The Revolutionary Power of Pies in Queen Sugar

Season 3 has offered a compelling portrait of a middle-aged, African American woman chasing her dreams of entrepreneurship. The result is the kind of story that exists nowhere else on TV.

Hollywood and Violet in Queen Sugar (OWN)

“I’m almost 60 years old,” Violet Bordelon tells her much younger beau, Hollywood, in a pivotal episode of OWN’s Queen Sugar. “And I will not be sidelined, sidetracked, or sidestepped, or put in a damn corner and told to wait my turn, not another day. It’s my time.” Violet (played by Tina Lifford) makes this bold declaration—all because of pies. Namely because of her own brand of “Vi’s Prized Pies,” which a white grocery-store owner named Jarrett Rawlings agreed to display prominently in his market. Instead, Violet and her family visit the store only to find her products stacked in a corner. An emotional Violet begins swapping her baked goods with the Ding Dongs and Suzy Q’s on the center table as her relatives assist. They understand why the placement of the pies matters so much to their Aunt Vi: The woman who has spent most of her life caring for them is finally allowing herself to dream big, even though dreaming can be a daunting and vulnerable act.

It is this key scene from early in Queen Sugar’s third season that sets up the Vi’s Prized Pies storyline, in which Violet pursues her ambition of turning her baking prowess into a business. Yet her arc isn’t just about flaky crusts and sweet fillings. Queen Sugar, which debuted in 2016, is known for a lot of things: for being the first major TV project from Ava DuVernay, for the fact that every episode is directed by a woman, for featuring an all-black main cast. It’s also drawn praise for the way it uses everyday culture to tackle salient social issues, including anti-black violence and the rise of the carceral state. In the show’s phenomenal Season 3, which ends Wednesday, Queen Sugar’s writers use the pies to smartly explore the dangers of the trope of black exceptionalism, to critique the exploitation of black women’s labor, and to argue that communities win when black women are given space to dream.

Violet’s journey to self-discovery through entrepreneurship has unfolded over a 12-episode arc so far this year. Kernels of this storyline were introduced late in Season 2, when Rawlings tracked Violet down after tasting one of her pies and offered her a sizable advance to sell her product exclusively in his stores. Flash ahead to Season 3, and Violet’s business has become the lens through which viewers see the character’s evolution from the matriarch of a Louisiana farming family (which has been locked in an intense battle with the prominent white families who’ve controlled the sugarcane industry for decades) to a businesswoman making choices that will define her own legacy.

Through the pie plotline, Violet becomes a stand-in for a generation of women who were rarely allowed to envision building careers for themselves. Violet was raised to believe that she should derive all of her happiness from being a wife and mother. For years, she was the dutiful companion to an abusive husband and caregiver to her nieces and nephew and their children. But now, on the verge of 60, she realizes she has lived her entire life in survival mode. “Surviving and dreaming [are] two separate things, baby,” Violet tells her niece, Nova, midway through Season 3. “I realized, I never dreamed big enough. Didn’t give myself permission. Well, this [pie business] is my legacy now.” Having a middle-aged black woman utter these words on-screen—even in a moment where black-centered television is having something of a renaissance—is revolutionary.

It is uncommon, in a sea of shows seemingly obsessed with young professional women, to have a program that takes seriously the life issues of an older black woman, particularly one who gets a chance at a second act. Violet dares to dream in spite of (and perhaps because of) her recent lupus diagnosis, invigorated also by her love for Hollywood. In that regard, she is unlike any character on television today, even though her story is that of countless black women. “I’ve waited my whole life for this,” Violet says at one point in Season 3. And by this, she’s not just referring to the business itself. She is also communicating that she has waited decades to be able to acknowledge and name that ache, that desire for more. It is only once Violet feels seen as a culinary artisan that she is able to unlock a part of herself that she has suppressed for so long.

The writers articulate this tension in part by laying out the stakes of Violet’s ambitions. Queen Sugar is brilliant at placing its central characters in relatable situations that test their resolve and tap into their innermost pleasures, giving them depth and dimensionality. In Violet’s case, viewers watch her grapple with what it means to go into a business partnership with a white man, after a lifetime of seeing wealthy whites exploit black farmers. Because of the tenuousness of race relations in Louisiana—an overarching theme that the show has explored for three seasons—the viewer is never quite sure if Rawlings can be trusted with Violet’s vision. In Season 3’s sixth episode, Rawlings presents his plan for Violet (a woman he likens to his mother, despite the fact that he’s not much younger than her): He wants to have her pies, packaged in boxes bearing her face, in the frozen-food section of stores across the country.

