By Taylor Steele @poetofsteele
Despite this year being rife with political despair and monumental deaths in the art community, 2016 has been great for Black art — particularly for the magic that is Black femmes and their ability to tell stories, shift perspectives, add light and depth to difficult but necessary discourse.
There’s this quote by Junot Diaz that’s haunted me most of my professional artistic life: "If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” As a queer Black woman, I am somewhat a monster in mainstream media — my reflection is nowhere to be seen on the screen, at least not as a principal role or as someone who doesn’t die in the first 20 minutes. And that’s what I want to do with my writing — make mirrors. So, when I heard about Ava DuVernay’s new show Queen Sugar, I readied myself with a bottle of the cheapest merlot I could find, turned off the lights, and was rendered speechless at the sight of all that brilliant melanin. I mean that cast is pretty, y’all.
And, thankfully, the mirrors didn’t end there.
We were blessed with Beyonce’s “LEMONADE,” Rihanna’s “Anti,” Jamila Woods’ album “HEAVN,” season 3 of Shonda Rhimes’ “How to Get Away with Murder,” and, most recently, Issa Rae’s HBO series “Insecure.” They’ve all given the Black femme community space and permission to be multitudinous — we get to cry and laugh, acknowledge our beauty, sit in the reality of the white supremacist nation we perpetually survive in, and dance about it all still.
Exactly 3 weeks after the premiere of Queen Sugar, Black femmes were given news about a new soundtrack to add to our healing. Singer/songstress Solange announced she would be dropping her new album “A Seat at the Table” a mere 3 days later. A neo-soul blend of testimony and witness; a musical embodiment of activism and love of self and community. Her harmonies and careful falsetto call to mind the breeze that follows a wave crashing along the shore. With 21 tracks, some of which are just people in Solange’s life talking about what it means to be Black and alive in 2016, “A Seat at the Table” is an archive.
A romantic dirge. A call and response. A sexy melancholia. A forgotten psalm. A barbecue at my uncle’s house in the summer.
Both “A Seat at the Table” and Queen Sugar set their narratives in the South. Queen Sugar takes place in a fictional town in Louisiana. It follows 3 siblings brought together by the death of the patriarch. All three of which belong to different socioeconomic classes, demythologizing stereotypically Black professions and lifestyles: the ex-convict/single father with a heart of gold, the drug dealer/activist/root woman who writes groundbreaking articles on the prison industrial complex, and the rich basketball player’s wife with enough business and brand savvy to manage her husband’s career. They all come together to plant the sugarcane farm left to them by their father. So. Black.
Ava and Solange approach their art so unapologetically. My favorite aspect of both of their recent works is how they invert the paragon of the Strong Black Woman, showing the reality of Black women’s fatigue — how, yes, we can turn that into something pretty, but that alchemy is born of necessity. They both create as if to release something from their bodies. Solange’s song “Cranes in the Sky” starts in the middle of a narrative that never gets introduced, “I tried to drink it away” is the first line of the song. This song is inherently Black woman in that way, where she doesn’t have to explicitly state what the trouble is because us Black femmes are always already on the frontlines of it together. We find strength in sisterhood — which Solange makes clear in “Interlude: I Got So Much Magic, You can Have It.” Her collaboration and playful harmonies with Kelly Rowland and Nia Andrew celebrates Black women and the magic unique to us all. Ava shows us this same magic of sisterhood not only in working with Oprah to make Queen Sugar happen but in how the sister's she's written into existence attempt to work through their own issues to literally grow something from the ground up.
In fact, both of these women remind me of those who founded the Black Lives Matter movement. Black women showed up to fight without being called or asked to. Women who saw a lack and worked to fill it. Black women who are unafraid to speak to the injustices faced by our community. They do this activism in spite of those who would call them too loud or tell them they take up too much space — a space typically dictated by (Black) men and the false reality that theirs is a plight that singularly belongs to them. Black women are constantly getting erased from even our own narratives. That is why Ava and Solange are so critical right now, they are empowering Black women to share their voices, however, is true to them because, regardless of the genre or enactment, the sharing in and of itself is a protest.
