For decades, a black show chart hit similar notes – a stable, middle-class family based in New York or Los Angeles.
Of course, sometimes the family consisted of a group of friends, as seen in “Girlfriends”. At other times, the city was in the Midwest, as seen in Family Affairs (Chicago) or Martin (Detroit).
But there has rarely been a major show featuring blacks in the South. They rarely depicted struggles outside the existence of the middle class.
However, a look around the recent TV shows suggests something new. Considered “P-Valley” on Starz, Rap Sh! t on HBO Max, FX’s “Atlanta”, and OWN’s Queen Sugar, both of which began their final seasons this month, are some of the most sought-after shows on television.
Their characters aren’t doctors or lawyers – they’re strippers, rappers, farmers, or simply crooks. All performances take place in the south.
However, Southern storytelling is nothing new. Aisha Durham, a professor of communication who studies black popular culture at the University of South Florida, said that television, in some ways, simply tracks the progress of other spaces in culture.
Durham said that in music and films, the South has been portrayed for decades with subtle and intentional nuance, pointing to films like “Eve’s Bayou” and more recently, “Moonlight” — both films where the Southern Ocean, Louisiana and Miami respectively, play a crucial role.
At the same time, new sounds and musical genres emerged from the south, she explained, such as Trap. Artists like Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion have incorporated Southern Black aesthetics into their music and fashion videos.
“You have new bodies, new people, new experiences and I think it invites us to look at the South differently,” Durham said. “I would say TV is a bit late, especially in terms of dramas.”
The south has also been at the forefront of our interests in other areas of our culture, and often gets national attention – as we saw this year Replay tour in Georgia.
For a long time, Durham said, many people thought of Southern stories only in the context of the civil rights movement and apartheid. The South, she said, is the bedrock of every aspect of American popular culture. Now, many are looking at the area and considering other stories that could still be told.
“We are now seeing some of the vibrancy and vitality that has always been a part of the South,” Durham said. “We’ve learned that in the South, it’s just that everyone is catching up.”
If there’s a shift, it’s a business, said Tracy Salisbury, professor of ethnic studies at California State University, Bakersfield.
It’s not that perceptions of the South have shifted or changed — but the industry has changed local venues, Salisbury said, making Atlanta a major entertainment center rather than just New York or Los Angeles.
Tyler Perry, who works polarization for Some, set up their own production studio in Atlanta, has long set his film and shows in the South. He also has a partnership with the Oprah Winfrey Network, which produces Queen Sugar.
There are also simply more black creators with a voice in television, Salisbury said, allowing new and interesting stories to be told.
She said, “These stories have been there, these stories have been shown before, I just think now that there is a huge talent base and a huge audience … to push Hollywood to support these stories.”
However, Salisbury remains hesitant to call this rally a trend. pointed to Kenta Bronsoncreator of the hit ABC show “Abbott ElementaryAbout an elementary school in Philadelphia, for example. Before Abbott Elementary, Bronson created comic strips on Instagram, eventually moving to BuzzFeed and YouTube, until she finally got a shot at a network show. Then she kicked him out of the park, Winning an Emmy To write earlier this week.
“I think this is still something black creators have to do,” Salisbury said. “If you don’t get it out of the garden, you have to start over.”
In the past, Black shows like “The Cosby Show” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” were meant for mainstream consumption, Salisbury said. Bill Cosby, at the time, was considered “Dad AmericaNot the father of black America.
The difference with these new shows is in the intent: they’re made for black people, for black people. Salisbury said Uncle Clifford, the non-binary owner of the strip club in Bee Valley, is not America’s uncle, but his grandmother reminds her of herself.
Salisbury said that if most of Black’s shows in the past have been held outside the South, these new shows become a kind of welcome home — back to where it all began.
In other shows, these Southern characters may have been used as a joke. In the 1990s, Uncle Phil’s childhood on a ranch in Carolina was seen as almost primitive compared to life in Bel Air. But in these shows, the South and its characters reject fickle stereotypes and embrace all sides of the South.
Salisbury used “P-Valley” set in the fictional town of Chukalisa, Mississippi as an example. From the fashion aesthetics of the show and its marijuana-filled wings to the extreme Specific dialects MemphisSsippiThe series, said Salisbury, is deeply rooted in the South — and has even taken some hits in the religious traditions of the Black South.
But she indicated that this is done with respect. That’s why it works.
“We don’t laugh at these people, we laugh with them,” she said.
New York City and Los Angeles are often presented as cosmopolitan and diverse spaces on television. Durham said the South, though, is often seen as stuck in the past, a space already well known and lacking in the diversity of other regions.
These offers reject those concepts.
Durham used “Rap Sh!t” as an example. (HBO Max, which broadcasts the show, and parent company of CNN affiliate Warner Bros. Discovery.) The characters on the show live in and around the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, she said, allowing for discussions about Caribbean, Haitian, and African culture. Americans as a race alongside other black race in the South.
“There are whole ways in which we have to reimagine blackness in the South,” Durham said.
Then there is the issue of separation. In early periods of television, the supposed class was always mediocre. Durham said this new crop of shows showcases something different, highlighting the most economically vulnerable people simply trying to make it into the world.
These characters are portrayed with depth and sincerity—the traffickers in “P-Valley,” for example, aren’t just aesthetic objects in a trap music video. Paper Boi from “Atlanta” and Shawna from “Rap Sh!t” aren’t just rappers tracking in background music. Instead, the masses are invited inside.
“We are really invited to find out what are the experiences of the people who produce the culture,” Durham said. “We love culture but do we know these women and men? These shows give us a way to see that.”
Durham said these performances challenge current perceptions of the South – allowing for the formation of a multi-layered and complex narrative of the region.
As these shows indicate: There are queer communities in the South. There is sex work. There is class struggle, there is diversity, there is joy. There are people, who are not simple cartoons, who are just trying to survive.