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“The South got something to say” and now we’re all watching

Two new series, "Queen Sugar" and "Atlanta," remind us that the black Southern experience cannot be painted with one brush.


In 1995 at the infamous Source Awards Andre 3000 declared, “The South got something to say."

Outkast had just stunned the tense crowd by winning the award for Best New Artist, and the New York audience couldn't contain their boos. This was a young Andre's attempt to deal with the intensity of the moment, but 21 years later it seems more like a call to arms.

In 2016, we live in a world where Southern hip-hop stars are too numerous to count. Rappers, particularly those from Atlanta and New Orleans, have shifted, shuffled, and remixed what we think we know about the genre and the South. And then, as if that isn’t enough, earlier this year Beyoncé dropped the stunningly beautiful visual album Lemonade, in which she took us backward and forward through a Victorian-esque plantation South we thought we knew.

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I’m a native Southerner. My people go back for generations in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. When I was younger, the South was an all right place to be from, but if you were black, smart and capable, you probably imagined yourself escaping far from it. I spent the first 25 years of my life living in Florida and Atlanta. It was a time in which the South began to gain some “positive” national appeal, but mainly for the ways in which it mimicked what people recognized as Northern urban cosmopolitanism and catered to black middle class transplants.

But this week television reminded us that there are people, black Southern people, whose stories should be told, who aren’t just black upper-middle transplants. Because the truth is, for all of the necessary talk about the Great Migrations (and I’m eagerly anticipating the Shonda Rhimes-produced, Dee Rees-directed television adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s novel on the subject, Warmth of Other Suns) many Black people remained in the South and continued to make lives for themselves.

Two new shows debuted the week that give us a glimpse into those lives: Atlanta on FX and Queen Sugar on OWN.

During their simultaneous premieres on Tuesday, I opted to watch and tweet about Atlanta in real time and catch Queen Sugar the next day. But watching my social media timelines fill with chatter about both shows formed a compelling pop culture counterpoint: I can’t think of a time in which we had two scripted television shows that beautifully depicted black Southern life in such a nuanced way. While both shows are set in the South, they tell different stories that remain rooted in black people’s long and complicated relationships with Southern land, memories, and progress.

Atlanta is the brainchild of actor/rapper Donald Glover/“Childish Gambino.” He’s a Stone Mountain, Georgia native who made his name in Hollywood largely playing roles that downplay dealing directly with race. But this show, Atlanta, is black. And it’s not just generically black, it is born at Grady Hospital, been there before the Olympics and Real Housewives black.

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In a brilliantly written jailhouse sequence, Atlanta, served us better commentary of the criminal justice system than the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. In this one scene Glover’s main character, the hapless “Earn,” is the portal through which viewers wrestle with issues of mental illness, poverty, transphobia, and masculinity. My favorite scene from that sequence is when Earn is talking to another man in custody and the man starts speaking with a thick Atlanta accent. Watchers are forgiven for not understanding a word he says as he explains how he got arrested. But in an interview with Rembert Browne for Vulture, Glover explains why that character’s brief, yet impactful, presence is necessary:

That character is an artifact. Culturally, we’re becoming very homogenized. That dude isn’t going to be around in seven years. You aren’t going to be able to find him. White people are moving into Bankhead, one of the historically blackest neighborhoods in Atlanta. It’s important that dude gets represented in this show.

Listen, I watch Love & Hip Hop Atlanta and Real Housewives of Atlanta, but this show this ain't that. Because of Glover’s insistence on an-all black writing staff and their familiarity with Atlanta, it gets the details right and none of the characters are quite the stereotypes they would be if left in the hands of uninformed writers.

Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay introduce "Queen Sugar" to Essence Fest audience

As balance, Queen Sugar is based on a novel by the same name by Natalie Baszile and follows three adult children grappling with the death of their patriarch and the 800-acre sugarcane farm he left them as their inheritance. With Queen Sugar, co-creators Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey create a view as to how young black people in the 21st century literally return to the land. It’s a return to not just the South, but the rural black South.

Oprah toasts Ava DuVernay after the screening of the director's new OWN series.

Popular culture periodically takes us back to the rural South. Films such as The Color Purple and Julie Dash’s high acclaimed Daughters of the Dust (which returns to theaters this fall) shed much needed light on these stories, but if Atlanta reveals the complicated and disjointed reality of living in the capital of “the New South” then Queen Sugar shines light on the land that has long been black families’ blessing and burden.

It’s hard to separate Queen Sugar from what we know about DuVernay and her commitment to empowering women behind the scenes. I don’t even know if that separation is necessary. We know that she’s working with a team of all women directors, the incomparable MeShell Ndegeocello scores the show, and longtime collaborator Morgan Rhodes is music supervisor. Those strong threads of femininity and thoughtful gender construction shine throughout the show. Its brightest moments are where 5-year-old boy Blue Bordelon is unashamedly playing with his Barbie doll and when Charley Bordelon-West struts out on to the basketball court in the middle of her husband’s game to confront him as rape allegations distract everyone in the arena.

These are lives and stories that have always been there. They’ve patiently waited for someone to tell their story. Although each show is a standalone piece of art worthy of its own consideration and critique, together they remind us that even the black Southern experience should not, and cannot, be painted with one brush.

Andre’s 1995 declaration continues to ring true. The South still speaks and Atlanta and Queen Sugar will make sure we hear what it has to say.

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