Step 1: Cultivation
On July 4th I walk to the water.
At the Red Hook Stores in Brooklyn, what looks like the remains of rust weep out from the building’s sides like it’s releasing it’s sugars in the heat. I make my way to the pier and watch the water lap on the rocks, rhythmic.
What’s that Zora Neale Hurston quote?
“Besides the waters of the Hudson I feel my race. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.” Wrong river, but the sentiment remains.
There is no signage at the Red Hook Stores that tells the truth of what took place here.
People walk the pier, look out onto the water towards the Statue of Liberty, who waves at us directly across the harbor. Tourists are so excited by Lady Liberty they don’t bother to turn and look at what’s behind them, or, what’s above.
On the very top corner of the middle right warehouse, branded into the side of the building reads: W. Beard & J.P. & C. G. Robinson, 1869. I wander the pier with a sigh in my mouth, the stores and I share a secret.
The land that is now the Red Hook Stores was once marshland. William Beard, an eager industrialist, erected a series of warehouses along Erie Basin that dominated the shoreline in 1869. As the South recovered from the Civil War and the enslaved population were “emancipated”, industry looked Northwards towards factories to meet its demands. By the end of the 19th century, Erie Basin was the busiest port in New York City, and the Red Hook Stores were the largest storage site of perishables shipped up from the Carribean and the South. They stored a variety of goods, most prominently sugar, grain, and cotton.
My brain has been so conditioned to project sugar and cotton out away from me, across the water somewhere distant.
Away away away.
I have to shake myself into remembering. Sugar was here. Cotton was here. Like a chant to myself until it sticks.
Unsure of how to engage in a way that felt meaningful to me, especially following the tumultuous arrival of July 4th last summer, I found myself restless about how to spend the special day. I felt our collective anger dissipating, the masses were turning away from their Instagram graphics and returning to their barbecues and ice creams. When I think about the beginnings of this country, I think about sugar. So I decided to commemorate by returning to Grandma Olive’s Cookbook, and to one of my mother’s favorite desserts: peach cobbler.
Step 2: Extraction
Growing up in New York City, I was taught that New York was the financial center of the colonial North Atlantic world. And yet, according to my teachers, slavery, racism, indigenous erasure simply evaded us – “those things” took place in some Virginian or Alabama elsewhere. In the New York narrative of triangular trade, tobacco, sugar, cotton, rum were understood as part of the singularity of the Southern plantation, removing the North from complicity; the sin of a different kind of economy, a lesson for someone else’s classroom.
New York City’s first sugar refinery opened in 1730. Businessmen flocked to build refineries in lower Manhattan to participate in the wealth that trade with the British West Indies could offer. With the growth of the colony barely creeping north of Wall Street, Sugar houses dwarfed the single story taverns and farmhouses surrounding them. Used as refineries as well as warehouses, sugar houses were built by New York’s wealthiest merchant families to store raw sugar and molasses from cane sugar plantations in the Caribbean for further refinement or trade with the British. To a New Yorker’s ear, the names of these merchant families might sound familiar: the Van Cortlandts, Livingstons, Bayards.
These sugar houses propelled merchant families into wealth unattainable anywhere else in the colonies at the time. They became so wealthy in fact, that they literally paved the city’s streets and built its infrastructure with money from sugar profits – and then they named the streets after themselves. Unbeknownst to many of us, the street names of lower Manhattan are dedicated to settlers who built up New York City from trade with plantation owners. Unsurprisingly, the 1730s found New York to be the largest slaveholding colony, more than Pennsylvania, more than Virginia. Far from a distant Southern reality, slavery was central to the development of the city.
It’s laughable now, sad in fact, that we, myself included, as New Yorkers believed in our own innocence. I know better about where to look now. In the world of colonial North America, it’s a simple formula: where there is money there is sugar, and where there is sugar there is always labor.
After the Revolution, the individual sugar refineries were dissolved to make way for conglomerates, and between 1870 and World War I, sugar refineries were New York’s most profitable industry. In 1856, the Havemeyer family started the American Sugar Refining Company, which would be renamed to Domino’s sugar in 1900. Looming over the Williamsburg waterfront, Domino’s sugar was one of a dozen large sugar refineries decorating the coast of eastern Brooklyn. By the end of the 19th century, Domino’s Sugar was the largest sugar refinery in the world, processing millions of pounds of sugar per day, supplying more than half the country’s supply.
