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Kara Walker and the Real Sugar Links

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When I stepped inside the vast Domino Sugar Factory for the opening of Kara Walker's installation, "A Subtlety", I nearly wept. For over a century, the iconic Domino Sugar Factory, which shut its doors a decade ago, has loomed on the Brooklyn waterfront, an enigmatic, forgotten carapace. Now, with Walker's sculpture, it is not just the doors of the factory that have reopened -- we have also flung open our shared history of sugar. It is a history I know well, for my own family traveled from northern India as indentured workers to work the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. My great-grandfather gave away his share of land in Uttar Pradesh to his two older brothers and set off to seek a new life in British Guiana, which rivaled Jamaica and Cuba as one of the largest sugar producers in the world.

The Walker exhibit is a tantalizing, but ultimately frustrating experience. Most of the visitors milling around the massive, unsettling sculpture of an African woman come away intrigued and puzzled. The installation is a huge white sphinx crouched in a pool of sugar, intentionally disturbing, with its assertive nipples, exaggerated haunches that conjure up the Hottentot Venus, and exposed, bulging vulva. As an art object it is simultaneously sexual, submissive and powerful.

But what does this formidable goddess evoke and represent? Do visitors come away grasping the history on which this piece comments? At best, they're in on the latest, hip happening in this swath of neglected and fast gentrifying Williamsburg and duly snap photos with their iPhones. That's because the exhibit, which offers no curatorial materials or information about the factory, is a missed opportunity. All the more a pity, since this is the perfect moment to reclaim that story, as New Yorkers.

Never before in the history of New York City have we had so many inhabitants who can trace their family origins to sugar. Their forbearers slashed, cut and processed the cane that wound up in barges heading to the busy Brooklyn docks. The factory's revitalization is a moment of weighty and historical convergence for our city, as we can all realize how many of us New Yorkers are connected by sugar. It is also a chance to reconceive the history and most importantly, ways that New York City was part of a global -- not just American -- story of slavery.

The Domino Sugar Factory's walls are redolent with this history, its walls smeared with sweet-smelling, sticky rivulets of molasses. This is an especially powerful symbol when one realizes the single most important fact about sugar: Unlike any other natural product, such as wheat, rice or corn, sugar cane cannot be stored. It must be sent to a factory -- immediately -- within 48 hours of cutting. So, behind the huge monolith of the Domino Refinery, imagine thousands and thousands of factories throughout the sugar lands. They were known as the boiling houses, for the raw cane was crushed and boiled until that key moment of 'striking' when the pulp crystallizes and becomes the first raw granules. These boiling houses were sheer furnaces of hell, with workers laboring round the clock around scalding pots and grinding machines. So dangerous was the work that in some factories, a machete was kept nearby -- if a worker's arm was mauled in the rollers -- they would simply lop the limb off and keep on going.

As Ms. Walker's installation of a huge African woman makes clear, at the heart of the haunted story of sugar is the African diaspora who lived and died by sugar -- 12 million in all. The submission of African women in particular undergirds this history: Read the diary of plantation overseer Thomas Thistlewood, where he details the 138 slave women he raped on a Jamaican plantation. Walker's sculpture, which shimmers and rises from the gritty floor, is a return of the repressed -- aggressive and playful at once, teasing out while reclaiming the stereotype of the sexualized black woman.

Here in the U.S., we are slow to understand the role of sugar in our history, a substance that has rightly been called 'the oil of the 18th century' driving our world economy, moving people across the globe, changing our very taste buds. That's because our story of slavery has always been told through the narrower lens of American slavery: tobacco and cotton. In fact, only four percent of the slaves were sent to the United States to pick cotton. The other 96 percent were sent to work the sugar lands such as Brazil and the West Indies. American history, New York history, has long been tangled in this global story.

By the time this Domino factory opened on the Brooklyn waterfront in 1882, more and more of the sugar workers were not just Africans. Once slavery was abolished in the British Empire, plantation owners brought in indentured workers from India -- 1.5 million would come to migrate to the West Indies, Mauritius, Fiji, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Guyana. In Hawaii, the rustling cane fields were filled with workers imported from China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines -- creating the polyglot multi-racial society where President Obama grew up.

