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  • "White and Deadly":Sugar, Slavery, and The Sweet Taste of Freedom
  • Elisabeth R. Anker (bio)

Introduction: Sugar and the Archives of Freedom

How might liberal notions of universal freedom and individual personhood enable and depend upon land theft, forced labor, resource extraction, and hierarchical systems of racism and civilization? I will suggest that sugar offers an answer to this question. Sugar might seem simple or irrelevant: it is a delicious treat, available anytime, that satisfies the tastes of peoples across the world. It is a source of immediate pleasure, delightful to children and adults alike. Yet this history and production of sugar also reveals a theory of freedom. If theories of modern freedom are often told through a story of the progressive history of a universal political ideal, what would it mean to reread that story through the history of sugar, which is tied to centuries of brutality, dispossession, and racism? Sugar, I argue, makes palpable, and palatable, the interconnections between individual personhood, rule of law, and private property with settler colonialism, enslavement, resource extraction, and corporate consolidation. Sugar offers a both a theory of freedom and a gustatory archive of freedom's violent practices.

Lisa Lowe's work expands what counts as an archive of freedom, and opens the possibility of connecting sugar and freedom.1 Lowe develops a story of liberalism and the modern freedom it constructs—which includes liberty as individual self-possession and rationality, emancipation as release from state tyranny, and economic freedom as free labor and free trade—into a material, aesthetic and global history.2 The story of liberal modernity is global on Lowe's telling, not Euro-American, and encompasses at once European wealth and practices of self-rule with African slavery, North and South American dispossession, and Asian labor and imperial governance, what she calls "the intimacies of four continents." For Lowe, certain tactile and aesthetic objects can offer a more encompassing history of liberal freedom than standard readings of political theoretical texts or European archives because their very material incorporates the peoples, labor, and resources from across the globe. Lowe's method thus expands how scholars can come to perceive histories and theories of freedom—by [End Page 169] studying material objects and sensations that hold together a transcontinental story. In this global yet intimate history, one developed from various objects, literatures, and state archives, as well as Africana, anticolonial, feminist, and subaltern studies, legal emancipation does not necessarily grant freedom, universal personhood only acknowledges a small segment of the world population as universal, and practices of liberal freedom can legitimate Indigenous dispossession and racialized enslavement. This transcontinental history of liberalism and freedom is known but "unthought" in popular US political discourses; it is familiar yet strange, and globally interconnected.

One such material and aesthetic object that reveals this global intimacy, for Lowe, is Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons' multimedia artwork "Sugar/Bittersweet."3 "Sugar/Bittersweet" examines the history of the sugar industry in Cuba. It symbolizes a sugar cane field using African spears as cane, referring both to the geographical origins of sugarcane laborers and to the violence enacted on them by enslaving settlers. Chinese weights symbolize the measuring of harvest, signifying the indentured laborers brought to Cuba from Asia after emancipation to mediate between freed blacks and white landowners. Chinese and African wooden stools center the cane, and refer to the transcontinental intermixing of peoples in the cane fields. Raw sugar confections of varying levels of refinement are stacked and pierced by the spears, symbolizing the inseparability of sweetness and violence as well as the global upheavals that enabled sugar cane production to dominate Cuba. "Sugar/Bittersweet" amalgamates the racial hierarchies of colonial plantation labor with intercontinental trade routes and the pleasurable confections that have generated so much European and later American wealth; as Alejandro de la Fuente's curatorial notes to the artwork describe, "they perform a fractured, sweaty Cuba built on lashes, blood, sexual violence, and the unbearable stench of slave ships."4 In an interview, Campos-Pons explains that she used sugar in different stages of refinement to symbolize the different peoples involved in its trade, as the value of different colors of sugar historically maps on...


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