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“It don’t change nothin’”: The Return of Queen Sugar



By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | NewBlackMan (in Exile)



Saturday, June 2, 2018.



Perhaps no one Queen Sugar character generates as much ambivalence as Kofi Siraboe’s Ralph Angel. This not to dismissCharley Bordelon’s (Dawn Lyen-Gardner) well-intentioned class anxieties, but rather to acknowledge the real ways that Ralph Angel takes up so much emotional space in series that largely finds resonance in the lives of Black women.  If we are to read OWN’s Queen Sugar more closely alongside the same-titled Natalie Baszile novel that inspired the series, we then realize it is not a dead Ernest Bordelon that spirits the series narrative, but rather Ralph Angel as “duppy trickster” who animates the existential earnestness of the series; Baszile’s Ralph Angel doesn’t survive the novel. Thus when Ralph Angel closes part-one of Queen Sugar’s two-night season-three premiere, with “it don’t change nothin’’ he does so with the gifts of foresight and afterthought that only a ghost can possess.


To be sure, our hearts ache for Ralph Angel on the news that Blue (Ethan Hutchison) is not his biological son – part of that emotional space that we’ve granted Ralph Angel, is not just the idea that he is single Black father, but in his being any Black man being an attentive father; Ralph Angel is the counter embodiment to the Ghost Dads that so many children (even as adults), have had to make unrequited peace with. Ralph Angel is defiant in his claim “it don’t change nothin’”; he’s still gonna be the boy’s father.  But Ralph Angel ain’t just speaking for himself.


For Rutina Wesley’s Nova, who along with Charley’s son Micah, serves as the series’ political consciousness, “it don’t change nothin’” means being identified as a “Black Identity Extremist” – to the chagrin of the newspaper that publishes her words – even as she sits down with a New York publishing house to discuss the possibility of a “six-figure” book deal based on her columns she wrote for her employer.  Nova’s book deal is  jeopardized when she quits the newspaper – over  the gutting of an article about Black youth protest that her editor found too political – and  the newspaper won’t allow the republication of her articles for the book, which only heightens the stakes associated with what Baraka famously theorized as the “changing-same.” For Nova it is a reminder that having a platform for your ideas don’t mean much if you don’t have ownership of those ideas.  What also “don’t change” for Nova is the renewable spirit of resistance, exhibited by the quartet of teens that she tried to profile, who take a knee at a high school basketball, replenishing her own spirit in the process.


While Charley has her own struggles with the slipperiness of “Black Owned” in what might be presumed as post-plantation Louisiana – Queen Sugar’s big-story arc of race, land and exploitation – her “it don’t change nothin’” moments coincide with those of her teen-age son Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe), who is trying to triage his relative privilege, his artistic practice as a photographer and the wokeness of the era, which is all too real to him given his own harassment by a police officer. If ‘it don’t change nothin’’ indexes shifting political and cultural terrains in the Trump-era, Charley and her ex-husband Davis hoped to create a level of privilege where Micah could thrive above the fray, only to have the 16-year-old find his passion and duty in the very fray he was raised to be indifferent to.  Indeed, Black Privilege “don’t change nothin’”.


Finally there is Aunt Vi – in a brilliant and sultry performance by Tina Lifford – who is diagnosed with Lupus in the season-two finale.  We find her in season three managing her disease and managing the emotions of the doting, and hovering Hollywood(Omar Dorsey), as she launches her pie company.  When Aunt Vi defiantly proclaims “it’s my time”, it is a symbolic bookend toRalph Angel’s earlier pronouncement.


At its best Queen Sugar suspends time, forcing thoughtful reflections on the past and strategies for the future, perhaps informed by the wisdom gained by the aforementioned reflections.  In this regard Charley and Ralph Angel are the pivoting counters – as is indeed the case in Baszile’s novel – where in this instance Charley represents long-game, and Ralph Angel is the haunting of the moment.


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Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African American Studies and Professor of English at Duke University, where he is Chair of the Department of African & African-American Studies.  The author of several books including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (NYU Press), Neal is the host of the video podcast Left of Black, now in its 8th season.


“It don’t change nothin’”: The Return of Queen Sugar

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