A television show opens on the sound of rhythmic breathing accompanying a pursuit in the dark. Many viewers recognized the soundtrack right away: Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” a rather scathing punk-rap tackling “post-racial” America in both its lyrics and accompanying video imagery. Simultaneously, the runaway slave narrative is deconstructed and becomes familiar, West’s song giving a contemporary context to the often told plight of enslaved Black people risking it all for a chance at a free life.
This opening scene made a statement: Underground changes the story for what a slave narrative is because present audiences have seen Black cultural context become mainstream.
Given its graveness, slave narratives are often treated with a sombreness not always given to other subgenres. And given many contemporary criticisms that there are too many narratives focused on the United States’ history of slavery, Underground had to differentiate itself from past slave narratives that not only emphasized Black pain and suffering rather than humanity but also centered white savior narratives without acknowledging the truth of the full brutality about the history.
In this regard, AfroRetroFuturism provides a lens to understand the appeal of a show that puts people escaping enslavement in an action/adventure context, creating high stakes and using a contemporary mode of storytelling. A look at Nisi Shawl’s Everfair shows AfroRetroFuturism as a lens to consider and place African Americans in historical narratives in more complex ways just as Underground’s first season has shown.
What Is AfroRetroFuturism?
Nisi Shawl coined the term AfroRetroFuturism to describe her work Everfair, the steampunk fantasy novel set in an alternative Belgian Congo, since she did not consider her work as “Neo-Victorian.” She explains, “Afrofuturism is a movement focused on African contributions to, perspectives on, and presence in the future. Retrofuturism is what most steampunks call what they’re interested in: a re-visioning of the past including elements of its future and sometimes elements of our own future as well. AfroRetroFuturism is a combination of these attitudes and concerns.” She eschewed the Neo-Victorian term because she felt it focused only on alternate versions of the Victorian empire. In fact, she explains her inspiration behind the story: “I was inspired to write Everfair by my dislike of a genre I should have been completely crushed out on.”
However, Everfair focuses on a subject often overlooked in the genre: colonialism. Perhaps this is what Shawl felt was missing from steampunk, an honest remembrance of the atrocities that came along with this period of much celebrated innovation and technological advances. She explains, “The term ‘neo-Victorian,’ to me, is a much more limited one in that it’s apparently just about alternate versions of the Victorian empire.” While she deconstructs the neo-Victorian narrative, she acknowledges that steampunk “often works as a form of alternate history, showing us how small changes to what actually happened might have resulted in momentous differences: clockwork Victorian-era computers, commercial transcontinental dirigible lines, and a host of other wonders.” And Everfair does include these types of wonders: aircanoes, steam bicycles and mechanical prosthetic limbs abound throughout the novel.
But the novel also functions as wish fulfilling fantasy. As Shawl says in the novel’s brief introduction, “I like to think that with a nudge or two events might have played out much more happily for the inhabitants of Equatorial Africa. They might have enjoyed a prosperous future filled with all the technology that delights current steampunk fans in stories of western Europe and North America…. Of course steampunk is a form of fiction, and the events within these pages never happened. But they could have.”
While Shawl indulges the fantasy, she does not gloss over the atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo under the exploitation of Leopold II. She explains that an estimated half of the population disappeared between 1895 to 1908 during Leopold’s reign over the Congo Free State before his death in 1909, the year after he was forced to relinquish control of the colony. While an exact number is not given, estimates show that between two and 15 million people died. However, Shawl’s imagined resistance results in the “utopia” of Everfair, as part of the plan by Britons and African-American missionaries who buy the land, which has its own struggles and remnants of its freshly remembered colonial past. Of course, much of the story is based in reality; in fact, Shawl modeled many of the characters after real-life historical figures including Josephine Baker and Zora Neale Hurston.
Shawl’s work addresses the forced labor and plundering of the resources of the land but focuses on those who fought Leopold’s Force Publique. She includes political intrigue, sexual intrigue and the combination of the two in ways that not only humanize the characters but also bring to light how resistance efforts against Leopold may have occurred at the time — with a steampunk twist. However, historians tout the Victorian Era (from 1837 to 1901) as a period of peace and prosperity, but it was anything but for those under the rule of colonialism and other oppressions including slavery. Works such as Underground disrupt that perception and remind us that peace and prosperity not only did not extend to all but also came at the expense of Black and brown people all over the world.