Violet shakes hands with Jarrett Rawlings. (OWN)

The deep racial and gendered implications of Rawlings’s words rise to the surface in one loaded sentence. “You’re not talkin’ ’bout putting my face on pancake boxes like Aunt Jemima, are you?” Violet asks, with enough seriousness to match the sarcasm in her voice. A prominent 19th-century minstrel-show figure, Aunt Jemima was the fictitious mammy of the kitchen, who, according to myth, loved serving soul food to white families. The name and likeness was used by the Aunt Jemima line of pancakes (and later syrup), whose executives, in 1890, hired the former bondwoman, skilled cook, and activist Nancy Green to be the brand’s first “face.” Though it’s been modified, the Aunt Jemima image of the grinning servant on a box persists today.

For Violet, Rawlings’s plan sounds like that of a rich white man who wants to keep her in the kitchen in an apron and a head scarf while he gets even wealthier off her pies. It’s a concern made all the more real when Rawlings presents Violet with a contract that would give him 60 percent of the business and its profits. She tells Hollywood in Episode 7: “I do not want to spend the rest of my life in somebody’s kitchen, pumping out pies like a well-paid mammy.” Violet’s concerns about being propped up as an exceptional “face” in service of someone else’s goals is one that many of the show’s core viewers can likely relate to.

Violet’s Aunt Jemima comment raises another, less obvious social issue: segregation in the grocery aisle. In a country where Sara Lee and Marie Callender’s dominate the freezer section, Rawlings tacitly implies that Violet’s identity is a selling point. The viewer can surmise that Rawlings’s investors are excited about Vi’s Prized Pies in part because they consider a middle-aged, black woman pie-maker a novel idea, one that’d have commercial appeal in a cultural climate where white Americans are searching for the so-called “hidden figures” of every industry. In real life, although black women have been baking for centuries, they’ve not had much national crossover success in the grocery world. The legendary soul singer and cookbook author Patti LaBelle has been known as a comfort-food maven for decades, but it wasn’t until 2015 that she teamed up with Walmart to launch an affordable line of pies, cakes, and cobblers (and it took a viral video to help find a buying public).

Violet and Hollywood celebrate. (OWN)

The next four episodes of Queen Sugar’s third season argue for the importance of community, as the pie storyline makes another crucial pivot. Violet shares with Hollywood, in Episode 7, that her goal is to open her own brick-and-mortar pie shop, which would be a base of operations, but also a place where locals could gather. The store would give her the freedom to step outside the kitchen and to interact with customers, like she did during the many years she worked at a local black-owned diner. Violet doesn’t completely abandon the frozen-pies option, but she first wants to test the market, placing the products in regional grocery stores. In Episode 9, Rawlings accepts her reconceptualized business plan.

Violet mentions that her business model is inspired by that of a real-life, southern-born, black woman: Sylvia Woods, the soul-food chef whose Harlem restaurant, Sylvia’s, remains an important cultural center in New York City. Woods eventually expanded to create a product line of food goods and spices now sold in grocery stores nationwide. The show’s nod to Woods reaffirms a central theme of Queen Sugar: black economic independence. It’s a principle that has rooted the struggle for black freedom for centuries. That Violet’s entrepreneurial dreams are what the historian Robin D.G. Kelley terms “freedom dreams”—the kind bold enough to imagine collective black liberation that breaks the shackles of white supremacy and economic disenfranchisement—is even more significant. Rejecting the idea of exceptionalism, where one is lifted above all the rest, Violet’s vision clearly enunciates that the broader path to freedom can only be achieved in the context of a community. She shares in Episode 11 of Season 3, “Your Passages Have Been Paid,” that she intends to use Vi’s Prized Pies to train and empower a younger generation of black women hoping to run their own businesses.

In that same episode, viewers are finally able to see the lovely array of pies—Violet’s freedom dreams in delicious, edible form—that up until now have only been in boxes. A local television reporter comes to interview the Vi’s Prized Pies team, and the camera quickly flashes to lemon-chess pies covered in a light dusting of powdered sugar, a mixed-berry pie with a perfect lattice-top crust, and an apple pie decorated with freshly cut peonies and baby’s breath. When I interviewed Lifford recently, she told me that what Violet does with nine-inch pans isn’t simply about comfort food or the cooking skills that are supposedly inherent in black women: “Aunt Vi is an artist, the pies are her canvas. She is a genius, where food is concerned.” Genius—a superlative rarely used to describe black women. Yet Violet is not unlike a host of brilliant black woman chefs who shaped American culinary practices, some whose skills were never known beyond their families, and some more prominent ones whose names, like Nancy Green’s, have been all but lost to history.

In the season finale, which airs Wednesday, this phase of the Vi’s Prized Pies storyline take a powerful turn as Violet’s entrepreneurial aspirations merge with the other parts of her character’s arc in an unexpected way. For so many viewers, this season of Queen Sugar’s greatest gift is how it builds even further on its black-centered storytelling, drawing on age-old food traditions to show what’s possible when women like Violet are allowed to dream.