Ernestine in season two is in the midst of major torment as she has been sold to a South Carolina plantation, fallen into a physically abusive relationship with another field slave and is sniffing ether to pass through the days of doing hard labor in the swampy fields. Her past sins and guilts are haunting her as the spirit of Pearly Mae, her son Sam and first husband, appear to her remind her of what she thought she could overcome but it’s all really overcame her.
In Season two of WGN’s Underground, Ernestine is a crackhead.
Her storyline addresses several layers of integral history to the treatment of Black women and their bodies in America. The most obvious one is how we castrate the image of Black folks who feel into the crack epidemic. You can think of it in the context of how a drug that befell the Black community was seen as an “epidemic” and in modern times the drugs that have rapidly befell suburban white homes, is seen as a “crisis” where folks need and deserve saving.
Ernestine in all her creamy beige bedeviled glory, I do get a giggle out of how hard it is for hollywood actors to hide their glamour even when playing slaves, but ‘Stine, humanizes in the sense the trajectory that leads one to becoming addicted to drugs. Do you fault her for snuffing ether? Or do you understand the pathos that brought her to this point? The never having power over her own body, never having power over what came from her body, not the how the what or when, even when she felt like she had some semblance of control it was such a faint lie, that easily came crashing down around her. Her first child was sold down river, she watched her second child be killed, her other children were offspring of her master, a thing she was doing because she thought it would protect her children from hard torture of the world they were coming into. But it didn’t.
The precipice of Ernestine’s torment speaks to the freedom Black women have struggled to get some semblance of over their own body. To exist in a body that in one sense helps to maintain slavery, as you are used to multiple a slave owner’s cattle, but it’s also what keeps your people alive, the passing on of culture and perseverance. The ancestral line is divine from you. It is both an act of resistance and oppression. It’s a battle and Ernestine is living through the torment of it all. But this is not a torment singular to her. We make fun of and have lampooned the caricature of the black women crackhead who ain’t got time for that, while having all the feels for Ernstine. We have to reevaluate what got us here and we must do better pushing back against the system that has shaped this nefarious viewpoint, created this definition only to benefit imperialism.
Dorothy Roberts in Killing the Black Body breaks this down very thoroughly the history of policing Black women’s body from slavery to present day, it’s definitely worth the read. It’s great to see Ernestine embody this history so poignantly, critical thought in pop culture is always welcomed.