After the formal “abolition” of the Transatlantic Slave trade, sugar production diverted it’s eyes to the Pacific. Sugar plantations in Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti continued harvesting cane, while newly occupied Hawaii and the Philippines provided the added labor force required to keep up with the demand of the industrial revolution and unprecedented population growth. Cuba became the central spot for sugar production for the Domino Sugar Factory in the later part of the 19th century, in no small part due to the fact that Cuba abolished slavery in 1887, 30-50 years after Jamaica and the United States. The motor of Western expansion, and the need to “discover” and occupy new lands under the name of imperialism was fueled by the need for sugar cultivation after the loss of the power of the plantation. Massive sugar factories in Brooklyn profited well into the 20th century. And with the growth of railways and colonial expansion West, sugar became a truly transnational and multi-million dollar business. The Havemeyer family, like many Northern industrialists, advocated for the abolition of slavery, while building a sugar monopoly off of the backs of slavery well into the 20th century. The Sugar Trust, a sugar monopoly of more than a dozen sugar companies, was developed by the Havemeyers to capitalize on the growth of the sugar industry, while keeping plantation laborers in conditions unchanged from the time of slavery. Labor in the Caribbean was labeled as “indentured servitude” – a trick of language that has been used to dismiss the very real, very devastating condition of enslaved people who worked for Northern industries
As much as it tries to, New York City cannot escape the violence of the South, nor the taste of it. The sugar industry moved through the city like a refinery; pushing goods into the marketplace, creating more demand, crafting labor into currency. But like all refineries, it creates byproducts. And that of the sugar industry – greed, exploitation, violence, suppression were left to be released into the rest of the city’s institutions.
Step 3: Refinement
Embedded in the side of One Police Plaza – the headquarters of the New York Police Department – is a hidden window. Barred, rustied, loosely packed bricks line the outside. A plaque marks the spot. It reads:
“Sugar House – Prison Window: This window was originally part of the five story Sugar House built in 1763 at the corner of Duane and Rose Streets and used by the British during the Revolutionary War as a prison for American patriots.”
This, a window on the side of NYPD headquarters, is the most public evidence of New York’s sugar houses.
According to some historians, tourists, blogs, and journals, select colonial sugar houses across the colony were utilized as prisons during British occupation during the Revolutionary War.
The Van Cortlandt sugar house, located directly behind Trinity Church was reportedly a part of this history. There is no plaque dedicated to it, however, a second window belonging to the original Rhinelander sugar house is memorialized in Van Cortlandt park. A photo of it from the Library of Congress labels it as a “ruin” of the sugar house prison.
There is speculation from scholars and historical institutions who are not convinced that the sugarhouses were actually used as prisons, – I can understand, I too do not trust a history advertised by the NYPD. But the dramatic appeal of POWs in the Revolutionary War keeps the lore going, and so, “sugar house” and “prison” are inextricable terms in the eyes of Google. The history of New York’s sugar houses, one profoundly wrapped up in a history of enslavement, has been reduced to the stuff of Revolutionary War fantasy. Black people, Black technology, Black contribution, like most American fantasy, are rendered invisible in this narrative.
But windows have dual purpose: to keep things out, or, to let things in.
I choose to look in.
Not noted is where the sugar came from. Not written is that the Van Cortlandt family, and their estate, was effectively a northern plantation, and home to at least 20 enslaved individuals.
Not noted is that the police originated as debt collectors, defunding individuals and cracking down on independent businesses to prevent the financial independence of Black people in New York colony. Solomon Northrup, writer of Twelve Years A Slave was a free Black New Yorker who, because of the demand for labor on sugar plantations, was kidnapped by police and sold into slavery. Solomon was one of many free Black Northerners whose free status was created moot by the greed of the sugar industry, and it’s dependency on the policing of black bodies.
One Police Plaza is the most recent iteration of a tradition of violence against Black bodies. The tradition of violence continues from the plantation to the sugar house, to the prison, to the police headquarters. The harm reshapes and refines itself until it becomes undetectable to the untrained eye.
But we have the choice to reconfigure the boundaries of our sight.
