on TV since Season One, episode one, but it’s now firmly one of the most consistently important shows for black women to watch.

But it’s not always pretty for us. Ernestine all but gives up by the end of the episode (though we might see this choice, too, as an act of resistance). As Kenny Herzog writes at Vulture, Rosalee has endured all manner of Kill Bill-esque battles. And with leeches! There remains this frightening question of whether or not some acts of resistance are futile, or perhaps just not enough. Is there a point where you have to accept that you cannot win? That some people will always be in possession of a power that is, politically and socially, greater than yours? Like Ernestine, I am haunted by the words of the older woman, who spoke with a fearsome tone, wearing blood up to her elbows.

“Your kin done sold you an old and terrible lie. That you can survive this.”

Angela. Motherfucking. Bassett. Bassett’s character gives voice to a darker series of questions: Have black people survived slavery? If you ask Ava DuVernay (and watch her documentary, 13th), slavery hasn’t even been properly abolished. It’s merely evolved. Nina Simone once said, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me—No Fear!” So even as I celebrate what these women—my women—have accomplished, I know that, like Rosalee in the woods and Ernestine on that plantation, we have a long way to go. But I look around (Misha Green, Beyoncé, Ava DuVernay, Rihanna, Laverne Cox, Kara Walker, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Tina Mabry, Solange, Issa Rae…) and I feel overwhelmed with the right to choose my form of resistance. And if that’s “all” my ancestors passed on to me—that, and this ache that I wouldn’t trade for the comfort of my would-be oppressors—well, ain’t I a miracle?

Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.

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