You’ve no doubt been on the giving or receiving end of a comment that borders on “hey, wait-a-minute” and “maybe I should just let that one go.” Me too; I’ve been on both sides that is, and each is equally awkward to the well intentioned. So, what is microaggression and what does it have to do with Queen Sugar? If you ever wanted to explore the anatomy of microaggressions and the social paradigms that feed them, then this is your book. It is the quintessential show me, with prosaic pictorials of each microaggression and an almost paint by numbers illustration of where the aggression began and why it sucks.
This book makes readers think about the momentum driving the not-so-obvious blather, stuff said off-the-cuff, comments that are seldom thought through, biases that compete with our better angels, and then obvious “disses.” Aggression can after all be latent or blatant; and author, Natalie Baszile, tackles intended and unintended racial microaggressions, and their gender, age, and class related counterparts with aplomb.
Plot and Setting: The Microaggression Incubator
Queen Sugar is set during the recession circa 2009, on a farm in the fictional town of St. Josephine Parish. What’s interesting is how, and under what circumstances, the author, Baszile, brings her protagonists together and the detail with which she validates their being there. Charley Boredelon lives in Los Angeles with her daughter, twelve year old Micah. Charley’s father, Ernest, dies after a battle with cancer. During his life, however, he benefitted from appreciating real-estate investments. Owning income property in California in the ‘80s placed him firmly in the middle class which meant Charley Bordelon grew up financially secure. In a surprise twist, Bordelon finds that her father flipped his earnings to purchase 800 acres of sugar cane farmland; it has now become her dubious inheritance. The property has fallen derelict at the hands of its caretaker, a guy living hand-to-mouth like so many of his contemporaries; it is the early millennium and the middle class is imploding. So, Baszile is basically showing her readers that the Bush policies were colorblind in decimating the ranks of middle and lower income wage earners. Bordelon’s economic status reflects this too. Desperate to prove herself, she leaves her L.A. bungalow and the financial safety net offered by L.A. socialite, Lorna, who is also her mother. Boredelon, with her daughter Micah in tow, heads to Louisiana in a fading Volvo. They’re welcomed by her sweet and saucy grandmother, Miss Honey. Things begin to get a little hot when Bordelon realizes the challenges she’ll face as a cane farmer and Californian whose customs are slightly incongruent with Louisiana’s southern social norms.
Bordelon has an imperative to get help, and fast, so that she can produce a viable crop of cane by the end of the season. The novel’s sections are titled by the month, beginning with June. Author, Baszile, ushers readers through the crucial months that lead to an October harvest with technical descriptions about everything from laying-by to tractor hydraulics; readers learn the industry’s tools and terminology along with Bordelon.
Veteran sugar cane farmer, Prosper Denton is the first to come to Bordelon’s aid, but only after a bit of coaxing and taking his time to test her tenacity. Denton’s stipulation for working with Bordelon is that she accept his recommendations without question; a tall order for an independent woman. Time finds Denton growing to respect Bordelon and her commitment. He is after all, close in age to her late father. Like him, Denton is highly motivated to make the farm a success. Bordelon’s success translates to justice for her late father, Prosper Denton, and all the other laborers that endured blatant aggression from white landowners.
Chapter four finds Bordelon experiencing aggressions too, both racial and gender, as the region’s covetous agri-business tries to orchestrate a land grab. They send Jacques Landry out to test Bordelon’s resolve.
“Landry was grilling her, wasn’t he? And she had missed all the cues.”
Landry is a generational throw-back full of slow venom and set on maintaining the South’s status quo. Quick to recognize this, Bordelon responds by showing Landry to the door.
“Landry was almost over the threshold when he turned back. ‘One more thing. You ever think of selling this place?’
‘It hadn’t crossed my mind.’
‘Well, if it does, give me a call.’
‘And why would I want to sell?’
‘Who knows?’ Landry pointed to the card she held. ‘I’m just throwing it out there. You seem like a sensible young woman. It’d be a shame to see you get in over your head.’”
When is a Microaggression, Not?
The simple answer is when it becomes intentional. Landry wastes no time escalating his aggression, when he appears again in chapter thirteen at a farm equipment auction. The auction sadly represents collateral damage; it’s a portrait of farmers who were unable to weather the recession, and Landry like a vulture is there to pick from the remains. Denton accompanies Bordelon in an effort to purchase desperately needed equipment. Landry engages Bordelon in a power play, one in which he tries to define her as incapable while he secretly works with a shill to block her bids.
