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

The Politics of Invisibility and the Pedagogy of the Archive by Alexandre White

I am conscious of a certain pressure before me in attempting to archive our panel discussion on our final night in Swaziland. It became quickly apparent that what we were witnessing, in the testimonials and histories of the four Swazi representatives, an encounter with the practice of archiving. 

All the contestations, fragmentations, and obfuscations of the archival project were laid bare for all to see in the vulnerabilities and problematics of the panelists. This I believe provides an interesting opportunity to discuss certain pedagogical questions of the archive as well as the importance of representation.

The complexities of everyday life exposed in the retelling of these varied experiences highlight the contrasting modes of living through unsettled times.

 As was told to us, the possibilities for public expression and freedom of the press in Swaziland are diminishing. The realities of this situation make the careful consideration of its archive even more critical.

Censorship is a great danger to the archival project as it disciplines the act of putting pen to paper making an engagement with the archive all the more difficult. Such actions also render histories that may enliven the archive invisible to dominant practices of academic research.

In the imagining of the archive we must also be mindful of how that archive is retaught and replicated in discussion and education as well as the limitations of teaching from the perspective of complete knowledge, or as Francoise Vergés has put it, a project of omnipotence.

In assuming omnipotence or in its pursuit, we can so often gloss over that which the archive has made invisible. The Panel represented four vastly contrasting views on everyday life in Swaziland. However, as many pointed out, there were conspicuous absences of certain voices that were discussed but not seen. Several of the panelists presented a narrative that depicted Swaziland as a relatively untroubled space of interracial sexual exchange.

Digging beyond the opinions of these few, how might the understandings and particularities of this moment be changed by interventions and testimonials of black men and women who also loved across racial lines? How might the ethnomethodological practice of archiving unearth these histories made invisible by social forces and what are the stakes of leaving such questions uncontested? Also, what sorts of questions arise from the fact that two of the three members of the panel active in the anti-apartheid struggle were women? How does this exposure recontextualize questions of activism and revolutionary struggle?

I'd like to end with the question that Gabeba Baderoon left us with during the panel---what do we make of the way that South Africa forms the point around which the archives of frontier states must pivot?

The theme of the panel concerned places of refuge from Apartheid. Such a question, though fascinating, positions Swaziland and its history secondary to the concerns of South Africa.  Rather than directly answer Gabeba’s question, I want to introduce an element we may not have explored yet---how we approach the archive as a pedagogical project.

The process of archival recovery is not only about unearthing contested knowledges and searching for that which has disappeared. The wherewithal to ask the right questions that attest to such a project also requires keen sharpening of the analytic mind to recognize the questions that may retrieve such knowledge.  

While we may pursue our own reparative archival projects, a pedagogical process of training must also occur so as not to gloss over or render invisible those actors whose role in the archive have been so mindfully and unmindfully misrepresented and repressed.   
 All images by Tana Nolethu Forrest. 

About the Author
Alexandre White is a Martin Luther King Jr. Fellow and Graduate Student at Boston University. He studies race theories within the context of postcolonial theory and medical sociology. 

Follow him on Twitter: @RhizomeNomad