Thoughts on Queen Sugar

*This piece contains spoilers for Queen Sugar’s second season.

In the second season of Queen Sugar, sugarcane farmer Ralph Angel Bordelon (Kofi Siriboe) explains to his seven-year-old why he named him “Blue.” Other relatives wanted to name the baby after friends or family members, but Ralph Angel wanted to give his son “a rare name.” Unsure of what to pick, he spoke with his Aunt Violet (Tina Lifford), who recalled the moment she learned her name was a color: 

A little girl saw her name on a crayon at school. Said she felt special her name could make something so pretty—the color violet. So I thought about that. And there was one that was perfect. Just like the color violet. And it rhymes with my mama’s name, True. I could name you after the two ladies in my life who always believed in me no matter what. Just like I’ll believe in you no matter what. Blue was them. Blue was the sky, blue was the ocean. It’s everything good. That’s you, son. Everything good.[1]

In this scene, Ralph Angel, a young father navigating life after incarceration in Louisiana, is grappling with the news that he is not Blue’s biological parent. As a Black viewer, I winced when the plot took this turn. “Who’s the father” is a familiar trope, the stuff of Daniel Patrick Moynihan (or Jerry Springer).[2] Here, though, we know the answer: Ralph Angel is the father, drawn only closer to his child through the act of naming. “Blue” is the result of Ralph Angel’s intimacy with the natural world—and with the people who most cared for him. 

Queen Sugar, the TV series based on Natalie Baszile’s 2014 novel of the same name, first aired in 2016 and quickly became one of my favorite shows on television. Most of all, I appreciate the nuance with which it portrays one Black family’s relationships, both to one another and to the farm on which they have labored for several generations. At the center of the show are the estranged Bordelon siblings: Nova (Rutina Wesley), Charley (Dawn Lyen-Gardner), and Ralph Angel. When their father dies after a stroke, they must come together to maintain his Louisiana sugarcane farm. They soon learn that keeping up the farm is not just a matter of learning the trade, but of defending the farm from the Landry family, the region’s most powerful planters and the Bordelons’ competitors in the sugarcane business. Over the course of the show, the Landrys attempt to take control of the Bordelons’ farm, via both legal and extralegal means. Eventually, we learn that the Landrys are the descendants of slaveholders, and that they once owned the Bordelons’ ancestors. The Landrys believe the Bordelon farm is rightfully theirs, and are angered to see the Bordelons use it a variety of ways: they host rallies and parties; Charley launches a city council campaign from their porch; and Ralph Angel starts an employment program for formerly incarcerated people. 

Woman draped in a white shawl looks out to her left on a sugarcane field at sunset.
Still of the character Charley Bordelon, played by Dawn-Lyen Gardner, in “First Things First,” Queen Sugar season 1, episode 1. 
[Image description: Woman draped in a white shawl looks out to her left on a sugarcane field at sunset.]

Though its characters are fictional, the series attempts to capture the issues contemporary Black farmers face in the United States. When asked about these challenges, historians often point to the New Deal Era, when Black sharecroppers were excluded from agricultural benefits or evicted altogether from their farms. But Black farmers still experience a version of this in the present. For example, Black-owned farms are widely excluded from the loans and crop subsidies others take for granted. In recent years, they received one-third of what their non-Black counterparts received in loans, and “one-third to one-sixth” of what those counterparts received in crop subsidies. Black farmers represent roughly 1.3% of all famers nationwide; many have organized both to expand this number and contest USDA discrimination. The vast majority of Black-owned farms are in just eight states: Texas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and Louisiana.[3]

As I consider these realities and await the show’s return in 2021, I am drawn back to the core stakes of Black studies. Though it is a challenging undertaking, the field has sought to fully capture the reality of structural racism—and its attendant traumas—while still leaving room to explore alternative ways of thinking and being. This is an especially important task when we consider Black life in the U.S. South: a region often understood as a point of departure for the millions of Black Americans who participated in the Great Migration. Queen Sugar, in its portrait of a family that has remained in Louisiana since enslavement, suggests another frame. It is on the family farm that Blue’s mother, Darla (Bianca Lawson), helps him ride a bike without training wheels. Darla and Ralph Angel also teach their son to swim. Clad in arm “floaties,” he paddles from one parent to the other, then back, in the pool’s teal glow.

It is on Louisiana’s sugarcane fields that the three estranged siblings in Queen Sugar begin to repair their relationship and recover key aspects of their family history. Most importantlythe show suggests that when it comes to Black life in the natural world, slavery and its “afterlives” are powerfully present—but they do not have the last word.[4] 

[1] Queen Sugar, season 2, episode 16, “Dream Variations,” directed by Kat Candler, written by Ava DuVernay, aired November 15, 2017, on OWN.

[2] Moynihan’s 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case For National Action, attributed Black poverty to woman-headed households in Black families. The report informed a variety of War on Poverty programs and is widely criticized today. 

[3] Tadlock Cowan and Jody Feder, “The Pigford Cases: USDA Settlement of Discrimination Suits by Black Farmers,” Congressional Research Service (May 29, 2013); “2017 Census of Agriculture Highlights: Farm Producers,” National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, April 2019; Environmental Working Group and National Black Farmers Association, “Short Crop: How A Widening Farm Subsidy Gap Is Leaving Black Farmers Further Behind” (July 25, 2007).

[4] See Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).

*Cover image: Still of characters Ralph Angel Bordelon and his son Blue, played by Kofi Siriboe and Ethan Hutchison, in “Dream Variations,” Queen Sugar season 2, episode 16.

[Cover image description: Father (in a navy polo shirt) leans in to speak to son (in a blue-green plaid shirt) as he buckles his son into a pickup truck.]