Similarly, when my great-grandfather arrived in British Guiana, he worked as a sirdar, a driver, on a large plantation, and came to prosper by buying his own plots of land. My other great-grandparents, kumaris, pottery makers, arrived as a family, with their two children and infant son, finishing out their indenture contract to open a local grocery store. In the tiny village where my father grew up, near the rippling fields of green cane, and the humble bungalows of former indentured workers, he knew he must leave this plantation-dominated world, for there was no future there for him. So he studied by a flickering kerosene lamp and set off, like his grandparents, to the next land of opportunity -- the U.S. It is a classic immigrants' story, yet told through one substance, and over many continents. It also reminds us that this substance, which wrought so much violence and tragedy, also propelled some toward opportunity and change.

My husband and I were inspired to write our book, Sugar Changed the World, because we realized it was not just I who had sugar in my family history -- but he did too -- on a completely different part of the globe. His came via beet sugar -- an aunt whose grandfather, a Russian serf, invented a process key to the success of beet sugar. With this, he bought his freedom and became a very rich man. In the 19th century, beet sugar -- which is chemically identical to cane sugar -- would come to rival cane sugar on the world market. The Havemeyers, the wealthy New York family that owned the American Sugar Refining Company, and which operated the Domino Factory, wisely understood this and would come to invest in beet sugar in the West, to guarantee its supply to the Brooklyn factory. Beet sugar, along with other new industrial processes originating in Europe -- saccharine, margarine, yeast -- would be the source of several Jewish family's fortunes, such as the Kiev-based Brodskii family, who produced a quarter of Russia's sugar in the late 19th century.

In its heyday, Brooklyn's Domino Sugar Factory came to supply two-thirds of the nation's refined sugar and much of the world's sugar. Today, Brooklyn is home to large groups of West Indians, who all trace their history and personal stories to those plantations which supplied the very sugar processed at the Domino factory. Dominicans are our largest-growing immigrant group, with Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Haitians and Guyanese, who are the most likely immigrants to settle in New York City, not far behind. We've long had a community of Puerto Ricans, which produced some of the best sugar during the peak years of cane production. It's the ancestors of these New Yorkers who toiled in the fields and factories that brought those sacks of raw sugar to our East River waterfront to be transformed to whitened crystals.

In England today, there has been a growing movement to illuminate the brutal history of sugar that lies behind its great family fortunes. The famed Booker Literary Prize, for instance, comes from the Booker family, which for six generations, was involved in sugar growing. When my father was growing up in the rich sugar growing area of Berbice, British Guiana, he used to say, "We all were owned by Booker." We New Yorkers, past and present, might say we all were owned by the Havemeyers -- be it the Irish and German workers in the factory, or our more recent immigrants whose forbearers provided the raw material for processing at this vast and profitable plant. It is fitting that an art exhibit unpeels this story for us, given that the Havemeyers were enthusiastic collectors of art and their enormous collection is held at our most New York of institutions -- the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Once again, the Domino Sugar factory is rising to symbolize another crucial moment in New York City's history: the tension between runaway luxury development and affordable housing for the middle class. Mayor De Blasio, whose administration fought hard to ensure that the newly renovated factory will include middle class housing, also has a family connection to sugar -- his wife Chirlane McCray is of Bajan and St. Lucian background. Ironically, it is this development that threatens to obliterate the very history Walker's installation so tantalizingly conjures up.

Before the exhibit closes, the factory stripped of its smeared walls, its abandoned machinery and smokestacks to make way for shiny condos, we should pause to consider how to mark significance of this recovered site. If Walker's enigmatic piece is to have any impact, let us not efface this powerful history. Why not retain some of the industrial artifacts and offer informational plaques? Bring school children -- so many of whom can trace their own family history to sugar -- to this factory to learn about this facet in American history and the development of the New York waterfront? This opening should not just be a one-time event -- it should be a true opening, to continue this engagement with a history that involves so many of us, and a way to reconceive our understanding of slavery. In revitalizing this hulking waterfront icon for our future, it's also time to reclaim New Yorkers' own sweet and bitter sugar stories.