The Black Ton: From Bridgerton to Love & Hip-Hop

Adoja Andoh as Lady Danbury and Regé-Jean Page as Simon, Duke of Hastings in Shonda Rhimes’ “Bridgerton” for Netflix

As is often the case when Black women are dominating a conversation about television, Shonda Rhimes is at the center. I have previously credited Rhimes for single-handedly rewriting race, casting, and wish fufillment in network television. There is one thing you are always going to get from a Shondaland production and it is a Black woman love interest who does not discriminate.

Shonda stands ready to transform Netflix prestige programming with her new partnership. She staked out her claim this week with Bridgerton, a soapy, luxurious send up of Julia Quinn’s wildly popular regency romance novels. A lot of the Black women in my life have been anticipating this series. A few weeks ago, best-selling contemporary romance author Jasmine Guillory was on Hear to Slay. We asked her what she was most excited about in the new year and she had one, breathless word: Bridgerton.

She is not alone. The series taps into the market for romance and escapism at a time when we desperately need both. Genre always does really well during dystopian times and well *waves hand*. When all hell is breaking loose, without an end in sight, a structured story with clear rules can assuage our collective anxiety:

[Historical fiction] could continue to flourish through troubled times, some commentators think, because it can help to anchor anxious readers with its strong sense of place and often quite traditional storytelling structure. “I think there could be more appetite for more classical storytelling and an emphasis on story and building other worlds, particularly past worlds,” says Emma Paterson, literary agent at Aitken Alexander. “There is a comfort in a beginning, middle and end.” (“The books that could flourish in this pandemic era”, Heloise Wood, BBC)

In this sense, Black women are like the general consumer. But, historical fiction gets tricky when we race is considered in the storytelling. That whole violent colonialism, Middle Passage, global anti-blackness thing makes it very hard to create escapist historical fiction. That is a financial problem when you consider how much Black (American) women are willing to spend for popular culture that looks like them.

If anyone could thread that needle, it would be Shonda. She nails the aspects of historical fiction that make it work as escapism. Thrilling costumes. Lush settings. Brilliant casting. Expert lighting. And just enough realism to give a Black viewer permission to suspend disbelief. That bit is important. Early in the series, just when the constant sex and dizzying ball gowns are losing some novelty, Shonda explains why there are Black people in regency England. I will not spoil it, but the explanation works. It is surface enough that a viewer can project whatever they know about history into what is unsaid. It is substantive enough to keep a Black viewer in the story world without nagging questions pulling them out. And it is elastic enough not to present too many challenges for story contuinity. Shonda basically solves the race problem by individualizing it as a love story. That is part of her brilliance.

Another part of Shonda’s brilliance is that she understands, deeply, the culture of Black social classes. This is a woman from a Chicago suburb who went to Dartmouth. Someone unfamiliar with Black elites might attribute her class fluidity to the latter. A savvier reader would know that “Chicago suburb” is what really says it all.

Non-black people often struggle with the very idea of Black elites. Every couple of years, there is a memoir or a popular social science book that reintroduces the concept to the general public anew. And after every one, people forget the concept.

There are a few reasons for that. The biggest one, perhaps, is that racial segregation means many people — white people, in particular — form their entire notion of Black life on popular culture and news programming. The stereotype of Black underclass urban life maps so perfectly onto racist beliefs about Black people, that few white people ever bother to grasp the concept of different Black social classes. That is why such people often struggle when they relocate to places like Chicago, Atlanta and parts of New York. Their first encounters with Black elitism confuses them. They have been preparing for “The Wire” but its “A Different World” that will get you.

There is also a data problem, namely a very small N. The truly Black wealthy — I’m talking inherited can’t-snort-it-all-away-in-one-generation wealthy — is numerically very small. They also carry the burden of enslavement and dispossession in their own way. The Black elite, no matter how elite, do not look like the white elite. They do not have or control as much wealth. Their wealth vehicles — real estate, businesses, social ties — are not as resilient as the white wealthy (probably because they do not enjoy the same political favors). And, Black elite social networks and white elite social networks do not significantly overlap.

But, social class is not merely about economics. It is also about status. Nowhere is that more clearly illustrated than in the social world of Regency England. In Bridgerton, the creepy Lord Berbrooke is desperate to marry the main protagonist to secure his place in society. He has money. He does not have status.

Whereas the Black elite may not shine in pure economic power, they have thrived as makers of status.

And, like any elite status group, the Black ton cultivates loyalties and inspires aspirational fantasies. I would go so far as to say that everything from reality television shows like the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” to hip-hop capitalist fantasies are about latent desires for what the Black ton represents. In fact, television producer Mona Scott-Young may be Shonda’s aspirational Black ton equivalent. Scott-Young produces the wildly successful “Love & Hip Hop” reality series. It is a show that melds the desire of the Black ton with the aesthetics of hip-hop culture. Every sub-culture just uses the tools they have to make their own version of the same fantasy: A girl of good parentage eventually marries a Duke or a platinum rapper because the Ton requires it to reproduce itself.

That is why Black cult classics like “Love Jones” and “Love and Basketball” became classics. There is no surprise racist. That should be a Netflix filter: surprise racist. Lulling me into a sweet little nothing love story just to have Bull Connor, The Third of Birmingham New Jersey pop out at a stop light to stuff his hammy fist up a Black woman’s skirt while his partner executes a Black man at the corner store is violent as hell. Stop that.

If you want to read more about the Black elite, you can try:

  1. “The Original Black Elite” by Daniel Murray
  2. “Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class” by Lawrence Otis Graham
  3. “Negroland” by Margo Jefferson

Negroland, in particular, gets rave reviews from a lot of the readers that I trust.

If you want to nerd out and get more scholarly about it, you could do worse than to explore the #ShakeRace scholars:

You would also enjoy “Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class” by sociologist Mary Patillo and “Blue Chip Black” by sociologist Karyn Lacy. Both are classics in the field. The books, not Patillo and Lacy although probably them, too.

** If you want an idea of just what my friend and I get into when we talk about race and regency, you can see for yourself. The formidable Tricia A. Matthew is covering Bridgerton for the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Sociologist. Writer. Professor. MacArthur Fellow. Books, speaking, podcast: www.tressiemc.com

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