“‘So, Miss Bordelon…’ Landry squinted out over the crowd. ‘You sure are a long way from Los Angeles. You do much surfing when you were young?’
‘Some,’ Charley managed. Her hands felt pasty. Sweat trickled down her back, into the waistband of her jeans.
‘Well, now.’ Landry squared his class ring on his finger and looked right at her. ‘A black surfer chick.’ His gaze slid down to her breast and then her crotch and he grinned. ‘I’m trying to picture that.’
Charley stood very still. She was hot and cold at the same time. She had wondered when this day would come, because you don’t move to a tiny Louisiana town, way out in the middle of nowhere. And expect life to be a stroll in the park; you couldn’t expect to be the only woman in an industry filled with men and not think someone would eventually say something stupid; you couldn’t ignore the long, dark, tortured history of Southern race relations, or pretend everything would be fixed overnight.”
Because Landry is so focused on Bordelon, he is easily outmaneuvered by Denton. Denton’s guile, which Bordelon mistakes for deference, ends up securing her some wins at the auction and countering the insult of Landry’s aggression.
When is a Microaggression Symptomatic?
The spoils of the auction introduce Bordelon to her new farm equipment and a new friend, Remy Newell. Over the course of the next few chapters, Newell, charms Bordelon with gifts; a sack of shrimp, words as smooth as cognac, and energy cane too. Baszile creates a character in Newell that readers love. But his presence in the narrative is more than just romantic, he is there to inform. Newell becomes an actor in showing how even the most well-intentioned can suffer from their own paradigms, and without thinking, microaggressions can simply pop out. Microaggressions, an accumulation of subtle but thoughtless gestures or comments have a deleterious effect over time. They proliferate stereotypes, stifle understanding, and because they create awkward and uncomfortable situations, are seldom corrected.
“Remy squeezed her hand. ‘I don’t know. You’re not like other black people; at least not the black people around here. It’s almost like you’re not black at all.’”
Literature, however, has the advantage of eloquently capturing what we often have difficulty wording in real-life situations. Baszile allows the limited omniscient voice to narrate almost a page of Bordelon synthesizing her feelings about Newell’s comment. She unpacks all that is wrong about it and then has Bordelon respond to Newell quite plainly.
“‘Here’s the thing.’ Charley took his hand. She pulled her shoulders back, strangely grateful for her mother’s constant reminders about good posture. The words came from some place deep within her but she didn’t raise her voice. ‘Every morning when I wake up and look in the mirror, I see a black face and I love it. Sure, I’ve been to Paris and grew up surfing, and yes, I speak like I’m in a commercial. But I’m just like the women you see walking on the side of the road with their laundry baskets and their Bibles. I’m just like the old men pedaling their rusty bicycles. I’m no different from the men who drive your tractors or the woman who probably raised you. I’m just like them, no better and no worse. I’m black, Remy, which means everything and nothing.’”
Shall We Overcome?
In a beautiful narrative anything is possible, and eventually Baszile places Newell in a scene that not only adds depth to his character, but redeems him. He serves the valid purpose of illustrating the everyday microaggressions of which we are all capable.
Since my reviews are more about finding a nugget for discussion versus protecting the plotline, I‘m free to say there is romance and a happy ending in Queen Sugar.
Still, the larger question of overcoming microaggression looms, and Baszile tries to address this in scenes woven throughout her novel. In fact, from the antiquated references Miss Honey uses, like “Chinaman,” to the verbal altercation Denton diffuses after Alison Delcambre infers blacks would rather stay home and collect welfare, we find microaggression is a symptom of thoughtlessness.
Full of thought, however, is the novel Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile who captures nuanced relationships between family, friends, and a farming community struggling to protect its rich legacy while giving agency to positive change.
I highly recommend Queen Sugar, and Miriam Hyman’s excellent audio performance of it. I read along in the hard bound version which was substantial at approximately 370 pages, but was necessary for me in order to savor Baszile’s rich word play and sumptuous descriptions. I am however, not the only one to savor this wonderful narrative; Oprah has too, and she’s brought some of the Queen Sugar characters to a new series on OWN. You can learn more about it here. Brava Natalie Baszile!