- Black Women's Geographies and the Afterlives of the Sugar Plantation
Recent debates about the enduring material legacies of slavery and the confederacy in US media and popular culture have primarily focused on symbols emblazoned on state flags or monuments and buildings erected on city plazas and university campuses. Scholars and commentators have paid less attention, however, to two of the primary geographies of slavery's most significant "crimes against the flesh" (emphasis in original): the plantation and its coconspirator, the factory (Spillers 67). Across the US South, antebellum plantations have been revived as tourist attractions where visitors pay to gawk at the architectural grandeur of the "big house," or plantation mansion, and to be regaled with tales of the Old South and Civil War: some sites have even been converted into bed and breakfasts and event spaces, where guests can enjoy a pastoral respite or host lavish weddings that attempt to replicate the ill-gotten wealth of the southern aristocracy. In the northern US, the Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn, New York, once the largest in the world, is currently being redeveloped into modern offices and an "11-acre park and waterfront esplanade" (Schulz). The enslaved black people once forced to perform the backbreaking labor in the fields adjoining these antebellum plantation mansions, and who cultivated the sugar cane processed in Domino's refinery for national consumption, are often obscured or altogether erased from these gentrified landscapes and built environments. [End Page 741]
Beginning in the mid-to-late twentieth century, African American writers deployed the neo-slave narrative genre to counter the persistent flattening and erasure of black subjectivity within the history and popular memory of slavery. They invented characters and plots that humanized enslaved black people as multidimensional, sentient, and (quasi-)agential—imaginatively exploring their psychologies, sexual desires, spiritualities, moral failures, idiosyncrasies, and contradictions. More recently, several contemporary black women artists have taken up slavery's enduring material and geographic legacies by interrogating what I call the afterlife of the sugar plantation in fiction, visual art, and popular culture. Extending Saidiya Hartman's notion of the "afterlife of slavery" (Lose 6), the afterlife of the plantation encompasses the institutions, logics, and cultural practices that emerged in the wake of emancipation, yet were specifically tied to the physical spaces and biopolitical functions of the plantation as a mode of labor organization and large-scale commodity production for global markets. In this essay, I explore how these artists mine the geography of the plantation tour (that is, the big house, slave cabins, and sugar cane fields) and the industrial infrastructure of the factory as a material archive embedded in the landscape of the rural US South and the urban, industrial US North, respectively—reading, creating, and performing against its hegemonic grain.
Divided into two parts, each section of the essay juxtaposes a contemporary novel with a visual artwork or performance to analyze how these artists confront the political and libidinal economies of the sugar plantation in the present day. Part one, entitled "Plantation Pasts," examines Attica Locke's 2012 novel, The Cutting Season, alongside Kara Walker's 2014 installation, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, as critiques of the sugar plantation's ongoing economic viability through plantation tourism and modern agribusiness. By foregrounding a "logic of perishability" that insists on the plantation's dissolution and demise, Locke and Walker interrogate these sugar plantation afterlives to exhume, expose, and ultimately revise buried histories of racial dispossession and consumption in the US and global sugar industries. Part two, entitled "Plantation Futures," examines how Natalie Baszile's 2014 novel, Queen Sugar, its television adaptation created by Ava DuVernay, and several of Beyoncé's music videos—"Déjà Vu" (2006), "Formation" (2016), and the visual album Lemonade (2016)—"return" to Louisiana's sugar plantation geographies to confront the violent histories of slavery and Jim Crow and to reconcile African Americans' contentious relationship to land, agriculture, and contemporary southern identity in the post-Civil Rights era. What, this [End Page 742] section asks, is the good of (Queen Bey's) lemonade without (queen) sugar?
To navigate the intricate yet oft-obscured terrain of the intersections of race, gender, and...