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.
Meanwhile, Ralph Angel doesn’t just undermine Charley’s status. He steadfastly believes she doesn’t have a right to the land like he does. This is somewhat understandable, given the letter he discovered from his father that said the property was meant for just him and Blue. Charley still doesn’t know about the letter, but Ralph Angel opens up to Violet about it. She warns him against arguing for his legal control over the entire property, given that it could cause further strife within the family. Ralph Angel’s anger with Charley is heightened due to a remarkably harrowing scene earlier in the episode, in which Micah accidentally elbows Blue when he sneaks up on him. Blue stumbles to the floor crying and Ralph Angel’s first reaction is to harshly push Micah against the wall. Charley and Ralph Angel’s warring dynamic continues from there. When Charley says she expected Ralph Angel to be kinder to Micah given his arrest, it doesn’t land well. To Ralph Angel, the problem with Micah isn’t his harrowing arrest from the previous episode, but how Charley and Davis raised him. “Micah’s soft,” Ralph Angel says. Must all black men harden themselves to the world? Is there space in this country for black men to be tender?
Queen Sugar often ends by reaffirming the importance of familial bonds among the Bordelons. That’s why I wasn’t surprised that, just as tension reached a fever pitch between Charley and Ralph Angel, an outside threat in the form of a police officer reared its head. The officer knocks at their door accusing Ralph Angel of a parole violation since someone apparently heard shots fired on the property. Ralph Angel may resent Charley for her privilege, but it’s her aesthetic and stature that allows her to smooth talk the officer into dropping the parole violation inquiry. It’s heartwarming to see them reconnect, but there is something about the tenor of this episode that leaves me worried. This feels less like a gentle reaffirmation of the love the Bordelons need to survive than the calm before the storm. Won’t Charley’s decision to lie in order to protect Ralph Angel from his parole violation haunt her? Will Nova be able to stand by her principles as a journalist, considering her new editor’s interest in presenting a sunnier picture of New Orleans that she vehemently disagrees with? So much of what happens in “My Soul’s High Song” illuminates what is lost in the face of a particular brand of financial ambition. The only character to immediately hew toward the personal rather than the professional is Darla.
Darla has existed in a liminal place since the beginning of the series. As she got closer to Ralph Angel and reestablished her bond with Blue, I’ve grown anxious that these meaningful albeit tenuous connections wouldn’t last. With the crop affected and pressure mounting, Ralph Angel calls Darla while she’s at work pleading for her to come by. “I need you,” he intones. But dropping work to act as emotional support isn’t that easy. Her boss even forbids her from leaving. The moment Darla appears on the property as the farmers and Bordelons prepare to clean the crops by hand, my heart caught in my throat. I knew then that she would be fired. That’s exactly what happens when she tries to return to work. Darla’s actions may seem reckless, but to me they’re understandable. She’s trying to prove to Ralph Angel that she’s worthy of his love after years of addiction and mistakes. Of course she’d put her job on the line to do so. Knowing how Ralph Angel is when it comes to ideas of loyalty and sacrifice, I imagine he may have grown cold if Darla wasn’t able to come by when he beckoned. Or at least that’s what she thinks.
“My Soul’s High Song” ends on the plaintive image of Darla staring up at her boss with those moonbeam eyes trying to convince him she can make this job work. She begs, noting how it is important to her recovery. While he’s right that recovery is also about acknowledging actions have consequences, the way he fires her comes across as cruel. When he closed the glass door in her face, threatening to sic security on her if she didn’t leave, I worried about where Darla would go from here. Her sobriety has always felt a bit unstable. She looks and acts like a woman made of glass; one false move and she’d shatter in two. With this firing, cracks are starting to form. What would a potential relapse mean for her and those she loves?