From its all-female roster of directors to its richly saturated cinematography to its truthful, raw dialogue that will have you grabbing Kleenex after Kleenex, Queen Sugar has been one of the most wholly original television shows on the air since its debut in 2016.
So it makes perfect sense that embedded within all but one episode title of season two is an unofficial reading list. As the title flashes in before the episode’s start, it has been eye-catching to notice that each one is named after poems, novels and anthologies by black writers from the Harlem Renaissance era — in particular the poet Countee Cullen.
With director Ava DuVernay at the helm, Queen Sugar’s show execs have done a phenomenal job of paying homage to the past while lifting up contemporary artists of the present. On the cusp of the season two finale, here is a breakdown of how these poems, anthologies and novels relate to the themes of this roller coaster of a season.
Queen Sugar season two, episode one — After the Winter
Some day, when trees have shed their leaves
And against the morning’s white
The shivering birds beneath the eaves
Have sheltered for the night,
We’ll turn our faces southward, love,
Toward the summer isle
Where bamboos spire the shafted grove
And wide-mouthed orchids smile.
In the season two opener, the Bordelons are facing their own unique and formidable challenges. Nova (Rutina Wesley) is reeling from the aftermath of her breakup with married cop Calvin by taking multiple lovers. Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) is processing the news that their father left the land to him alone while reconciling his relationship with Darla (Bianca Lawson), the mother of his child. Charley (Dawn Lyen-Gardner) is still hurt divorcing her cheating baller husband, Davis (Timon Kyle Durrett). Their son, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe), has a terrifying encounter with a police officer on his 16th birthday. McKay’s poem about finding solace after suffering through a proverbial winter is especially fitting for this episode. Where will the Bordelons find solace after their personal winters?
Queen Sugar season two, episode two — To Usward
And let us be contained
By entities of Self. . . .
Not still with lethargy and sloth,
But quiet with the pushing of our growth.
Not self-contained with smug identity
But conscious of the strength in entity.
But let us break the seal of years
With pungent thrusts of song,
For there is joy in long-dried tears
For whetted passions of a throng!
To Usward definitely speaks to themes of the episode, as Micah processes his traumatic encounter with the police and Nova organizes a bail fund rally to raise money for people who can’t afford to bail themselves out. This episode represents the struggle that people of color often endure to retain humanity in the face of an unforgiving, institutionalized criminal justice system.
Queen Sugar season two, episode three — What Do I Care for Morning
What do I care for morning,
For the glare of the rising sun,
For a sparrow’s noisy prating,
For another day begun?
Give me the beauty of evening,
The cool consummation of night,
And the moon like a love-sick lady,
Listless and wan and white.
Johnson declaring her love of night over day is an extended metaphor representing her love of people of color in a mostly white society that explains, in covert and overt ways, that loving blackness is a sin. In this episode the themes are seen in Nova’s sparring and later bonding with love interest Dr. DuBois (Alimi Ballard) over how best to uplift African-Americans in the face of institutional racism, and again with Ralph Angel and Micah as they share their traumatic experiences with each other, and Ralph Angel comforts his nephew Micah. The scenes show how the black family chooses to love each other over and over again, even when they don’t always agree.
Queen Sugar season two, episode four — My Soul’s High Song
My Soul’s High Song, anthology of poems by Countee Cullen
An anthology of poetry and prose from one of the most prominent voices of the Harlem Renaissance.
As usual, Charley and Ralph Angel argue over their methods of tending to the farm, revealing the ever-present distance between the siblings, including privilege, wealth, access and skin tone. One of the recurring themes in Cullen’s work is the emotional fallout of America’s continuous unfair treatment of black citizens. It is fitting that this anthology serves as the title of this episode.
Queen Sugar season two, episode five — Caroling Dusk
Cullen’s purpose in creating this anthology was to highlight “lights and shades of difference” in poetry by black writers, as he wrote in the book’s introduction. The focal point of this episode presents Charley and Darla as a set of contrasts as they both try to rebuild their lives. Charley is strong-willed, determined, confident and outspoken, while Darla is more tentative and introspective. However, they have more in common than what seems to be on the surface, as Charley struggles with her grief for the dissolution of her marriage. Darla is much stronger than she seems, as she applies for jobs after getting fired and eventually becomes Charley’s personal assistant.
Queen Sugar season two, episode six — Line of Our Elders
Here’s the difference in our dying:
You go dawdling, we go flying.
Here’s a thought flung out to plague you:
Ours the pleasure if we’d liever
Burn completely with the fever
Than go ambling with the ague.
