This summer, an estimated 130,000 visitors descended upon an abandoned, soon-to-be-demolished sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to take in the latest exhibit by renowned artist-slash-provocateur Kara Walker. Housed in the historic Domino Sugar Refinery, the exhibit was titled “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.” A tribute to the historical struggles of African-American women, Walker’s work also serves as a poignant reminder of the subtle ways in which those struggles morph, but continue to persist, over time.
I was one of the many people who lined up for, and found myself awed by, the exhibit one weekend afternoon in June. The centerpiece (the titular “Sugar Baby”) was a 35-foot-tall, sugar-coated “sphinx turned mammy,” complete with exaggerated physique and an “Aunt Jemima” kerchief on her head. Several smaller sculptures – resin-coated children carrying baskets of bananas and other ware – were scattered throughout the periphery of the warehouse. On the day I visited the factory, many of the smaller sculptures had started to melt; their withered, amputated and truncated limbs, the dark puddles they left behind, and the molasses-infused fumes that filled the air, lent the whole scene an even more tragic air.
Like much of Walker’s work, A Subtlety is, at least in part, a rumination on race, gender, sexuality, and exploitation. Slavery and the sugar trade were inextricably intertwined in the Americas; African labor – including that of women and children – played an integral role in transforming Western economies through the production of what Walker dubbed “blood sugar.” Moreover, the use of sugar and much of the exhibit’s imagery (e.g., the kerchief donned by the Sugar Baby) call back to the twin roles to which African-American women were commonly relegated during slavery – field laborers and mammies.
In a sense, the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refinery – the largest sugar refinery in the world by the end of the Civil War – feels like the end of an era, the closing of the door on a particularly painful chapter of our history. That the closing should coincide with the 50th anniversary of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the landmark legislation prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex and other protected categories, makes it feel especially resonant. And yet, I’m reminded every day (both in my role as a civil rights lawyer and in my personal life) how much the issues raised by A Subtlety persist to this day, albeit it in more subtle form.
For example, while black women are, for the most part, no longer unpaid for their labor, they continue to be woefully underpaid. As President Obama noted when he issued a recent Executive Order addressing gender pay equity, women earn only 77 cents to the dollar compared to men. But these numbers, dismal as they are, obscure the even more grim reality for African-American women and many other women of color. A recent study by the National Women’s Law Center found that African-American women working full-time are typically paid only 64 cents for every dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts. This is despite the fact that African-American women serve as heads of households in larger numbers than any other group. Latina women fare even worse, earning only 54 cents to the dollar.
Moreover, women of color remain disproportionately represented in low-wage, female-dominated industries such as domestic work and service sector jobs. One study found that a whopping 37% of workers in the 10 largest low-wage occupations are women of color, even though they comprise only 16% of the overall workforce. Many of these are immigrant women, whose struggle to achieve pay equity is compounded by language and cultural barriers as well as their sometimes precarious immigration status.
This “double pay gap” and stark occupational segregation highlight why the minimum wage debate and other labor rights issues are especially critical for women of color. Yet the voices of these women have largely been relegated to the background. For a brief moment, A Subtlety brought them to the forefront, forcing us to confront our painful past and, thus, reminding us of the continued discrimination and exploitation encountered by women of color today.