Monday, July 7, 2014

The Secret Life of Bananas by Federico Navarrete

Banana is a commonplace fruit. It is ubiquitous, tasty, and quite easy to eat. But behind this facade of banality---safely hidden within thick peels---lies a perturbing history of global capitalism, racial oppression and gender discrimination. 

Françoise Verges's presentation at the 2014 Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism is a brilliant exposition of this unsettling history of capital and violence that lurks behind the banana. 

The banana is one of the oldest cultivated fruits in the world. It originated in New Guinea and spread to South Asia and Africa thousands of years ago. In the 16th century, it was brought to the Americas, alongside millions of African slaves captured by European colonial powers and forced to work in plantations. 

Ever since then, bananas have become an essential part of life in the West and of modern consumer culture. However, the consumer’s right to enjoy this fruit has always been attained at the cost of subjugating the laborers who produced them---laborers ranging from African slaves and indigenous workers in the Americas to indentured laborers across the Indian ocean.

In some ways, the development of labor and capital in the west requires an examination of the rise of banana as a stable commodity. The industrialization of banana in the 20th century brought about a new wave of labor migration accompanied by racist segregation and exploitation that forced female, male and child workers to work in terrible conditions with little rights. It also engendered a new kind of colonialism centered on the Banana Republic and new forms of ecologic devastation due to the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

In the West, these contradictions have been rendered largely invisible thanks to well-funded advertisement campaigns that seek to dissociate the fruit from its origins and to peel off the layers of race and class and gender, including political and environmental imperialism that allow its production. These kinds of campaigns are rendered all the more powerful because they draw on sexual tropes that associate the fruit with blackness, the feminine body, and the tropics. Banana has, thus, become feminized and linked to Latino sensuality.

By examining such an everyday object, such a commonplace article of food through a critical lens, Francois Verges reveals the hidden networks that shape our world and define our lives in such contradictory and unequal ways, hence giving some the privilege of consuming fruits produced half a world away, while demeaning the lives of many others, generally those with darker skin, often women. Add to this the fact that entire islands such as Martinique and Guadaloupe in the Caribbean are left with land that can no longer be cultivated as a result of pesticide use and other harmful agricultural practices. 

In referring to banana as a "strange fruit," Verges evokes an iconic expression of anti-racism. "Strange Fruit" is a song originally written as a poem and then set to music by Abel Meeropol but later popularized by Billie Holiday.  The song is itself an attempt to express the horrors of black male lynching in Southern USA. 

By evoking the image of banana as a "strange fruit," Verges makes the point that a fruit as innocuous as the banana can be redolent of exploitation, racism and sexism that haunt our world just as the stench of death pervaded the nights of the racist South.

The image is under a Creative Common License: (c) Jo Christian Oterhals via Flickr

About the Author: 
Federico Navarrete is a Researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He has also written many books for young readers, including novels about the conquest of Mexico and the interaction between Amerindians, Africans and Europeans through their supernatural beings and beliefs. The title of his latest novel is Nahuales contra vampiros.
Follow him on Twitter: @Fedenavarrete

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