This might sound strange, but this week’s Queen Sugar made me think about Jay-Z. Aside from all of the emotional vulnerability and confirmation of the infidelity that Beyoncé has been telling us about for years, one of the big takeaways from Hov’s new album 4:44, was his focus on economic empowerment and financial independence. In one line he claimed that this was his way of giving listeners “a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.” Addressing what it has been like to not only earn, but maintain his personal fortune — it includes purchasing artwork worth millions that appreciates in value — has been reason enough for many to applaud the rapper and businessman for setting a shining example of Black excellence. But make no mistake about it, the gems on 4:44 are all about Jay’s personal fortune. It’s great that he has transcended racial barriers that typically stop Black people from benefitting from our capitalist system, and that he is urging Black people to support Black businesses; however, 4:44 did not offer a radical vision for Black communities. Each week, though, I feel like Queen Sugar does.
A few scenes in Wednesday night’s episode felt particularly transformative. The premise of the show is that the Bordelon family has inherited their late father’s farmland and have to tend to it. This season, however, the focus has shifted from simply maintaining and protecting the land, to attempting to profit from it. The family’s middle sister Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) has secured a loan to expand the family business into milling. The Queen Sugar Mill gives local Black farmers an alternative to the mills controlled by white business owners, who also own most of the land. Their efforts to build the Queen Sugar Mill into a viable business have required the entire family to unite around this common goal.
When the Bordelon sugar cane crop gets hit with a white fly infestation
that makes my skin crawl, the entire family and the local farmers come together to clean the leaves and save them from losing crops. Not only is their community able to keep more of its resources internal, they work together to manifest a new financial reality for themselves. This is definitely a departure from the individualistic definition of success that undergirds our understanding of prosperity.
On a micro level, Aunt Violet (Tiffany Lifford) is encouraged by the best boyfriend ever, Hollywood (Omar J. Dorsey), to consider doing what she loves — making people happy with her homemade pies — for a living, instead of managing the diner for the rest of her working life. Hollywood, inspired by the idea that they aren’t “too old to get [theirs],” insists that is a real possibility. This beautiful moment suggests that the bottom line does not always have to be the driving force behind a successful venture.
By combining these two elements — doing what you love and communal engagement — Queen Sugar is giving us a model of the American dream that I can get behind. But when the Bordelon family is ready to expand their assets, they should probably give 4:44 a spin.