UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Black (W)hole Foods : Okra, Soil and Blackness in The Underground Railroad (Barry Jenkins, USA, 2021) Brown, William, 1977-


This essay analyses the role played by okra in The Underground Railroad, together with how it functions in relation to the soil that sustains it and which allows it to grow. I argue that okra represents an otherwise lost African past for both protagonist Cora and for the show in general and that this transplanted plant, similar to the transplanted Africans who endured the Middle Passage on the way to ‘New World’ slave plantations, survives by going through ‘black holes’, something that is not only linked poetically to the established trope of the otherwise absent Black mother but which also finds support from physics, where wormholes (similar to the holes created by worms in the soil) take us through black holes and into new worlds, realities or dimensions. This is reflected in Jenkins’s series (as well as Whitehead’s novel) by the titular Underground Railroad itself, which sees Cora and others disappear underground only to reappear in new states (the show travels from Georgia to South Carolina to North Carolina to Tennessee to Indiana and so on), as well as specifically in the show through the formal properties of the audio-visual (cinematic/televisual) medium, which, with its cuts and movements, similarly keeps shifting through space and time in a nonlinear but generative fashion. Finally, I suggest that we cannot philosophise the plant or the medium of film (or television or streaming media) without philosophising race, with The Underground Railroad serving as a means for bringing together plants and plantations, soil and wormholes and Blackness and black holes, which, collectively and playfully, I group under the umbrella term ‘black (w)hole foods’.

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