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White Gold, Black Bodies and the Sugar Blues

The relationship between sugar and Black people remains incongruous at the best of times. Products with the unhealthiest levels of sugar, especially the processed and refined varieties that promote diabetes and weight gain, litter most Black communities as dietary staples. Still, the language of sugar – its sweetness, paints the highly addictive substance in particularly positive terms. Terms of endearment, for instance, utilize words like sweetheart, sugar, and honey. Blues singer, Big Maybelle even had a groundbreaking hit, Candy, that immortalized her lover’s sweetness by nicknaming him after the confection.

Sugar has been labeled by scientists as America’s drug of choice, noting that its addictive powers get introduced early and with the best intentions in mind. Millions of impoverished Black families used a combination of (ultra-sweet) evaporated (Pet) milk and water as baby formula and the backbone of nutritional development for several generations. Sweetness is also a primal pleasure, according to Eater Magazine’s Ruby Tandoh, who writes that sugar’s sensation mimics the effects of warmth or softness to the mind.

“Our desire to find, taste, and consume it is profoundly natural, but our quest to make more of it, to cook, bake, caramelize, and fry our way to sweet — that is profoundly human,” Tandoh said.

Consequently, under stress or when hungry, consuming sweet things goes back to both the cradle and our genes in offering comfort.

But the relationship between sugar and Black people is a bit more complicated than mere diets.

The United States makes about nine million tons of sugar annually, ranking it sixth in global production. According to historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Louisiana sugar-cane industry is by itself worth $3 billion, generating an estimated 16,400 jobs, with the vast majority of that domestic sugar remaining in the U.S. An additional two to three million tons of sugar are imported each year to America to answer our addictions. Americans consume as much as 77.1 pounds of sugar and related sweeteners per person per year, according to United States Department of Agriculture data – that is nearly twice the limit the department recommends, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Historically, it was the global addiction to sugar and the need for free labor to work sugar plantations that introduced fueled slavery in the New World.

“Over the four centuries that followed Columbus’s arrival, on the mainlands of Central and South America in Mexico, Guyana and Brazil as well as on the sugar islands of the West Indies — Cuba, Barbados and Jamaica, among others — countless indigenous lives were destroyed and nearly 11 million Africans were enslaved, just counting those who survived the Middle Passage,” Muhammad writes.

Kara Walker’s 2014 Domino’s Sugar plant exhibit A Subtlety: or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, in Brooklyn brought all of the pieces together for me. The very crop that fueled enslavement has become the substance that when ingested by the progeny of those toilers, destroys their bodies. The Marvelous Sugar Baby was a massive sculpture of sugar in the likeness of a Black female Sphinx. Along the path leading to the Sphinx, Walker cast sculptures of small children carrying basket loads of cane that spoke to the power, consumption, wealth inequity, and industrial might that impoverished bodies continue to endure. Only now, the enslavement comes from an addiction to sugar rather than harvesting it.

In this Washington Informer Health supplement, we want readers to unravel the truths behind sugar and learn new ways of breaking away from their addictions to it. Dr. Sophia Sparks, Lindiwe Vilakazi and Lee Ross offer tips, insight from professionals, and tried-and-true, research-based information to help us tackle the sugar blues.

Read, Learn, Grow.

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