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‘The Gilded Age’ reminds us that the Black elite existed and thrived

The storyline of “The Gilded Age” begins less than 20 years after slavery was abolished in the US, and so the creative forces behind the historical series would have been well within their rights to feature a Black family struggling post Reconstruction. But, instead, there is the well-to-do Scott family, whose characterization is a breath of fresh air to many viewers, especially African Americans.

“It means a great deal to me to have Black folks tune in to ‘The Gilded Age’ and to feel represented,” Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the show’s historical consultant and one of its producers, told CNN. “We’re in a moment where we need to see dignity, where we need to reconcile with the violence and the trauma of segregation, of anti-Blackness, but also to see how these men and women who lived in the 19th century managed to live with that and still not be dehumanized by it.” The parallels between that long ago time period and the highly-charged conversations being had in the country at the moment about race are hard to ignore. The HBO series (HBO is owned by CNN’s parent company) takes place initially in New York City in 1882, with the struggle between the “old money” families and the newly rich who want entry into the elite society at its center.

One of the characters, Peggy Scott, played by Denée Benton, is a young Black woman who is an aspiring writer. Viewers soon learn she is the daughter of successful parents played by stage-winning actors Audra McDonald and John Douglas Thompson. Armstrong Dunbar said it makes sense to portray such a family in a show about wealth, especially given that the Black elite and middle class are often “not considered when we’re telling this kind of larger story about America and about Black America.”

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