Queen Sugar and the Complexity of Desire in the Face of Black Survival
In the 12th episode of the new and acclaimed series Queen Sugar, Nova’s love life takes an interesting turn as she is garnering more attention and notoriety for her activism work in ending antiblackness, abolitionism and freeing Too Sweet (a character loosely based on Kalief Browder). Nova, played by Rutina Wesley, started the season off dating a married white cop named Calvin who’s very obviously not understanding of how the antiblack violence of the prison industrial complex and of the history of policing of black bodies operate.
Calvin’s “good intentions,” aligned with his supposed love and respect for Nova, complicate their relationship. His whiteness, allegiance to his job as an officer and his affair with Nova play out like a colonialism porn plot. From what can be assumed, the producers of the show try to elicit from the audience that this storyline complicates who we humanize on different sides of justice. But the part that they miss is that yes, all white people are racist, and yes, all police officers are a part of the antiblack violence we’re fighting against. So no, a black queer woman loving and fucking a white man isn’t revolutionary nor does it actually shift the realities of how antiblack violence operates within white people.
Calvin’s very white, pro-cop, pro-white supremacist system character being with Nova, the very pro-Black, healer, spiritual, queer feminist is seemingly strategic. It’s a way to draw us into their differences and achieve an invisible bridge between their lived experiences and different perspectives, especially in dealing with the racist realities for black bodies living in the South. But involving them sexually and romantically actually blurs the lines on a hypothetical and literal level for how to address black liberation and our own survival of desire.
Desire has always altered our humanization of others. Watching Nova navigate this very difficult relationship only reminds us as Black women and femmes that our love and sexual relationship with non-Black people can shift our ability to see their individual violence against us while also shifting their willingness to dedicate labor to our freedom and survival. Another example of this was Ernestine in Underground using her body and desire access to coax the headmaster to protect her family on the plantation.
Over the season, Nova and Calvin eventually break up, due to the fact that their politics and lived experiences do not align, but primarily due to the lack of availability and trust that exists while Calvin still maintains his life with his wife. In this specific episode, Nova is interviewed by Melissa Harris-Perry about her work around abolitionism and freeing Too Sweet from the New Orleans prison system for crimes he did not commit. She is surprised by Calvin being in the audience, as they haven’t talked in weeks.
It’s obvious she is excited to see him, and it shifts her answers in the interview to a more lenient perspective of “Not All Cops.” In this moment, Nova reveals that she believes individual cops to be human, to be people that are worth the idea of justice in a system designed to kill black people. And, seemingly, that idea is based in her desire and love for one individual white cop who has also proven he does not get it.
Subsequent to Nova’s interview, Calvin calls her to profess his love for her. He also mentions that he has left his wife and has had Too Sweet’s charges dropped by calling in a favor to the District Attorney. Nova is immediately weighed with joy and confusion before the episode closes out. This culminating moment at the end of the episode positions how much desire can shift access to justice, even without shifting Calvin’s mindset around antiblack violence. Calvin chooses to call in a favor to make sure Too Sweet is able to live his life outside of the system for charges he never committed for the sake of proving to Nova that he loves her and believes in her. But would he have cared if she wasn’t fucking or love him? Would he have cared if he didn’t leave his wife? Would he have chosen to seek justice for black people without motivation or reward for himself?
White people are dangerous, especially when they love us. And witnessing Calvin utilize his desire and love for Nova to channel that into justice for Too Sweet after all the violence and pushback both Too Sweet and Nova received in seeking asylum in a system designed to kill both of them is disturbing. But more important, it’s imperative that we look at Queen Sugar and individual instances of desire/love that require black women and femmes to cope with the complexity of desire and how it affects our liberation, and if the ability for non-black people to humanize and love us fully exists.