For decades, the blueprint for a Black show has struck a similar chord: a stable, middle-class family in New York or Los Angeles.
Of course, sometimes the family consisted of a group of friends, as can be seen on “Girlfriends.” And other times the city was in the Midwest, as can be seen on “Family Matters” (Chicago) or “Martin” (Detroit).
Rarely did a mainstream show featuring black people take place in the South. And rarely did they portray struggles outside of middle-class existence.
However, a look at the recent television offerings points to something new. “P-Valley” on Starz, HBO Max’s “Rap Sh!t”, FX’s “Atlanta” and OWN’s “Queen Sugar”, the latter two of which both started their final seasons this month, are some of the hottest shows on TV .
Their characters are not doctors or lawyers – they are strippers, rappers, farmers or, simply put, con men. And the shows all take place in the South.
Telling Southern stories, however, is not new. In some ways, television is simply following the lead of other spaces in culture, said Aisha Durham, a professor of communications who studies black popular culture at the University of South Florida.
In music and film, the South has been nuanced and deliberately portrayed for decades, Durham said, referring to films like “Eve’s Bayou” and, more recently, “Moonlight” — both films in which the southern setting, Louisiana and Miami, respectively, play a major role. .
At the same time, new sounds and genres of music have emerged from the South, she explained, such as fall. And artists like Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion have incorporated Southern Black aesthetics into their fashion and music videos.
“You have new bodies, new people, new experiences and I think it invites us to look at the south differently,” Durham said. “I’d say TV is almost, especially when it comes to dramatic series, a little late.”
The South has been top of mind in other areas of our culture as well and has often received national attention – as seen in this year’s second round voting in Georgia.
For a long time, many people only thought of Southern stories in the context of the civil rights movement and segregation, Durham said. But the South is a bedrock of every aspect of American popular culture, she said. And now many are looking back at the region and thinking of the other stories that can still be told.
“We are now seeing some of the vibrancy and vibrancy that has always been a part of the South,” Durham said. “We know that in the South, it’s just that everyone is catching up.”
If there has been a shift, it has been a business one, argued Tracey Salisbury, a professor of ethnic studies at California State University, Bakersfield.
It’s not that perceptions of the South are changing or have changed, but that the industry has changed location, Salisbury said, making Atlanta a major center for entertainment rather than just New York or Los Angeles.
Tyler Perry, whose work is polarize to some, has established his production studio in Atlanta, and has long set its film and shows in the South. He also has a partnership with the Oprah Winfrey Network, which produces “Queen Sugar.”
There are also just more black creatives having a voice on television, Salisbury said, which allows for the telling of new and interesting stories.
“These stories were there and these stories have been pitched before. I just think there’s a significant talent base and a significant audience now… to push Hollywood to support these stories,” she said.
Still, Salisbury is hesitant to call the rebound a trend. She pointed to Quinta Brunsonthe creator of ABC’s hit show”Abbott Elementary‘, for example about an elementary school in Philadelphia. Before “Abbott Elementary,” Brunson was doing comedy skits on Instagram, eventually moving to BuzzFeed and YouTube, until she finally got a shot at a network show. Then she knocked it out of the park, win an Emmy for writing earlier this week.
“I think that’s still what black creatives have to do,” Salisbury said. “If you don’t knock it out of the park, you’ll have to start all over.”
In the past, black shows like “The Cosby Show” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” were made for mainstream consumption, Salisbury said. Bill Cosby at the time was considered “America’s father”, not the father of Black America.
The difference with these new shows is in the intent: they are made by black people, for black people. Uncle Clifford, the non-binary owner of the strip club in “P-Valley,” isn’t America’s uncle, Salisbury said, but his grandmother reminds her of her own.
If most Black shows in the past took place outside the South, then these new shows become a sort of coming home — back to the place where it all started, Salisbury said.
In other shows, these southern characters may have been used as a joke. For example, in the ‘Fresh Prince’ of the ’90s, Uncle Phil’s childhood on a farm in the Carolinas is seen as almost a primitive existence compared to life in Bel-Air. But in these shows, the South and its characters reject the stereotypes of the country bumpkins and embrace all aspects of the South.
Salisbury used “P-Valley”, which is set in the fictional town of Chucalissa, Mississippi, as an example. From the fashion aesthetic of the show and its marijuana-infused wings to the very specific MemphisSsippi accentsthe show is deeply rooted in the South — even taking some hits in Black Southern religious traditions, Salisbury said.
But it’s done with respect, she noted. That’s why it works.
“We don’t laugh at these people, we laugh at them,” she said.
New York City and Los Angeles are often presented on television as cosmopolitan, diverse spaces. However, the south is often seen as stuck in the past, Durham said, an already familiar space that lacks the diversity of other regions.
These shows reject those notions.
Durham used “Rap Sh!t” as an example. (HBO Max, who streams the show, and CNN share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.) The characters in the show live in and around Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, she said, sparking discussions about Caribbean and Haitian culture as well as African Americans as an ethnicity alongside other ethnic black people in the south.
“There are whole ways we have to rethink Blackness in the South,” Durham said.
Then there is the matter of class. In earlier television periods, the supposed class was always middle class. This newer series of shows shows something different, Durham said, highlighting more economically vulnerable people just trying to make it in the world.
These characters are portrayed with depth and sincerity – the strippers in ‘P-Valley’, for example, are not just aesthetic bodies in a trap music video. Paper Boi from “Atlanta” and Shawna from “Rap Sh!t” aren’t just rappers soundtracking the background. The public is instead invited inside.
“We’re actually invited to see what the experiences are of the people producing the culture,” Durham said. “We love the culture, but do we know these women and men? These shows give us a way to see that.”
These shows challenge existing perceptions of the south — allowing for a layered and complex narrative of the region, Durham said.
As these shows indicate: There are gay communities in the South. There is sex work; there is class struggle; there is diversity; there is joy. There are people, not simple caricatures, who are just trying to survive.