Underground as AfroRetroFuturism
This context of AfroRetroFuturism allows viewers to see a neglected aspect of the slave narrative: the resistance. Resistance comes in forms other than escape although the narrative of the Macon 7 provides the focal point of the first season. From the first episode, the viewer sees that Noah, the man on the run in the opening “Black Skinhead” sequence, has been planning an escape for some time. However, he knows he cannot do it alone; he needs a team to carry out a plan that helps ensure not only their escape but also their subsequent survival. This means he must find others whom he can trust and be willing to risk life and limb.
From here, the origins of the Macon 7 and those who present obstacles to them unfold. As with many stories of suspense and intrigue, alliances are formed, tested and broken. Underground has the feel of a fast-paced drama with constant tension in which even the most banal situations can mean the difference between life and death. While the show always keeps the historical context of the show in mind, it explicitly uses a contemporary “language” of filmmaking that makes the story feel more accessible to current political climates and acts of resistance.
This language extends to more than music and mise en scène. For instance, Noah’s use of elevated language paints him as a hero. In fact, other characters throughout the show use the same manner of speech, which makes them fit more into a contemporary context rather than what an audience might expect from a show set in the 1850s. While the entire setting sits squarely in the Victorian Era, one could just as easily imagine Noah and the rest of the Macon 7 among contemporary resistance movements whether taking place on college campuses or grassroots organizations, particularly those of few means and resources. They do not simply decide to run on a whim: they make calculated decisions and respond according to their circumstances, much like the 20th century Civil Rights Movements and more recent Black Lives Matter protests. Men such as Noah, Moses and Cato come across as charismatic leader types, and women such as Rosalee, Ernestine and Pearly Mae do much of the invisible work of resistance.
Love and Romance
The construction of love and romance also places Underground within an AfroRetroFuturism context. Many slave narratives never imagine this aspect of life for enslaved Black people. In many cases, sexual politics are addressed, much like with Harriet Jacobs’ narrative in which she finds sexual autonomy when she has children with a man she chooses after she realizes her slave master intends to have her as his own. Her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl chronicles her experience under slavery in which she “consents” to a relationship with a white neighbor, ultimately having two children with him, in hopes he would protect her from a cruel slave master and eventually gain freedom for herself and her children. In a way, the character Ernestine echoes Jacobs’ resistance through sexuality, but there is no romantic subtext in her relationship with Tom Macon.
Instead, we see Rosalee and Noah’s courtship from the beginning. Their mutual attraction is shown through long gazes emphasized by points of view shots from both characters. In a time when Black people had no legal right to personhood, following the conventions of romance plays into their resistance. In fact, the timing of Rosalee and Noah’s escape comes after Rosalee made the decision not to join the others in their escape plan, but is compelled to run when she thinks she has killed her would-be rapist.
Love and romantic relationships among oppressed people may also be seen as a form of resistance, particularly within a system that seeks to deny them the basic facets of humanity. So seeing Rosalee and Noah discuss his scars during a dance underscored by The Weeknd’s “Wicked Games,” a contemporary alternative R&B ballad, makes the romantic narrative familiar and helps the viewer imagine how loving (cishet) relationships could be among those considered property rather than human. This exchange prompts Noah to ask Rosalee to run away with him. Unfortunately, the love and romantic narrative between Pearly Mae and Moses is not as fully explored as their union is already solid at the beginning of the series and they both perish, leaving behind their traumatized daughter. Yet their plight shows the vulnerability of this type of relationship under systematic oppression.
Resistance Within the System
While Underground focuses on the escape of the Macon 7, other characters and subplots shows that resistance meant more than running. Ernestine, the head of the Macon house, has her own form of personal resistance, but it is limited because it only benefits her and her immediate family. Her influence comes from her role as Tom Macon’s sexual dominant in a BDSM relationship. (It also later comes to light that he sired two of her three children.) Ernestine manages to use the currency of that relationship to curry favor in other aspects of her life, most notably for her children.