The NYPD was awarded over $5 billion dollars for fiscal years 2021 and 2022 – money of that amount cannot be pure. If you sift back far enough through the funds, you will find sugar. Sugar continues to fund violence in the city. And why be surprised, sugaring is a process of refinement, after all. It boils, bleaches, burns itself until it gets to whiteness. The story of sugar, no doubt, would too act in service of whiteness.
When it was announced that the Domino Sugar Factory was going to be demolished, a funny “spectacle of decline” arose.
Photos of the abandoned factory circulated on the internet like wildfire, people became enamored with the idea of the fall of the sugar dynasty that Brooklyn built. Akin to the lore of the Rhinelander house, the threat of the fall of the Domino Sugar Factory amassed attention to the building, while ignoring the people.
Sugar has always been a spectacle, from the six-story colonial sugar houses to the “Domino’s Sugar” sign that dominates the Brooklyn skyline. But again, the focus was misplaced.
In 2014, tucked away inside the Domino Sugar Factory, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety made an attempt to reorient us.
Months before it’s scheduled demolition, Kara Walker erected an enormous Sphinx-like figure made of sugar inside the factory. Surrounded by life-sized molasses “sugar babies” – the piece invited the audience to enter the Domino Sugar Factory with an eye turned away from the building’s infrastructure, and towards the people – both the enslaved and the enslavers – who built the industry’s wealth.
Ten years earlier in a similar artistic endeavor, performance artist Miru Kim explored a different image of the abandoned refinery in her performance entitled Naked City Spleen.
Hiding her naked body among the wreckage of the Revere Sugar Factory in Red Hook, Miru Kim’s images juxtapose the coldness of the factory with the vulnerable, soft flesh of the human body. In an industry that attempts to extract and exploit the personhood of laborers, that turns traditional food practice into food production, A Subtlety and Naked City Spleen bring the site of sugar back to the body. They remind us that the producer and recipient of these production models are people who breathe, who eat, who bleed when worked too hard. We are, and have always been complicit in both the pleasure and the harm of these systems since their inception.
I think again of the word “Ruin” to describe the remains of the Rhinelander sugar house.
What is a ruin? We call abandoned monuments ruins. We call fallen sacred religious spaces ruins. The last photos taken of Domino Sugar Factory before its planned demolition are empty, quiet, like the photos of an abandoned church, a shrine to something lost.
What do we lose in the demise of sugar?
Or, phrased differently, who are we trying to reach in the attempt to preserve it as it falls?
Step 4: Shipping
A couple years ago I received an email from 23 and Me:
“We’ve found evidence that you have ancestors who lived in Jamaica in the past 200 years.”
There is a thrill and a grief in finding lost ancestors.
No one in my family is aware of a direct connection to the Caribbean. This means, most likely, these ancestors did not find themselves in Jamaica of their own volition. Being of African American ancestry means knowing that for every ancestor in the U.S. there may have been a sibling, a parent, a child displaced. The genetic maps of our ancestors sprawl farther out from us than I think we realize. I do the math: “In the past 200 years” – 1821 to 1900 alone is at least 16 great grand-parents, 32 4th great-grandparents. And their siblings, and their lovers, and their communities…and so on and so on.
This is not even to mention that the timespan of a “generation” becomes warped in slave-holding Jamaica, that the average lifespan of a person doing enslaved labor on Caribbean sugar plantations was 7 years. Generations moved at 10 times the speed, simultaneously growing and severing bloodlines before they could be recorded. In Jamaica, the likelihood that I have at least one branch of ancestry directly linked to sugar plantations is staggeringly high.
In his book The Cooking Gene, Michael W. Twitty reflects on this:
“About 80 percent of all captives brought to the Americas were brought to regions where sugarcane was the main cash crop. No sugar, no slavery…Black northerners often lived in communities built in part by the shipping of foodstuffs to the Carribean in exchange for sugar that was turned into molasses, which in turn became rum that bought my people from African elites. One hundred ten gallons of rum might purchase an adult; 80 might purchase a child.”
Sugar exchanged for bodies, bodies exchanged for sugar. Sugar is a roadmap. Follow the sugar, follow your bloodlines.
I’m at Pier 44 park for what feels like hours, my attention is lost to the waves. To my right is the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. To my left are the Red Hook Stores. My eyes look back and forth, watching my bloodlines ping pong back and forth across the water. I sit in the intersection of these histories. I find myself a point within a triangle.
