Alisha Gaines: White Guilt and Allyship on WGN’s Underground

cover image for black for a day by gainesToday we welcome a guest post from Alisha Gaines, author of Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy. In 1948, journalist Ray Sprigle traded his whiteness to live as a black man for four weeks. A little over a decade later, John Howard Griffin famously “became” black as well, traveling the American South in search of a certain kind of racial understanding. Contemporary history is littered with the surprisingly complex stories of white people passing as black, and here Alisha Gaines constructs a unique genealogy of “empathetic racial impersonation”—white liberals walking in the fantasy of black skin under the alibi of cross-racial empathy. At the end of their experiments in “blackness,” Gaines argues, these debatably well-meaning white impersonators arrived at little more than false consciousness.

Complicating the histories of black-to-white passing and blackface minstrelsy, Gaines uses an interdisciplinary approach rooted in literary studies, race theory, and cultural studies to reveal these sometimes maddening, and often absurd, experiments of racial impersonation. By examining this history of modern racial impersonation, Gaines shows that there was, and still is, a faulty cultural logic that places enormous faith in the idea that empathy is all that white Americans need to make a significant difference in how to racially navigate our society.


White Guilt and Allyship on Underground

In the scandal-fueled aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, some of my white friends texted and emailed me vowing to fight Muslim bans, the deportation of Latinx immigrants, and dogwhistles promising the racist escalation of law and order. My social media was a visual cacophony of safety pins and pink pussy hats—emblems of resistance, empathy, allyship, and often, white liberal guilt.

Being seen as a “good” white person has rarely been more important.

Months before white women began knitting, the WGN cable show Underground debuted on March 9, 2016. It chronicles the attempted escape by seven slaves from a Georgia cotton plantation in 1857. Since staging black fugitivity through reimaginings of the Underground Railroad is critically and commercially popular, Underground was a ratings breakout for the network.

promotional photo from WGN's Underground series

Unlike the many representations of slavery that exploit black bodies in pain while over-representing white heroism, Underground is a different kind of history. Created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, it features the uncompromising resistance of black folks and the vulnerabilities faced by white allies.

For example, Season One displays the rapid transformation of John Hawkes (possibly a nod to John Milton Hawks) from a lawyer sympathetic to “the cause” to an abolitionist whose house on the Ohio River became a station. In Episode 4, entitled “Firefly,” fugitive slave Josey apprehends John to avenge the sale of his wife, Tippy, years earlier. After denying any involvement by insisting he never owned or sold slaves, John eventually admits his involvement in the estate sale resulting in Josey’s wife being sold to a Kentucky tobacco plantation owner.

John only admits his complicity after experiencing the most extraordinary display of white guilt and contrition I have ever seen on mainstream television: the coerced whipping of John by his wife, Elizabeth. On Underground, audiences see white bodies whipped, shot, punched, and even killed, images we are accustomed to seeing exclusively with black bodies. However, John’s flayed body stands as an example of the repercussions of white supremacy and the peculiar institution of slavery for white folks as well. After Elizabeth reluctantly whipped her husband and witnessed his confession, she asked him if his story was true. It was. “Then you got the whipping you deserved,” Elizabeth coldly insists.

I wrote the first draft of this post before I found out that Underground has been cancelled. Although Underground might be flawed history—often as anachronistic as its notable musical soundtrack—it provided helpful models for resistance. Executive producer John Legend makes it plain: “What these stories are intended to do—and what I think all storytelling is intended to do in some ways—is to hopefully develop some empathy among us so that we see each other, understand each other’s backgrounds, understand each other’s stories, and also understand the inhumanity that fellow human beings were able to inflict on each other in this country that’s supposed to be the land of the free.”

That Underground unflinchingly represented black resistance while also teaching us that whiteness is always complicit in racial terror, regardless of how many safety pins one collects, is a threat to our current sociopolitical landscape. John Hawkes reminds all white folks that true allyship means real vulnerability. It’s not just “looking good.” And that is too real for our fake news.

Alisha Gaines is assistant professor of English at Florida State University and author of Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy. Follow her on Twitter @alishagaines.