While the episode is titled Line of Our Elders, it is so similar to Cullen’s poem Lines to Our Elders that it must be another homage to this writer. Ralph Angel finally comes clean about who their farm truly belongs to. Charley nearly has a panic attack after a malfunction during the opening of her sugar processing mill. The grief she never expressed over her father’s death comes pouring out in front of the family and members of the press. Both Nova and Charley are hurt that Ralph Angel didn’t tell them about the land being left only to him and express their feelings about the fact that their father excluded them. That last couplet in Lines to Our Elders in particular relates because the episode shows the problems that occur when problems fester and individuals hold feelings within (go ambling with the ague) rather than face the truth head-on (burn completely with the fever).
Queen Sugar season two, episode seven — I Know My Soul
And if the sign may not be fully read,
If I can comprehend but not control,
I need not gloom my days with futile dread,
Because I see a part and not the whole.
Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted
By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.
This episode shows how the characters view themselves by their late father after hearing the amended will that leaves the land solely to Ralph Angel, after they believed the land was left to all three of them. Viewers experience a rift form between the Bordelon siblings as Charley begins to question what she’s doing and where she is going after learning about what she believes are Ernest’s (Glynn Turman) true feelings about her. None of these characters are in control.
Queen Sugar season two, episode eight — Freedom’s Plow
If the house is not yet finished,
Don’t be discouraged, builder!
If the fight is not yet won,
Don’t be weary, soldier!
BETTER DIE FREE,
THAN TO LIVE SLAVES.
This poem certainly echoes themes of episode eight. Nova and Dr. DuBois constantly debate throughout their relationship. Viewers finally discover what happened to Micah the night he was arrested in a heartbreaking scene played beautifully by Ashe. In the scene, Micah describes how the arresting officer put his gun in his mouth and threatened to kill him. The episode shows how these questions manifest themselves in everyday encounters and how they affect the most vulnerable among us.
Queen Sugar season two, episode nine — Yet Do I Marvel
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
In this episode, Charley finally learns what happened to Micah when he was arrested, and she blames herself for not preparing him enough for how harsh the world is for young black men and women. The episode introduces Charley’s mother, Lorna, who is white. Suddenly we gain a better understanding of Charley — why she grew up apart from Nova and Ralph Angel, the distance between the three siblings, and why Charley has struggled to determine where she truly belongs.
Queen Sugar season two, episode 10 — Drums at Dusk
It is fitting that Drums at Dusk — a novel that explores the connection between wealthy plantation owners, poor whites, free people of color and the slaves who staged the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere — is the title of this episode. We see these themes of land, money, blood and power in Charley’s ongoing conflict with the Landrys, who used to be the only family with power and land in the parish. And they are determined to take away what little of both the Bordelons have managed to attain. Charley is undermined by the Landrys in ways great and small, and it is a conflict that her mother, as much as she loves her, simply cannot understand because she has never experienced the racism and sexism Charley has come up against her entire life.
Queen Sugar season two, episode 11 — Fruit of the Flower
And yet my father’s eyes can boast
How full his life has been;
There haunts them yet the languid ghost
Of some still sacred sin.
Cullen’s poem about his ambivalence about the two sides of his heritage fits the theme of this episode, as this is when we learn about the true nature of the relationship between Charley’s mom, Lorna (played by Sharon Lawrence), and Nova and Ralph Angel’s mom and their father, Ernest.
Queen Sugar season two, episode 13 — Heritage
What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
Cullen’s poem asks important questions: “Who am I?” “How do I hold on to my humanity in the face of chaos?” And in this episode of Queen Sugar, each character asks these questions in some form or another. Darla’s parents return after a years-long estrangement; Remy and Charley ponder what next steps they should take in their budding romantic relationship; and by the end, Darla’s father encourages her to reveal a painful secret that has devastating consequences: Ralph Angel might not be Blue’s father.
Queen Sugar season two, episode 14 — On These I Stand
Charley and Nova face professional challenges, while Ralph Angel slowly unravels in the wake of the news about Blue possibly not being his son.
Queen Sugar season two, episode 15 — Copper Sun
Cullen’s third book of poetry, where he discusses love and race relations in more oblique terms, serves as the title of the penultimate episode of season two. Ralph Angel tells Charley, Nova, Aunt Vi and Hollywood about Blue, and the whole family feels the reverberations of Darla’s secret. And Darla, who has worked so hard to regain the Bordelons’ trust, appears to have lost it forever. Meanwhile, Micah faces suspension after he channels his Aunt Nova and protests the display of Confederate memorabilia at his posh private school. Each member of the Bordelon family faces the consequences of his actions — or inactions.