I think of unknown ancestors in Jamaica, someone is harvesting sugar cane,
while across the water northwards, another ancestor receives a shipment in New Orleans, where, another ancestor is receiving a package of Domino Sugar,
while another Arkansas ancestor is perfecting their peach cobbler recipe,
using that package of sugar,
meanwhile, years later another ancestor from my Father’s side, immigrants from Eastern Europe come through New York harbor, pass Lady Liberty, pass the Red Hook stores,
perhaps years later, someone from this family finds work at a sugar refinery not but one mile away from where I live on the border of Red Hook, Brooklyn,
where here on July 4th 2021, a cobbler, made with Domino sugar has just finished baking.
That’s the thing about trade, it divides us and collides us simultaneously. The same water that distances us carries us to each other.
I love food because I love maps. I love maps because I am my Mother’s daughter. Like her, I am a wayfinder.
Food and the hands that make them are my wayfinding guides.
I like to mark the dots and connect them.
Brooklyn, Jamaica, Arkansas – a triangular trade.
Step 5: Arrival
…they’re twelve feet or more at their highest. The tops of the grasses are a brilliant green and the fields are thick and seemingly impenetrable,” writes Twitty.
In a poem written for A Subtlety, poet Tracy K. Smith meditates on the people in the image above:
I would be standing there, too,
Standing, then made to leap up
Into the air, made to curl
And heave and cringe and
I would want to live so badly
I would wreck myself trying to
Cradle that speck of something
That speck that weighs and sits
And turns and grows and
Cries out to itself cries out
Lord! or No! I would be
Standing there like those men
Or bent down like that woman
Bent in half in the foreground
And I would pray oh I would pray
To my hands and to the god
Of cane and of shade and of
All that is taller than us.
That caps them is spiked with stalks.
No one talks. They stare
At a man I cannot see, whose gaze
Has conjured me. It is he
Who told them to stand—and
Told that one woman to drop
Back to her work so we might
Scrutinize the cut leaves
That bury her feet. A man’s mouth
Open, mute as halved fruit.
All that is said without breath
Or pitch. What lives blind
To that high white sky.
What tunnels and creeps—
An itch beneath the skin,
The names of distant kin—
Eluding the man and me
And our camera’s greedy lens.
Tracy K. Smith, poet
I have never seen sugarcane in person. The architecture of the Red Hook Stores hides the beauty and the brutality of the plant. Instead of machines whirring, I dream of seeing the stores replaced with fields of sugarcane – tall enough you can see them from Ellis Island.
All this would be a reminder that these warehouses imprisoned living things, living things chopped them down and handled them, they cut themselves for our pleasure, for our cobbler, for our popsicle on a hot July 4th day. Instead of looking at ruins, I dare you, trade the view of the warehouse for cotton and sugar and bodies, and see if you can look out at the water, away.
Last summer we let ourselves get angry. Last July 4th people’s instagram’s were covered with refusals to celebrate. We talked about burning cities to the ground. Did we know what we meant when we asked for it? Did they know that the NYPD arose out of the ashes of the sugar house? That if we actually wanted reparations, we would have to burn New York City to the ground, and that if we did, we would be left with molasses remains?
The longer I stay at the pier, the more I tap into anger. I’m still angry that we “talked” last summer and yet we talked about nothing. I’m still angry that in hiding this history, I was robbed of the opportunity to say thank you.
No, not anger. Anger is a secondary emotion, there’s always a deeper feeling behind it.
I grieve not knowing the names of the people in that picture.
On the walk back to my apartment I pass the factory and shop of Ample Hills Creamery – an overly-priced Brooklyn ice cream confectionary that has made its home in select gentrified Brooklyn areas. Across the top of the shop in faded black letters I read, W. Beard and Robinson – another one of their warehouses. I release a laugh so uncontrolled it shocks me. A white family and their child walk out with ice cream in hand, oblivious.
This is the grief. Biting my tongue. Later, placing my own ice cream on top of my dessert and enjoying it.
This cobbler is my thank you.
My grief: a temporary shrine, before we can burn it all down and build a better one.
Thai Harris Singer (she/her) is a playwright, writer, and historian. She currently resides on occupied Lenapehoking, now known as Brooklyn, NY and is a proud 5th generation Brooklynite. Her work is curious about exploring racial performance theory and legacy through theater, food, movement, words, and song