The word sugar brings up images of birthday cakes and beignets covered in powdered sugar for most people. And for others, thoughts of their grandmother’s endearing whisper, “come here, sugar” or “give me some sugar,” are invoked. Beneath the icing, the production, migration, commodification, and consumption of sugar are tied to the violence of racial slavery. The complex and layered role of sugar in shaping the history of New Orleans and the region—from sugar plantations to petrochemical and oil refineries lining the Mississippi River to famed candies and confections to cultural traditions tied to the intimacies of sugar, sex, and the blues are easily overlooked. Yet, an examination into the complexities of this word, commodity, and symbol reveals histories of power, exploitation, sweetness, slavery, empire, addiction, and contemporary life.
Étienne de Boré built New Orleans’ first sugar mill 242 years ago. Since then, sugar has been an essential part of our region’s industrial and agricultural landscape, contributing an annual value of $3 billion to Louisiana’s economy.
Sugarcane grows readily in South Louisiana’s warm climate. The unfree labor of enslaved Black people, many of whom carried intimate agricultural know-how, were critical to the industry’s success. Examining the pain and suffering of enslaved Black people and their descendants around sugar production in the South is not limited to the crop’s harvesting. It extends to every artery that the sugar industry flowed—from sugarcane fields to foodways to cupboards.
Sucrose in its raw and natural form is brown with hues ranging from light caramel to dark ebony. Yet, the most readily available commercial form of sugar is “refined,” bleached white with the intent to make it appear “cleaner” for consumers, yet underlying the white supremacy connotations of the cultural value of white social identity. The histories of many New Orleans’ brothels are often tied to the geographic location of sugar plantations, residencies of wealth, and power—and the paradoxical emotions of joy and pain, sweetness and lure, addiction and greed, and love and loss.
Our relationship with sugar can also bring about warmth, connection, and soulful satiation. Famous blues singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simon, and Bessie Smith all have popular songs with themes of sugar, lust, and heartache. Contemporary pop lyrics reference sugar as sweet as a kiss from one’s lover or sugar that induces a drug or emotional high. Sugar, after all, is one of the most addictive drugs there is. Its crystalline structure can manifest in themes both juicy and erotic. A famed 19th-century nursery rhyme proclaims, “sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of,” and so sugar, too, plays a role in traditionally-prescribed gender roles. Today, feminine sexuality is often depicted as something sugar-like: sweet, addictive, lust-inducing, and all too often – objectified.
Sugar’s influence on our national identity is as significant as Coca-Cola. Still, its origins are undoubtedly rooted in the South and the European colonies of the Caribbean and South America, where the sweetgrass’s first acres were harvested. Like so many things, New Orleans’ position as a rich and robust cultural leader helped inject sugar beyond the port city through music, art, lore, and rum punch recipes. Sugar is not simply a crop nor just an ingredient for a cake. By examining the history of sugar in this group exhibition, we reveal the past, connect with the present, and reimagine the future—tying the theme of Prospect 5 with the Antenna’s thematic focus for 2021-22.
Curated by Denise Frazier and Renee Royale
James W. Goedert
Shana M. griffin
L. Kasimu Harris
Carl Joe Williams