My father raised me to love Assata Shakur, to criticize all institutions and to love apple pie. Yes. The man who raised me on black panthers for beginners, Pan-Africanism for Beginners, Malcolm X for Beginners and the protest poetry of Sonia Sanchez has also had a romantic relationship with the symbolic pastry of American traditionalism.
The story is that my dad loved apple pie so much when he was little that my grandmother got tired of him asking her to make it and taught her how to slice, spice and sweeten apples, add lemon juice and butter and put it in a store-bought crust itself. Over the years, he honed his cinnamon-nutmeg ratio, his McIntosh apple-picking standards so deliciously that at every extended family gathering people asked and expected his pies. The demand became so great that he of course had to bring in unpaid workers. How American.
My sister and I did not feel taken advantage of when he asked for our help. We loved the wooden table laden with apples. The large metal salad bowl, the juice from the stirred apples, brown with spices, lemon tart. Rigorous taste testers, we stole samples from this bowl every step of the way. Between holidays, we would do a quick version on weekdays. Dad would buy all natural applesauce without sugar and we would add cinnamon, nutmeg and so much sugar it was sweeter than anything they were selling in the store. When I moved into my dorm for college, my mom and aunts helped me set it up and decorate it. And my dad brought his own nutritious offering: a giant case of organic instant oatmeal from the health food store, flavored with apple and cinnamon, of course. Perfect for a girl who barely knew how to cook. Simply add boiling water to the fill line in the sturdy paper cup, and go.
These days, I always start the day with oatmeal. Every morning, when I shake the cinnamon and nutmeg into simmering coconut milk before adding the oats, the kitchen air brings me back to that gentle man who nurtured my militant critique. When I miss it the most, I add apples on top. On public holidays, on my father’s birthday, or the anniversary of the day of his death, my sister will invite her daughters to the sacred ceremony: a mostly homemade apple pie.
Do you have a story like this? I could rewrite this tribute to my father with pancakes, his other specialty. On my dad’s first birthday after he passed away, we went to his favorite restaurant and ordered what he would order, the Belgian waffle. When I can’t see his smile, when I can’t hear his voice, when he’s not there to celebrate another win with me, edible sweetness seems like the available proxy for how I want to feel.
My father died because he had no access to health care. And so, recently, I had a new doctor teach me how to read the lab reports they get when they test your blood during a physical exam. Guess what? There is a lot of sugar in my blood. Not quite diabetic, not quite pre-diabetic, but if there was a pre-pre-diabetic…I would be in that range. And now I think about the emotional work that sugar does in my life – the place-holding work that a sugary treat does for me when I can’t feel the comfort of a hug from a loved one.
“Give me some sugar,” the older women say, and I kiss them on the cheek gratefully. But now, because of the pandemic, I can’t even remember the last time I kissed an elder. We miss so much sweetness. But this year, like every year, the Valentine’s Day industry has its own version of sweetness, readily available for same-day delivery.
I was as complicit as anyone in this Valentine’s Day conspiracy. When I was in high school, my mother would give me my favorite chocolates on Valentine’s Day morning – the ones with messages inside the foil wrappers – and I would share them with my friends at school, laughing like if messages of love were our fortune. In college, I bought bags of individually wrapped “fun” candy bars and handed them out to strangers on and around campus, relishing in the sweetness of people’s surprised smiles. Sweetness should be portable, shareable, well packaged. It should be available and easy, right?
But remember how I told you my dad raised me to criticize everything? My father reminded us that on a capitalist planet, gentleness is war. Like everything else. North American companies ignore indigenous land rights to exploit maple syrup. The United States sent the contras to terrorize Central America to control the fruit industry. The extractive practices of honey-producing companies are part of a pollinator crisis that threatens the entire food supply. The Dutch East India Company committed quite a genocide against the Bandanese to gain a nutmeg monopoly. And the sugar cane itself?
The first plantation that used forced labor from enslaved Africans was a sugar cane plantation in a place called Boca de Nigua on the island of Ay-ti (the indigenous Taíno word for the island now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Dictator Rafael Trujillo established the batey system to exploit Haitian workers in conditions too similar to those of the history of the plantations. According to the Batey Foundation, this system creates an underclass with “no public services, no legal protections, and no economic opportunity.”
In the early 20th century, when Dominican sugar workers rose up, led by Mamá Tingó, plantation owners sent scouts to small Caribbean islands and recruited the poorest of the poor, including starving children. , to do the work instead of improving the conditions. . They transported these replacement workers to Santo Domingo in the airless hold of a ship.
My grandfather was one of those starving children.
He told me he had been sick in the boat the whole trip. He nearly died from overwork and a bull wound on a Dominican sugar plantation when he was 11 years old. If two other workers—a husband and wife he had never met—hadn’t decided to save his life, I wouldn’t be writing this. We wouldn’t exist. The decision of two exploited adult workers to brew herbs for a child, to provide him with shelter and security, to value his life in the context of expendability, is that sweetness, or security beneath what we call sweetness. The possibility of generosity, dignity, vital care. This couple became my grandfather’s healthcare system under impossible conditions.
During a black feminist delegation to the Dominican Republic organized by Ana-Maurine Lara, I went to this first sugar cane plantation in Boca de Nigua. As I stood there, a black bull slowly emerged from a grove of trees, stepping over the remains of sugar stalks. This wise animal may have been doing its own ancestral work, but as I looked into its eyes, my grandfather’s story came back to me and a message as clear as these printed words: Don’t eat sugar for a full year, starting today.
And so, I did. A year-long cleanse of the sugar cane economy in my blood. Every time someone offered me a treat or asked me why I ate differently, I had to tell a story as old as the origins of slavery, as close as my own blood. I told hundreds of people that year how slavery began on a sugar cane plantation, but how it was also the site of the first rebellion of enslaved Africans in the Americas. I shared what black feminist anthropologist Fatima Portorreal told me about how a woman from the Congo named Ana Maria led a historic revolt there, establishing the first black communal government in the Americas. I told people how Haitian revolutionaries revered this site so much that they came to announce the end of slavery right there, where I was standing. I learned something about my ability that year. About how if you can find the beginning of something, you can find the end. I learned the feeling if not the name of something I want more than sweetness.
This cleansing happened years ago, and I’m still defining exactly what I want, with my mouth, with my hands, in my heart. But I know this: I want to see an end to slavery in my lifetime. I want a love that can save your impossible life and mine. I want all our ancestors with us in their full dignity. I want solidarity and care through everything that happens. And I suddenly remember that before teaching me how to sweeten apples, my father had shown me the correct way to hold a knife.