The Bitter, Bloody History Of Sugar

sugar containers
Briona Lamback
October 25, 2023

In a decaying Brooklyn warehouse stood a giant sphinx depicted as a mammy. Made from eight tons of confectionery sugar and covered with molasses-made resin, it was artist Kara Walker’s way of uncovering the overlooked history of one of the world’s bloodiest food secrets.

Our people tirelessly hand-cultivated sugar on Southern, Caribbean, and South American plantations before reaching New England, mainly Rhode Island, where it was distilled into rum. 

Oak barrels were then loaded onto West Africa-bound ships, where colonists exchanged human cargo for liquor. The vicious capitalist cycle is known as the Triangle Trade.

“White gold,” as it was referred to, fueled the wealth of European cities, but nothing was sweet about it for us. It was dangerous work that left some limbless, and its legacy is a sticky residue that has negatively impacted our people’s health for generations.

North America’s largest sugar refinery today sits on the Mississippi River less than a mile from New Orleans’ historically Black Lower Ninth Ward. Louisiana alone has a $3 billion sugar industry, undeniably impacting our health and fostering diseases like diabetes.   

It’s in numerous foods, but we can choose alternatives closer to our ancestral foodways, like molasses and sorghum.

Knowing this history is about more than changing our relationship with sugar. It encourages us to consider how anti-Blackness goes unnoticed and its systemic impact on our communities.

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