April Merleaux: The Subtlety of the Sugar Babies

merleaux_sugar_PBWe welcome to the blog a post by April Merleaux, author of Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness. In the weeks and months after the end of the Spanish-American War, Americans celebrated their nation’s triumph by eating sugar. Each of the nation’s new imperial possessions, from Puerto Rico to the Philippines, had the potential for vastly expanding sugar production. As victory parties and commemorations prominently featured candy and other sweets, Americans saw sugar as the reward for their global ambitions. Merleaux demonstrates that trade policies and consumer cultures are as crucial to understanding U.S. empire as military or diplomatic interventions. Connecting the history of sugar to its producers, consumers, and policy makers, Merleaux shows that the modern American sugar habit took shape in the shadow of a growing empire.

In today’s post, Merleaux reflects on Kara Walker’s art installation, A Subtlety, presented in Brooklyn during the summer of 2014, in the context of the history of race, sugar, and childhood. (Warning: contains graphic images.)

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Last summer, to celebrate finishing the manuscript of my book, Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness, I went to New York to see artist Kara Walker’s installation A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, in an old Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn. Walker is known for making bold art that calls on viewers to consider histories of racial violence in the United States, and A Subtlety did just that. Sugar, Walker points out, is historically tied to race in many and multiple ways.

With 160,000 pounds of sugar donated by the Domino company, Walker’s work attracted large crowds and a steady stream of media attention. Much of that attention focused on the giant mammy-sphinx with exposed genitals and the ridiculous selfies many people took with it, apparently oblivious to the narrative of racial and sexual violence to which it alluded. Lots of people who attended the exhibit behaved poorly, something which Walker secretly anticipated. Some activists organized to shift the racial dynamics in the room by inviting more people of color to attend (I was there on one such day). Others reacted not only to the racial politics among the viewers, but also to the apparent lack of engagement with very real issues of gentrification and labor in Brooklyn. The installation inspired teach-ins, rants, an endless stream of blog posts, and will no doubt be fodder for not a few dissertations.

When I was there in the Domino factory, A Subtlety made me cry. It was not the sphinx. It was not even the selfies.

It was the children. The children, scattered throughout the factory, were molded from brown, caramelized sugar. When I entered the factory, I saw one who had recently fallen over (presumably from the summer heat), its head broken off and lying on the floor in a pool of melted sugar. Others had fallen over, too, and the melting sugar made a corpse-like appearance. The sugar babies received less attention than the sugar mammy. But they were in some ways the real subtlety.

Kara Walker, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, photo by Derek Merleaux

Kara Walker, detail, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, photo by Derek Merleaux

The children—when intact—held baskets of sugar candy or bunches of bananas, all made of brown, glistening sugar. They smiled gruesomely. They seemed so sweet. But then they melted, collapsed, broke, crystallized, blanched, and soured. Their heads fell off. They literally lost bodily integrity. They began as souvenir curios, looking like something you might find on a benign old knick-knack shelf or someone’s front lawn; the warm days transformed them into misshapen gargoyles, reminders of the sweet innocence that never really was. I think Walker meant for the caramelized sugar to decay and shape shift, because this reenacted the violent history it represented. And my reaction—pity for the sweet innocents, a desire to redeem racial violence through benevolence—also now seems part and parcel of Walker’s script.

The sugar babies encapsulated the brutality I describe in my book, which is about the politics of race, migration, sugar, child labor, and child consumers in the United States and its empire in the early 1900s. Much of the discussion of A Subtlety focused either on the present—discussion of contemporary politics of race and visuality—or explored the historical links between sugar, the slave trade, and the sexual violence of enslavement. Without denying the significance of these topics, I think there is something to be gained by considering the intervening histories of race and sugar.

As I explain in Sugar and Civilization, over the last century and a half mainstream U.S. popular culture producers have depicted African American and Afro-Caribbean children as edible—chocolates, molasses, brown sugar, or caramel candies. Vaudeville singers drew on the association between Black kids and sweets, as did makers of postcards, advertising cards, and magazine illustrations. National advertisers used these racial stereotypes in the 1910s and 1920s, when they were building new national mass markets for sugar and candy. Candy makers in Portland, Oregon, in 1923, for example, made and marketed a confection called “nigger’s toes.” Their advertisement pictured a gun-toting, cowboy hat–wearing minstrel character with giant brazil nut toes, dipped in chocolate. The candy invited consumers to perform an imaginative act of cannibalism. The brutality of Jim Crow segregation, racial exclusion, lynching, and poverty lurked just below the surface of candy makers’ seemingly innocent depictions of edible black bodies. At the same time that many African American children were migrating to cities and finding ways to eat mass-produced sweets, their desires became the object of advertisers’ whims.

African American artists and activists had also, though, recorded songs, written poems, and made art that rejected the whimsy that black children could be eaten. For example, African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Little Brown Baby” is about a molasses-covered child whose father jokingly invites the Boogey man to come and eat the child. His skin is brown from the sweet, sticky molasses, which seems to tempt the boogey of white desire. But the father stops teasing, instead demanding that the Boogey man leave his child alone. Dunbar insists that children may be sweet, but they are also innocent and deserving of protection. Such demands for bodily integrity—and for the right to childhood innocence—have been critical to African American politics throughout the twentieth century, as we see again now with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Kara Walker, <em>A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby</em>, photo by Derek Merleaux

Kara Walker, detail, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, photo by Derek Merleaux

I thought about Dunbar’s poem as I walked through A Subtlety. I thought about how Walker invited imaginative acts of cannibalism by crafting these children from sugar. But I also thought about how she used the sugar itself to protect the children from the risks inherent in sweetness. By making sure that they were too sour, too repulsive, too broken to be anyone’s delight, Walker ironically staked a claim for Black children’s sweet innocence. For me, the significance of Walker’s accomplishment fully emerges only by considering the histories of race, sugar, and childhood in the twentieth century.

April Merleaux is assistant professor of history at Florida International University. Her book Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness is now available. Follow her on Twitter @merleaux_april.