by Angelica Jade Bastién | via Vulture
I’ve long felt the American dream is a lie. It’s a romantic fiction about the possibility of upward mobility and hyper-individualism that has undone the lives of many. A lot of potent art has been created interrogating this mythology, from the blackhearted 1957 noir Sweet Smell of Success to Queen Sugar itself, pondering several questions through the distinct lens of the southern black experience. What does it mean for black people to reach toward the markers of success set forth by white America? How does the American dream grow more thorny when rendered from a black perspective?
“My Soul’s High Song” ruminates on the limits and splendor that comes with the American dream through a distinctly black point of view. Sometimes it takes the obvious approach, like when Violet and Hollywood discuss his restlessness over giving up his job in order to commit more fully to the relationship. Violet doesn’t mince words: “They got us thinking that we’re supposed to work until we’re dead […] That ain’t my American dream. Is that yours?” While each of the Bordelon siblings wrestle with the cost they accrue trying retain the money and stability they desire — from Ralph Angel’s precarious place in the world as an ex-convict to Nova’s annoyance at a new editor who finds her radicalism has the potential to scare off readers — it’s Charley whose story hits hardest. Through her storyline in this week’s episode, Queen Sugar explores how the demands of the American dream put undue pressure on black folks, and how that pressure leads to noxious respectability politics that argue success and safety are only possible through certain presentations and behavior.
Charley’s inability to rough it in St. Josephine has long drawn side-eyes and jokes. While she’s great with the business side of the operation, she doesn’t understand the toil that comes with getting her hands dirty on the field. This is evident when several acres of the sugarcane are affected by whitefly bugs that have the potential to ruin the crop. Charley insists on paying the $5,000 herself in order to have a plane spray treatment for the crops. However, she’s a bit out of her element when it comes to going through the field and cleaning them by hand. (At one point, two farmers joke about the bet they have as to whether Charley would be out in the field with the rest of them ruining her manicure or not.) After several tense situations with Ralph Angel, he becomes notably and somewhat understandably chilly toward Charley. “Don’t worry about it. Us field negroes can deal without you,” he remarks when Charley is notably distraught after hearing the field still needs tending by hand. This insult neatly encapsulates the void between Charley and her other siblings — a void of skin tone, status, upbringing, and money. The display of wealth that defined her life with Davis doesn’t really fit in at St. Josephine, which leads to a telling argument between her and Remy over lunch.
When Charley takes Remy to look at another property she’s considering for herself and Micah, Remy questions her desire to have a big home and live just down the street from the Landrys while trying to care for the community of St. Josephine. How can she care for a community she won’t even deign to live in? “What is so wrong with black success looking like white success?” Charley counters. “Why does white have to be the model for our aspirations?” Remy asks. These are intense, fraught conversations that black people have been having for generations. I see and understand both of their perspectives. Even though Charley decides to move into a space at the mill — completely eradicating what little work and personal life distinction she had — I don’t think it’s the last time these concerns will be raised. Does Charley really see herself in St. Josephine long term? Or is this just a vehicle to gain control in her life she lost due to her marriage to Davis? Everything about Charley stands out when she’s here. Her manicured aesthetic, her obviously expensive suits, and the way she carries herself are all reminders that this life is new to her.
Click HERE to read the rest of the recap, “My Soul’s High Song.”