Taking My Baby to Kara Walker’s Sugar Baby
I have a pretty raw blister on my left pinky toe right now. It is my battle wound from making the long trek out to the Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn on Sunday afternoon while still wearing my Sunday morning heels. The trip was worth the pain because, after a 20 minute walk through Williamsburg and 45 minutes standing in line, we got to enter the amazing and extremely uncomfortable experience of Kara Walker’s newest art installation entitled “A Subtlety (or the Marvelous Sugar Baby: an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant)”.
Walker is known for her disturbing commentaries on the African American experience. You might have seen her well-known silhouettes depicting almost whimsical images of the antebellum South that, on closer look, betray the violence and sexual horrors of our nation’s past.
Her latest work in Brooklyn is at the Domino sugar factory, a defunct warehouse that is set for demolition. Walker is taking this opportunity to make a statement about slavery, perceptions of black bodies, human exploitation, and the sugar-coating of history. The most iconic image of this installation is a giant sphinx covered in white sugar with the face and body of the black female “Mammy” stereotype. Towering several stories into the air, the massive sugar statue is pretty amazing and extremely disturbing, especially when you walk to the back and find the sphinx’s cartoonish, sugar-coated vagina in full view.
The sphinx image is what you will find in the newspapers and on the Kara Walker posters being sold outside the factory. But we found the most haunting part of the work to be the collection of smaller statues of children that were sprinkled around the open factory floor leading up to the sphinx. Based on old racist kitsch, the statues are cute black baby bodies doing manual labor. About five feet tall, these working babies are made out of dark, candied sugar that is smeared on the surface with messy brown sugar. Several of these statues have been broken.
We wheeled our own multi-racial baby, privileged in time, color, and status, through these cruel representations of her baby kin and past the giant, naked white-sugar sphinx. As we left the factory, we found ourselves in a park bordering the East River. A lot of people were milling about with their children. We took our baby out of her stroller, as my husband noted that this was the first time she would ever see a body of water. A number of other babies were being held to face the rolling waves, as parents pointed to the water, all of us having the same fun experience. This kind of delightful introduction to a river was the developmentally appropriate kind of cognitive stimulation for our three month old child.
But as we sat there under the shade of a breeze-blown tree, watching the rolling river with our daughter, I asked my husband, “Did you hear that white woman talking to her little white daughter about the artwork?” The girl was about 7 or 8 years old. Unlike our little one, this child was old enough to know that something was off about those statues. I caught a moment of their conversation near one of the baby statues that had been knocked over and broken. The child’s limbs were violently splattered about, and the dark candy that made up the statue lay melting around it like a sticky blood that threatened to seep up onto our shoes.
The mother was obviously responding to the question, “Why is the statue knocked over and broken?” And I was both impressed and crushed to hear her answer, “Because a lot of people got hurt making sugar.” I was impressed that a white woman would take her impressionable young daughter to a gallery like this, where inevitable questions would arise about racial history that would implicate her own racial privilege (Near the sphinx, we saw a black woman wearing a t-shirt that read, “F*&# white people privilege”, a reminder that only the most anti-racist white folks should feel any level of comfort here.). I was impressed that the white woman was willing to engage her child in developmentally appropriate conversation about it all. But I was also crushed because I have a daughter who must one day learn about the cruelties of slavery and racism and sexism. I have a child who is marveling at the magic of water today, but who must one day be taught that the world is a dangerous and mean place, that she is not safe here, and that the people she unabashedly smiles at when they lock eyes with her have the capacity to harm her. And, worst yet, she has the capacity to harm them…and herself.
Like Adam and Eve, she will one day witness or be a part of evil. (May it be as abstract as a broken candy baby or as simple as a trespassed fruit tree.) And, on that day of the end of innocence, of the childish paradise lost, the whole world will change around her. Like putting on a pair of glasses for the first time, the leaves on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which she did not even know existed before, will become sharp and defined. She will know the consequences of God’s controversial decision to give us free will. She will know the potential–and certainty–in each person, including herself, for sin and separation.
But, hopefully, like that white mom at the Kara Walker installation, someone who loves her will get to frame the experience for her. She will be able to ask questions of people she trusts, and she will observe how we all cope and even flourish in this hard situation in which humanity finds itself. And I pray that, when the adolescent cynicism and anger subside, she will decide that it is worth her attention, energy, and more than a few blisters to try to put what has been broken back together again.