Sugar Babies, Kara Walker "A Subtlety" Exhibit
Sugar Babies, Kara Walker “A Subtlety” Exhibit

Recently, I visited the Kara Walker “A Subtlety” exhibit on sugar at the Domino Sugar Factory in Willamsburg, Brooklyn and while absolutely breathtaking, it also reminded me of my life commitment towards liberation and thus a decision to—once again—completely eradicate sugar from my diet. Following are six reasons why: Reason #1: My Commitment to the annual Black August sacrifice for political prisoners and exiles. Next month is Black August, a month dedicated to discipline, focus, self-determination, and the commitment to sacrifice while bringing awareness to the hundreds of political prisoners held in US prisons. While I think of political prisoners and political exiles often, Black August allows many of us the time of year to refocus and make deep sacrifices in solidarity with our freedom fighters. Freedom fighters such as Mumia Abu Jamal and Assata Shakur and Sundiata Acoli and Herman Bell and Leonard Peltier and many, many more, who have devoted their lives to liberation for our people, only to be victims of heinous assaults by violent programs such as the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Because of their political activism and community work, these freedom fighters are living in political exile or held in inhumane, enslavement camps we know as prisons, often times in solitary confinement, all separated from their families and everyone they love.

Jamil-Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown

In fact, as I write this Imam Jamil Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown, former head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC) is in critical medical condition with cancer and in serious need of medical treatment. Every August, I commit to sacrifice in order to continue actively remembering them. I sacrifice to renew my commitment to helping to free them.  And to free myself. So, what does that have to do with a food justice column? Reason #2: Improve my own self-discipline. Most of the time during Black August, people traditionally fast from sun up to sun down for the entire month, commit to exercise, self-discipline, community work, reading and political education. I typically do the entire fast every year but this year I will be focused on one particular type of enslavement that I am interested in freeing myself (and my community) from—white refined sugar and highly processed fructose corn syrup. As a sacrifice for my commitment to the struggle for liberation—for our political prisoners, for our people… and for myself, I am committing to completely abstaining from it all for the entire month of August. Reason #3: Addictions are akin to enslavement. “Sadly, those who were originally enslaved to harvest sugar cane (Africans and indigenous Americans) are now enslaved in multiple ways: as consumers of sucrose, hormone-injected processed meat and dairy products, and junk food.” –A. Breeze Harper, Sistah Vegan  This is all very timely for so many reasons. I used to be horridly addicted to sugar—and caffeine—to the point where I was literally incoherent until I had either in the morning. The thought of not having full control or agency over my own mind or body until I ingested a substance or product deeply disturbs me. As someone who wants to live a long, strong, healthy life, that bothers me deeply.  As someone deeply committed to freedom and liberation, any semblance of enslavement is unacceptable for me.  So, about 4 years ago, I set out to completely eliminate it from my diet. But the thing about sugar is it literally is like dope.  One hit and you end up consuming more.  And more. A friend once said “sugar craves sugar.” It’s like some gross alien monster living inside of you controlling your “desires” and cravings.  You think you want it… but it’s really the sugaralienmonsterdopeman making you “crave” it.  I ’m kidding, but it’s actually really scary. Your wants and desires not really being your own??  And not only that, your “wants” and “desires” not being your own, and actually being one of the greatest contributors to the leading causes of death—chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Especially for African descendants living in America.  I believe we deserve much better than to be addicted to substances that only lead to our destruction. Reason #4: I’m still addicted!  That’s not hot. So, after a successful detox, I thought I was “cured.”  I went at least a year with absolutely no white sugar, high fructose corn syrup or any of the tricky sugar ingredients that are hidden in so much of our “food.” Hyper conscious of added sugars, my diet was near perfect filled with an abundance of all natural foods—an array of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and legumes (I was completely vegan). And I was at my most optimal health. Confident in my ability to handle this sugar monster, I realize that I began to slowly relax and have a little sugar here and there.  Which I realize led to more sugar. And then more junk. The next thing I know, 4 years later, I noticed I am more and more frequently consuming junk food—including *cake* even recently (I went full blown hard!) And not even vegan, semi-health conscious cake with agave or stevia or honey or something.  It was full blown, butter, sugar, white flour and goodness knows what else.  (And yes, it was gooooood.  So good.  But I’m not sure if it was me saying it was good or the gross sugaralienmonsterdopeman that was telling me). So without even realizing, I’m addicted again.  But the worst kind of addiction—not even aware!  I thought I kicked the habit over 4 years ago. And although it’s not nearly as horrid as it was before (especially since I’ve eliminated coffee), my diet is the worst it’s been in years and I am still clearly facing an addiction. And as a person committed to the health and liberation of my communities, I am committed to kicking this addiction and living the healthful life I dream of for all. Thus, I’m back to the complete elimination of sugar. Reason #5:  Kara Walker’s “Subtlety” exhibit reminded me of how sugar relates to the exploitation of our labor and was one of the pillars of our literal enslavement. Recently, I had a chance to see the Kara Walker “A Subtlety” exhibit at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The detailed sculptures of children carrying goods, some of them without limbs, were a stark reminder of the invisible exploitation of labor that goes into so much of our food.

Sugar Babies from Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” Exhibit

Especially sugar (and it reminded me of the horrid exploitation we know from many chocolate companies).  The exhibit was a powerful reminder around not only the multitudinal ways in which sugar (and the industries surrounding it) harms and exploits us via health, labor, environmental degradation, and so forth, it is also horrendously deceptive. At first glance, the children seem to be at peace at their “jobs” in this sugar plantation/factory.  I was in so much awe, in fact, that I actually missed the missing limbs on some of the children until my friend pointed it out. And thus the (intentional or unintentional) brilliance of Kara Walker and this exhibit. Over time, the sweet smell of sugar eventually gave way to the putrid smell it originally hid at the beginning of the installation with “content” children now faded into puddles of lifeless masses of sugar.  This exhibit was so very symbolic of all that sugar and the industry works vigorously to hide. But we know the truth. Reason #6:  Back to that Enslavement vs. Getting Free Thing….

Assata Shakur

As I recommit to my own health liberation, by eliminating sugar, I plan to be very mindful of all that I am ingesting.  When I’ve done this before, accompanied with regular exercise, strength training, and a nutritious diet, I felt such a renewed surge of energy unlike any I’ve ever experienced. With campaigns that need our energy and attention—from Mumia to Assata to Imam Al-Amin to Sundiata and more, we need all of the strength, focus and wellness we can get. I’m hopeful that this month of August will refocus me (and us) into a lifelong journey of optimal health reclamation with a renewed energy to continue fighting on. One day and step at a time. This post is dedicated to writer, artist, freedom fighter, activist, and poet Assata Shakur who turns 67 on July 16th.  With an unjust $2 million bounty issued for her, she continues to live in political exile away from her friends, family and loved ones. We join with activists worldwide who call for the removal of the bounty placed on her and all terrorist labeling of Assata.


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