Kara Walker's Blood Sugar: A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby

By Valerie Loichot
Southern Spaces

Loichot_tropics coverNothing expresses more viscerally our blood-stained appetite for sugar than Kara Walker's installation, A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.2 From Robert Southey, to Voltaire, to Victor Schoelcher, to Aimé Césaire, abolitionists, philosophers, and poets alike have used the trope of blood to denounce the dehumanizing system of slavery. The force of the metaphor resides in the fact that blood in sugar was also quite literal. Unpaid or exploited laboring humans left their blood, sweat, fingers, hands, and ultimately, lives, in the plantation machinery of sugar-cane slavery and sugar processing as though in a sacrifice devoid of sacredness and rituals. French philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvetius proclaims in 1758 "There is no sugar barrel that reaches Europe without stains of human blood."3 An abolitionist movement in the 1780s calls itself "Blood Sugar" on the ground that "sugar cane was fertilized with the blood of African slaves."4 Visual and installation artist Kara Walker herself, in an interview with Audie Cornish on National Public Radio, asserts: "Basically, it was blood sugar . . . like we talk about blood diamonds today, there were pamphlets saying this sugar has blood on its hands."

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