Tasting the oppositional gaze.
“Let’s drink some nice, hot tea with sugar today,” I say to my students. I pass out cups, teabags, sugar packets. I have asked them to look up images of Anastaçia and to learn a bit about who this woman was. They have also been asked to read bell hooks’ essay on the oppositional gaze. We are reading written texts, visual pieces, and sculpture today. We are reading ourselves, too.
We consider Anastaçia’s gaze and its oppositionality, her bright blue eyes blazing from her powerful face, searing a message she cannot speak; her mouth is covered with a steel contraption that stops her words.
Where did those blue eyes come from? Of what do they speak? My students tell me what they have learned: that Anastaçia was enslaved, that she is a Brazilian folk saint. The oral histories, and Brazilian ideologies, tell us that Anastaçia is mixed race, her silence might say, “my father is my master,” or “the master raped my mother,” or perhaps other horrors are what remain unspeakable. She is silenced, but her gaze is direct, determined, even fierce. What does she see, I ask. What does her gaze speak to? What do you see when you look?
As they begin to sip their drinks, I take them through some of the main arguments in Sidney Mintz’s book Sweetness and Power, discussing the political economy of slavery, the triangle of trade, its connection to the plantation economy, and the role of sugar in the lives of working class English laborers.
Then we consider this quote from Candide:
As they drew near the town, they saw a negro stretched upon the ground, with only one moiety of his clothes, that is, of his blue linen drawers; the poor man had lost his left leg and his right hand.
“Good God!” said Candide in Dutch, “what art thou doing there, friend, in that shocking condition?”
“I am waiting for my master, Mynheer Vanderdendur, the famous merchant,” answered the negro.
“Was it Mynheer Vanderdendur,” said Candide, “that treated thee thus?”
“Yes, sir,” said the negro, “it is the custom. They give us a pair of linen drawers for our whole garment twice a year. When we work at the sugar-canes, and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off the hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off the leg; both cases have happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.
What I want them to wrestle with is that race is relational from the start, a dynamic about power and domination, white and black, slave and free, eradication and perseverance. The power of looking at is connected to the imperative to look away. “one learns to look a certain way in order to resist,” hooks writes (116). How has looking and not looking been a practice and experience in your own lives, I ask.
This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.
“What is the price, do you think, at which we eat sugar here in Pasadena?”
We turn to Kara Walker’s recent work A Subtlety.The humongous sugar-coated figure with a mammy’s face and crouching body, installed inside a soon-to-be-demolished-former-sugar-factory-in-Brooklyn. How is her face, and her gaze, reminiscent of that of Anastacia? In what ways is the mammy’s face a kind of mask – the kerchief something like Anastaçia’s face clamp? And this enormous, fantastical, imposing racially black figure, this “subtlety” is entirely white, created out of a slurry of white, white sugar. What is subtle about this? What was ever subtle about slavery?
Bell hooks takes on the phallocentric gaze of film, the white feminist critiques that cannot account for the historical and social specificities that have shaped the lives of women beyond whiteness. What is the gaze delivered by this monumental blackwhite sugar mother? And what gazes do we cast upon her? What are we looking at? What does she see?
“Have some more tea,” I say. “Add some more sugar.”
“I hope,” I add, “that sugar will never taste the same.”
hooks, bell. 1992. “The Oppositional Gaze.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation, 1st edition, 115–32. Boston, MA: South End Press.
Mintz, Sindey. 1985 Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking-Penguin. 274 pp.
Elizabeth Chin is an anthropologist whose practice includes performative scholarship, collaborative research, and experimental writing. Her work most often focuses on working with marginalized youth and addressing the inequalities that shape their lives. Fieldwork in the urban U.S., rural Haiti, Kampala, and Mexico City has taken on these issues from a variety of entry points. Her most recent book is My Life With Things: The Consumer Diaries,(Duke 2016) an experimental autoethnography of her consumer life. Currently she is a professor at Art Center College of Design, in the MFA program Media Design Practices. For more information see her website elizabethjchin.com
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For more about the work of Kara walker, check out her page at https://www.artsy.net/artist/kara-walker