When I was a little boy I was reconnoitering the Cologne Lowland by bicycle. Endless fields of sugar beets growing on the fertile plains ranging from the lowlands of Cologne until Aachen. The loess soil had been smoothed since the last ice age. Since we were children our parents had shown us how to cut mellow sugar beets and to taste the sweetness through chewing on their pieces. In those days there were little sugar factories, easy to find following their sweet odor. Since our parents had to feed five kids they had given us use of golden syrup as spread on our sandwiches. Since then I know before there is fine white crystal sugar, you have wonderful, gluey, dark black molasses.
However, I didn´t know that the relationship/play on colors of black and white was burned into the landscape in a very different way: The extensive mono-culture of the sugar beet was due to the Haitian Revolution. Today, no one who takes a stroll through the Lowlands of Cologne refers to Haiti and not to revolting slaves. The history of female slaves who brought their knowledge about botany from Africa to the Caribbean to poison their white masters. Without the first and the only successful revolution of the enslaved, which took place from 1792 until 1804, a sugar beet would not exist.
For us today they are insignificant, cheap products of daily consumption: sugar, coffee or cotton, for the early capitalism of the 17th and 18th century they were the most profitable motors of global trade and the victory of capital accumulation for the development of a new capitalist world system. Sugar and coffee were back then an entirely new and stunning luxury good and a stimulant drug. Without these excitatory „colonial goods“ we would not have faced an Age of Reason and no French Revolution. Can you imagine the great thinkers of the Age of Reason without their disputes in smokey coffee shops? As much as Rousseau and others used the image of the enslaved man in chains for their propaganda of inherent human rights, the real slaves, the ones who were taken from the shores of Africa to the Caribbean islands to produce the material products for highly intellectual discussions in Paris, Amsterdam or London, were not who they meant – and for sure not the women.
In four centuries of the emerging capitalism, roughly one third of the 12.5 million people, who were brought on slave ships to the New World were women. And of the 12.5 million only 10.5 million survived the middle passage. When in 1792 on the biggest and wealthiest colony of the former world, the French St. Domingue at the island Hispaniola the slaves started to revolt, kill their white masters and burn the plantations, Europe saw a shortage of sugar. In the streets of Paris poorer people demonstrated, not to demand cheap bread, but for a lower sugar price. And this is the story how the sugar beet made it into the Lowlands of Cologne – the rebellious slaves in the Caribbean had pushed the ruling class in Europe to invest its own, much less productive, sugar plant.
And the rebels refused the game of colors in a way that would not have come to the mind of any big hero of the Age of Reason; they decided in the constitution of their new state, Haiti, that from now on all humans were black.
Doesn´t flour exist much longer than sugar? Isn´t it a synonym for the ideal village, the happy picture, where the farmer ploughs the field, while the daughters bake the bread? Like the idyll of the today´s housewife, “How nice! You made a cake for us! Oh, darling, you have a bit of flour on your cheek.” How sweet!
Flour is a crop shredded down to dust particles. In the Neolithic age, the crop became a staple food – so since we were expelled from the garden and banished to work the ground. This bigoted establishment on a piece of ground, the so-called getting settled, which still reminds to detain someone, marks the establishment of a double domination: the class society, in which a minority makes a majority work and exploit – and the dominance of men over women.
Hence, in the foundation of our Jewish-Christian leading culture it is written: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread – and women: In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children, and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
Flour also tells a story.
The kernel needs to be ground. The mill is the great model for modern industry. The smartly invented mechanism to grind the kernel powered by water, wind or hand provided the model for the means of discipline. In order to make the begging tramps, men and women, work: The treadmill of the jail and work-houses of the early capitalism, which, in the 17th and 18th century were established all over Europe, did not produce anything useful, but the drilled body.
Flour, sugar, cotton, sand, coffee, water: Material. Material which – special in its prosaicness – is telling a story, but at the same time in its banality it is concealing history. We are constantly looking for a way of expression to unveil history, but it is always us trying it. And we try to understand: What is our history in all of that or who we are in this historicity?
“Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.” Ishmael says in Herman Melville´s Moby Dick. Ishmael had hired on a whale ship, one of these early capitalist factories, where they produced oil, before we dug holes in the desert sand and kicked out the last nomads.
Where are we now? Are we looking back on a cruel history or is it the mirror of our own misery? What are our treadmills and is it possible to flee from them through arts, the arrogant vanity of the progress which uses the dark past to satisfy itself? Walter Benjamin opposed it with, “The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are ’status quo‘ is the catastrophe”
Maybe we should think our relationship of history as a remembrance to see what is not yet redeemed. An image of a pretty cotton plant in the wind could remind us that each single piece of cotton we are wearing still has the sweet smell of dead bodies, the strange fruits of which Billie Holiday sings so painfully.