Monday, July 24, 2017

"Queen Sugar" is the TV show that I didn't even know I needed.

"UNBOWED" - Original Oil Painting
by Nicole J. Butler
One of my sisters has been trying to get me to watch "Queen Sugar" since the first episode aired, but since her viewing practices have proven to be questionable in the past, I "yeah-yeahed" her and kept it moving (sorry, Mel).

I have a love/ hate relationship with "black shows."  My early childhood memories are rooted in a time during which the phone would ring and it was my grandmother or great-grandmother calling to inform us that "colored folks are on TV."  Eager to see people who looked like us, we would immediately turn to whichever channel said "colored folks" were purported to be gracing at the moment, and watch whatever they happened to  be doing on said channel.  Usually the characters' lives centered around their respective struggles against "the man."  We watched anyway, because "we" were on TV.

Along came "The Cosby Show," "A Different World," and "Living Single,"- comedies about upwardly mobile black people with nary a housing project or food stamp in sight.  Let me pause here to tell you that I consider myself to have had wonderful family and community role models in my childhood.  My whole village raised, encouraged, chastised, guided, and supported me.  What I know now that I didn't know then was that I was hungry for images and narratives outside of my home that showed people who looked like me (black and female) thriving in the world at large.  These three comedies offered up visual affirmations on a weekly basis, delivered with a side of laughs, and they nourished me.

Somewhere between then and now, things appeared to go backwards, with way too many "black shows" being either overly didactic or outright buffoonery.  I do like to laugh, but not at the expense of my self-esteem, so over time I found myself watching fewer and fewer shows with people who "looked like me" because the characters were people with whom I would never spend time by choice.  I was offended by insinuations that, decades from the "colored people are on TV" era, I should support TV shows and/ or movies because they were "for black people."

Enter "Queen Sugar."  Honestly, I started watching because my sister keeeeeept talking about it, people on Twitter kept mentioning it, and I had run out of "must-see TV".  Plus it was from Ava DuVernay. "13th" Ava DuVernay- how bad could it really be?

Episode one enveloped me in what was truly a "moving picture."  Visually stunning and viscerally familiar, "Queen Sugar" showed me characters portraying people that I recognize from my own life experiences.  And these characters look like the people at whose feet I learned how to "be."  Flawed, to be sure, but people who do the best that they can do to get by, day by day.  Culturally authentic, there are no questions as to whether or not these characters are "black-black"* or not, but neither are their challenges intrinsic to their race.  These are complex characters FIRST... and also black Americans.  AND it's a drama; they may love to laugh and joke, but they are not performing for your approval nor amusement.

For the first time I caught myself thinking "This must be how white people feel when they watch TV."  Present.  Normal.  Centered.  Vital.

The languid pace of the show allows me to luxuriate in this world, where folks look like me and not only have issues to which I can relate, but other unspoken truths that I know intimately;  challenges and pressures that are familiar to me as my own skin, due to life experiences related to being black (and female!) in a society that undermined our worth at every possible juncture.

Representation matters.  As an professional, educated black woman, I am acutely aware of the balance between being authentically myself and performing for the white (or male) gaze.  Code-switching deftly to navigate spaces where doors close unless you know the code.  Where "white" is normal, and everyone else is "other."  Shit's tiresome.  As a working actress, oil painter, and writer, I am at once inspired and charged by "Queen Sugar."  I have a renewed sense of responsibility to accurately, honestly, and unapologetically depict the people who go unseen and unheard.  Again, I have been nourished. My charge is to pay it forward, in hopes that one day children of color won't know a time when they don't see themselves in society at large.  A time when #AllLivesMatter is really a thing.

--Nicole


*"Black-Black" is probably not politically correct (or whatever), but it is a "thing" and everybody knows what it is.  Close your eyes and picture a black person, then open your eyes.  I'll give you a moment.  Don't cheat.
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Ok-  You know that first person who popped into your head?  "Black-Black."  I'm sure of it.

P.S. - Since I began writing post this I've seen the movie "Girls Trip."  Slow clap.  Maybe the times really are a-changin'.

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