When Harlem first aired in December 2021, Camille — the show’s protagonist, played by Meagan Good — reckoned with the changes to the once predominantly Black neighborhood. “The number of actual dateable men is bleak,” she lectured both to her television audience and a room of fictional students at Columbia University. Her opening presentation to the class during the show’s pilot featured the Mosuo women of China, who rule their community and have full liberty to go in and out of marriages as they please. “We are not Mosuo,” Camille told the class. “But… what if we were?”
The second season of Harlem appears to answer its own question. Throughout the eight-episode series, the foursome from NYU — Camille (Meagan Good), the “autonomy first” professor; Tye (Jerrie Johnson), the ambitious techy who is emotionally unavailable; Angie (Shoniqua Shandai), the free-spirited artist who pushes boundaries for better or worse; and Quinn (Grace Byers), the bourgeois member of the group who often supports her friends at her own expense — wrestle with their individual demons to forge a path toward their deepest desires. The show, which streams on Prime Video, accurately translates the inner workings of Black women’s qualms, joys, and realities. From the struggle of being both authentic and taken seriously in one’s professional career, to spending over $4,000 on dildos for the latest sexcapade (not so realistic), Harlem is the sanctuary that Black women and teens needed in the 2000s as they binged reruns of Sex and the City.
“Some of the themes incorporated in Season Two were things that me and the women in the room were going through,” the show’s creator, Tracy Oliver, tells Rolling Stone. “Your thirties, for me at least, were about reconciling what you thought you were going to have. I had hope that things were going to come together in this neat bow for me and they didn’t.”
One of the knots to unravel was fertility, and the many approaches to motherhood that fall outside of traditional modes of conception.
“I love that we explore and talk about it,” says star Meagan Good, who directed the season’s second episode. “I’ve always been very open about freezing my eggs and Tracy was like, ‘Do you mind if we talk about this?’ and I was like, ‘No, people need to know and feel confident to say, I’m using wisdom and I’m planning for my future.’”
After living and listening to Black women’s experiences, paired with mainstream television’s inaccurate and non-diverse representation of our culture’s coming-of-age stories, Harlem’s creation started as a personal testimony that has now given viewers countless reality checks, balanced by hope, to evaluate their own lives. The show was written years ago, before Oliver pitched her script for the film Girls Trip to Universal, which recently announced a sequel tha twill see the Flossy Posse catch a flight to West Africa
“Harlem was a passion project,” recalls Oliver. “I just wrote my version of Sex and the City and the friendships I wished to see on air. But at that time, people didn’t think Black women were mainstream in that way.” Oliver’s Girls Trip grossing over $140 million worldwide allowed Harlem to take center stage.
At a time when YouTubers and TikTokers advise young women to increase our feminine energy to be more desirable to men, Harlem comes prepared with narratives tackling the complexities and beauties of Black womanhood, love and hard lessons, while challenging viewers’ perceived biases. What would it look like for Black women to date and/or sexually engage with bisexual men? In what ways are we unintentionally toxic in our relationships and friendships, monopolizing (or even avoiding) conversations to center our problems while ignoring our loved ones’ battles? How do we mend fractured relationships that are broken because we followed our hearts instead of reason?
Like many women who were taught that marriage by 30 was the goal, Oliver wrote Season One of the series from the concerns of her 20-something self. Would she find love or not? After all, a year prior to Harlem’s initial release, data showed that despite the United States’ overall decline in marriage since the ’60s, Black women were the least likely to marry of any demographic in the country at 19.8%. Scholars like Dianne Stewart, professor and author of Black Women, Black Love: America’s War on African American Marriage, have called this phenomenon a civil rights issue “due to slavery and its afterlife, including mass incarceration,” which has caused a disruption within Black marriages and families.
Yet Oliver’s personal growth is what continuously informs her characters’ development. Harlem presents the facts but also presents a vision of Black women who not only see themselves, but who they can become in love, friendship, you name it. They desire, and are desired. Queer visibility is highlighted and presented in different ways. A longing (or the lack thereof) for motherhood informs love interests, not the other way around. Harlem, a city known for its Black excellence, shows glimpses of a future that’s already here, even if it’s packaged in ways we least expected — the type of representation that family psychologist Anthony L. Chambers says are micro-individualized solutions to a macro problem.
“This show has a sense of activism,” explains Shoniqua Shandai, whose role as Angie is groundbreaking both visually and comically. “Seeing a vivacious woman who has been a trope in supporting roles in so many other stories now being allowed to have a complete human form is so powerful.”
While breaking boundaries, Harlem is a breath of fresh air in that the love it centers is not confined to just marriage — it extends to friends, family and self, while still affirming that marriage and true love can find its way through growth, authenticity, and honesty.
Though the show is narrated by Good’s Camille, each character represents a different layer of Black women’s lives. Tye, a queer Black woman, owns a Black dating app in order to make Black love accessible, but her own inaccessibility to love stems from a refusal to be vulnerable, a feeling that’s challenged when she enters into an interracial relationship with another woman. Or Quinn, who was hard to parse in Season One due to her perceived privilege, proximity to money and bubbly personality, blinding viewers to her internal struggles.
“Quinn took chances in Season One but she’s taking risks in Season Two!” offers Grace Byers excitedly. “It aids her growth because you’re not able to see where you can go and who you might be until you take that risk.”
When I speak to Jerrie Johnson moments later, she informs me that Tye is navigating similar themes, albeit from a different direction. “In Season Two, Tye is like, ‘OK, everything that I built has come into question and might be at risk. I have to look at a true reflection of myself,” she says.
And yet, it’s their ability to reflect and choose something different that grants them the ultimate freedom, and the show’s young Black women viewers more options for fictional role models outside of Carrie Bradshaw. We may not be the Mosou women but we are Black women, and whether it’s loving who we want or navigating a gentrified city that never sleeps, Black women are redefining their own American dream — with a partner or a group of girlfriends who brunch and help you pick out sex toys.
“Camille is trying to be as true to herself as possible and trying to be a good person as best as she can, but she has moments where she fails miserably,” says Good. “I love that because it’s honest and what we’re all doing.”