In being invited into these two familiar yet foreign worlds, I have been able to see ways in which they can find homes in each other, and thusly, find a place where I belong. Though I could go through every one of Solange’s songs and find scenes from Queen Sugar that parallel her lyrics, I think that one song works as an anthem for what the show is about and tries to do.
The first song on “A Seat at the Table” is called “Rise.” This is every one of Queen Sugar’s female character’s struggle captured in the most minimalist tune on the album. In it, Solange croons:
Fall in your ways, so you can crumble. Fall in your ways, so you can sleep at night. Fall in your ways, so you can wake up and rise. Walk in your ways, so you won’t crumble. Walk in your ways, so you can sleep at night. Walk in your ways, so you will wake up and rise.
This makes me think most of Nova. She and her desperate attempts to find justice for a minor wrongfully imprisoned for what was a non-violent crime. At every corner she is undermined: she can’t get him a lawyer, so she can’t get him a bond; he gets jumped and beaten so badly, that he has to be sent to the infirmary. The only thing she knows to do is write about it. But, when she does, she puts her pseudo-relationship with a white cop on the line. She is forced to barter with her blackness and her heart/womanhood — nothing new to Black women. She chooses her blackness — nothing new to Black women.
This makes me think of Charley, who’s only goal in life is to keep her family intact — be the perfect mother and wife. When a scandal involving her husband, his basketball team, and a prostitute alleging gang rape, Charley stays by his side as best she can. And for her, that meant leaving Los Angeles and going to her first home in Louisiana. This was where she could best heal — in his absence. But, when she finally learns that, though he was not present for the rape itself, he did not discourage it, Charley walks away from him for what seems to be for good. She cries as she tells him that not only is he a monster, but that he turned her into one by asserting his innocence, by asking her to fight for him. As hard as it must have been for her, she chose the victim, a woman she didn't know or like, over her husband and father of her son — because even in not having experienced that kind of trauma, Charley can still find a sister in her.
This makes me think of Charley and Nova’s Aunt Violet. When their brother, Ralph Angel, was in jail, Violet helped take care of his son. I think of her lover and her fear of their age difference, how all she can do, still, is love him and be with him in spite of it. For the majority of the season thus far, she has worked as a waitress in a local diner — a job she’s seemed to have had for years and does not fulfill her. The day she quits, making a stand against her green boss, you can feel her rise.
In this way, all these women rise. Their individual traumas and obstacles could have easily isolated them to the point of giving up on a resolution. They all do succumb to the crumbling, but only for so long. They don’t shy away from their hurt, and they fight to avoid getting swallowed by it. They find strength in each other, in themselves, in knowing they have more to offer the world than what the world has taken from them.
Though Rise might be my favorite song on the album, the one moment that I feel encapsulates what both Solange and Ava’s poignant work has inspired in me, wasn’t even written or performed by Solange. Interlude: This Moment is a testimony by rapper Master P perfectly explains why we Black artists do this, put ourselves on the line for the advancement of our community:
If you don't understand us and understand what we've been through, then you probably wouldn't understand what this moment is about. This is home. This is where we from. This is where we belong. And if it ain't for the better of the people...nah. ‘Cause you robbing and stealing from the people that been there for so many years, not just come and destroy, knocking our neighborhoods down. You know, when it come there, you invisible. You know, you don't even have a number in the system. Nobody cares about you. Everything is about dollars and cents, you know, even when you're talking the Government, you know, even when you're talking about the preachers and the people that's running the community. And we have to show them the evolution of where we come from. I'm about to send a message to the world, like...
We’re not going anywhere.
Taylor Steele is a Bronx-born, Brooklyn-based writer and performer. Her work can be found in such esteemed publications as Apogee Journal, HEArt Journal, Rogue Agent, Blackberry Magazine, and many others. Her chapbook Dirty.Mouth.Kiss will be available Fall 2016 on Pizza Pi Press. Taylor is a content writer for The Body is Not an Apology, Drunken Boat Journal, and Philadelphia Printworks. She is an internationally ranked spoken word artist, but, more importantly, she is a triple-Taurus. If you'd like to support Taylor's writing please consider making a donation via cash.me/$Steelewriter.