Have you been watching “Queen Sugar”? It is a thoughtful, compelling, and gorgeous TV show that evokes ecowomanist sensibilities.
“Queen Sugar” is a television drama in its second season on OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s network. It was created by celebrated filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who is also the show’s executive producer. The show has an all-female directing team and an inclusive crew. Like many of the original series on OWN, “Queen Sugar” features a predominately African-American cast, and like many other programs on the network, it delivers content intended to stir the viewer’s soul. But notably, “Queen Sugar”’s soulful messages are not mediated by the cadre of life coaches and inspirational leaders often seen on Oprah’s network. Instead, it is the fictional Bordelon family who invites us to reflect on their world and ours. The series’ three main characters, Nova, Charley, and Ralph Angel, are siblings who take over their father’s sugar cane farm in Louisiana after his death. Their narrative and the lush cinematography that captures it offers viewers the opportunity to consider the complexity, joy, and hardship of African-American characters who are rarely depicted on screen. The show’s themes and aesthetics are expressive of ecowomanist spirituality.
Some readers of this blog may be familiar with womanism or ecofeminism, but not know what ecowomanism is.
Ecowomanism is a movement within womanist discourse that centers black women’s spirituality and connections to the earth. Ecowomanist analysis of environmental justice incorporates race, gender, and class analysis, but as ethicist Melanie L. Harris writes, it “also helps to show how religious moral codes and values support an ethic that honors the earth and honors voices from communities of color and women as they speak up for the earth.” (p. 31, “Ecowomanism: Black Women, Religion, and the Environment.” The Black Scholar 46, 2016).
Watching “Queen Sugar” may help you understand what an ecowomanist sensibility is. The show uses narratives set within African-American life to deftly reveal the ways our health and wellbeing are determined by social connections, community structures, and our environment. The members of the Bordelon family demonstrate the power of love and perseverance, but they also expose the destructive power of anger, grief, pride, and hatred. There are no saints here. That could be said of many fine TV dramas, however, the issues presented on “Queen Sugar” are not limited to interpersonal, individual conflicts. The storylines address labor conditions, drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, prisons, and police brutality and show them as more than morality tales about personal responsibility and growth; the storylines also confront the oppressive character of systems and institutions, which resonates with ecowomanism.
In the show, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism are not abstract evils, but rather patterns of thought and action we, the viewers, witness in ordinary encounters. The writers, crew, and cast present us with a narrative world full of ambiguity and nuance. The show teaches us that oppressive systems exist in communities we claim as our own, and that those who perpetuate these systems may be our own, too. Women support patriarchy, workers exploit disparities, and through their stories, we learn that oppression comes from within as well as from without.
Despite the hardship often depicted in the show, the series also evokes a pervasive sense of beauty and grace. This is where I see its spirituality. Every scene is artfully composed and they show that beauty–indeed, the sacred—is present in common places. But beauty isn’t used deceptively or immorally, as it is when we make something horrific appear lovely. Viewers are not deceived into thinking that the Bordelons inhabit an idyllic world. Homes and fields and equipment degrade and decay over time when they are not maintained, and even when they are lovingly tended, they can be damaged by hurricanes and other natural phenomena. Physical violence is discussed but rarely shown, so it is not put on display for our entertainment.
Even when what is depicted on screen is not itself a thing of beauty or delight, the way scenes are composed is striking. The kind of beauty that emerges from an artful arrangement of ordinary things is spiritual. The sustained attention to ordinary things demonstrated in the composition of the show’s creative direction is what womanist spirituality is about. It’s nondualistic; from a womanist and ecowomanist perspective, attending to the spirit does not mean we elevate it above the material. Spirituality and materiality are interconnected. The life of the body and a holistic sense of its wellness is central to ecowomanism. Considering this, we must note that the show does not objectify black bodies or their beauty, but calls its viewers to recognize their value even as it deviates from a Eurocentric ideal. The cast is beautiful and they show a range of black skin, hair, mannerisms, body shapes, speech, and style that is both unremarkable by its existence in the real world, but remarkable nonetheless.
I’ve often marveled at how the show features African-American characters in so many different walks of life. They are activists, administrative assistants, athletes, business managers, entrepreneurs, farmers, journalists, medical doctors, professors, police officers, and much more. The characters work on oil rigs and in restaurants and in offices and on farms. Sure, we have seen enslaved workers and migrant workers and sharecroppers in the fields on screen before, but we rarely see them in a contemporary context. And how often do we see these workers making financial decisions? There was one episode during the first season when I paused the show to wonder if a group of black farmers gathered together for business and a meal had ever been shown on television before. I was struck by the unique vision of the show and simply wanted to reflect on it for a moment.
So, I return to my first question. Have you been watching “Queen Sugar”? If so, let me know what you think. If not, you should consider watching it.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.
Categories: Art, Black Feminism, Community, Earth-based spirituality, Ecofeminism, Ecojustice, Embodiment, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Media, Nature, Popular Culture, Relationality, Spirituality, Womanist Theology