When Tom’s wife insists that Ernestine’s youngest child James is almost ready to be put in the field, Ernestine uses her influence as a domme to make Tom promise to keep him out of the fields. From the context, it also appears that she struck a previous bargain to keep her eldest son Sam from the field as well. Instead, he works in the stables where Tom promises to send James.
Ernestine’s encounter with Tom not only helps the audience imagine the atrocities Black women faced as they were deemed unrapeable but also how some Black women may have negotiated their sexuality within an unjust system. As someone denied personhood by law, Ernestine’s sexual autonomy can only gain her so much. In this case, she wants to spare her children from the demanding physical labor of the field. Yet she understands that working closely under the slaveowners in the house presents its own dangers, particularly when she tells her daughter Rosalee that she is afraid she would be “too pretty.”
However, in the end, Ernestine’s efforts do not spare her children. Upon Rosalee’s escape, Tom breaks his promise and sends James to the field. He also later lynches Sam, the only one of Ernestine’s children he did not sire. Ernestine’s resistance then becomes more explicit when she takes revenge upon Tom by hanging him as he hung her son. Unfortunately, this seems to be Ernestine’s undoing as Tom’s widow places Ernestine on the auction block, another promise to her broken as she ironically no longer has Tom’s “protection.”
Much like Jacobs’ narrative, Ernestine’s subplot places the focus on Black women’s worries and traumas under slavery. While many personal slave narratives focused on men such as Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano and Soloman Northup, women such as Jacobs and the fictional Ernestine are left by the wayside. AfroRetroFuturism can see Ernestine as one of the women who found herself seeking to use the system from within even if she saw no prospects of getting out of it herself. Furthermore, it allows the audience to understand how escape was not an option for everyone. Ernestine speaks to the millions of Black women who resisted by continuing to live through the atrocious circumstances of her enslavement, much more like Harriet Jacobs than Harriet Tubman.
Re-imagining the Real
While we can look at Ernestine as a stand in for the likes of Harriet Jacobs, much like Shawl’s Rima Bailey is a composite of Josephine Baker and Zora Neale Hurston, viewers will also soon see a real-life historical figure incorporated into the story: Harriet Tubman. Tubman was introduced in the last episode of the first season as a teaser for the shift in story arc. Interestingly, Tubman’s image has gained pop culture currency for some time and recently culminated into a graphic novel that depicts her as a demon slayer (much like Abraham Lincoln has been imagined as a vampire hunter). However, Underground promises a more realistic depiction of Tubman. This is not to say that there will be no liberties taken with Tubman’s real life, but there may be some speculation of her person that makes her human in the eyes of a contemporary audience and not simply a mythical historical figure.
Furthermore, the addition of Tubman may help Underground achieve something that many do not consider in a historical context: Black women working together as freedom fighters. Tubman’s character comes to the aid of Rosalee who has resolved to return to the South to free more of her people. History portrays Tubman as a lone figure taking all the risks to free more than 300 people. This does not leave much room to consider who might have helped and other Black women who created opportunities to free enslaved people.
Also, as Shawl explains with Everfair, AfroRetroFuturism allows the imagination of possibilities of how historical figures may or may not have responded to the conditions around them. For instance, she never once refers to Leopold with the title “King” in Everfair. This one gesture takes away or at least minimizes the aggrandizement of the ruler and allows the contemporary audience to imagine him as the tyrant many people of the Congo saw during that time. This decenters Leopold but also emphasizes the atrocities committed against the millions who died as well as the survivors.
The AfroRetroFuturism of Everfair and Underground shows that the way we tell stories matters as much as the stories we tell. While Everfair depicts the resistance of a colonial power that still affects the people of the Congo to this day, it also works as an act of resistance in itself as Shawl retrieves the history of a genocide of which many Americans remain oblivious. Even though we are much more aware of American slavery, we still do not tell the full story of those who endured it and perished. The AfroRetroFuturism lens provides the means for stories like Everfair and Underground to refocus the narrative, giving a fuller humanity to Black communities and showing how the past could have been.