Eating Ice Cream While Black (Or My Life In Wellesley, Mass)

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Let me first say that I’ve been called the n-word before…to my face…shouted along with “Heil Hitler.” It was 1992, and I was sixteen years old, living in Barcelona, Spain. I was a foreigner, and I knew to be especially cautious of skinheads. They wore their racism and xenophobia as badges of honor. I’d run away from them a couple of months prior to that evening because once you spotted them, you knew to take off in the opposite direction. My life in Wellesley hasn’t been about that kind of racism. There are no skinheads. There’s a subtler, more insidious kind of racism experienced over time that most people of color in the United States are accustomed to. There’s a term for it now: microaggressions, the subtle, daily instances of racism that you don’t always see coming and that you cannot easily run away from.

Wellesley is a beautiful, affluent community in suburban Massachusetts. Known, of course, for the all-women’s college, but also for its prestige as an exclusive town of sorts with one of the best school systems in the state. Those are wonderful attributes, but diversity does not make it into their town’s historical records. My husband and I packed up our home in our bucolic town in South Jersey the summer of 2011, and we brought our ragtag family of four to live in faculty housing at Wellesley College. Lots of stress comes with a big move, but I was grateful that I landed a postdoc at the college, which has led to my dream job as an Assistant Professor of Art History.

With that description in mind, imagine a beautiful September New England afternoon just weeks after our arrival. I joined a colleague from the college, an African American woman with two beautiful kids of her own, to take a walk together to a popular ice cream spot in the center of town. We sat with our brood of four on a bench outside when an older white woman approached with pearls firmly clutched (ok, maybe I’m imagining that). In seconds, the woman began fondling the feet of the infant, and then she raised her head curiously to take all six of us in. Flustered, as if she couldn’t believe there could be so many of us—brown-skinned people, that is—sitting before her, she remarked with surprise, “Do all of these children belong to you?” She then placed her hand on my four-year-old daughter’s head, and she said almost admiringly, “I want to see your face.” After repeating herself once more, she forced my child’s head to look upward into her eyes, away from my own. After a few more awkward moments, she walked away. My friend and I stared at each other in disbelief. With nervous laughter, I said aloud, “When did we become the petting zoo?” Shaking our heads, we acknowledged this blatant form of patronizing and humiliating conduct that could sometimes be expected from an older generation. We still knew better than that though. If this account seems innocuous to you, and you are a white reader, please check your white privilege (Check out George Yancy’s opinion piece “Dear White America” from the New York Times. Then read Anna Keglar’s “The Sugarcoated Language of White Fragility” to come closer to understanding my position-and yours. When you’re done, pick up Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Get in touch with me directly about a more complete reading list). 

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My son enjoying ice cream in Martha’s Vineyard. Summer 2013. Photo by Nikki A. Greene

Fast forward to July of this year, on the nearly fifth anniversary of our move, a group of Wellesley High School students’ racist and homophobic rants over Facebook Messenger were revealed. The group went as far as to single out two students, an African-American and Mexican-American, enrolled at the school. While this hate speech may have come as a surprise to some white residents, for most people of color, LGBTQ folk, and other underrepresented groups living or working in Wellesley, this warranted a knowing shake of the head, understanding full well that these sort of disturbing, violent stereotypes constitute the underbelly of microaggressions in the town. Whether one is innocently eating ice cream or going to school, there is no armor strong enough to protect you from the painful effects of experiences like these in a conservative community that lacks the racial and economic diversity and education to prevent these incidents from happening.

Residents of Wellesley aren’t the only citizens affected by these actions. Since 1966, Boston parents have been sending their children to the suburbs through the METCO program, a voluntary desegregation program. These brave parents put their even braver children on buses to public schools in places like Wellesley in an effort to offer their children access to the best education possible where their own zip codes do not. While the schools’ academic offerings indeed rank high, much of the social and intellectual work surrounding “multiculturalism” still lags. The few children of color within the school system take on the undue burden of not only educating their classmates (and some teachers), but also facing their own set of microaggressions. Those may include not-so-innocent remarks about their hair texture to teachers’ disproportionately penalization of their behavior, sometimes due to their own unconscious biases. How do I know the affects on the children? My own daughter was bullied in the first grade, and she only found the courage to tell us two years later. In hindsight, we understood why she cried on more than one occasion about wishing to change her skin color.

Why has this overall treatment persisted, or in some instances become worse, in Wellesley and elsewhere in suburban Boston since desegregation efforts began in the sixties? An African-American student at Wellesley High, who spoke anonymously to the Boston Globe about the hate speech, put her finger on one of the central problems:

It’s very possible to go through Wellesley Public Schools from pre-K through graduation and not even interact with a person of color. Not even on purpose — just because of the numbers game…And when you hit 18 and you’ve never interacted with a person of color, it’s very difficult to avoid being a little biased, or a little sheltered, or a little ignorant.

If we were to stay in Wellesley for the long haul, a very unlikely probability, what would be the impact for my children to never encounter an educator of color in their classrooms and scarcely in the administration and for thirteen years? What is the potential psychological damage of facing years and years of microaggressions in the classroom, on the playground, or in ice cream parlors? I am especially leery of this prospect considering that when my six-year-old son grows into an adolescent that he is no longer seen as an adorable, energetic playmate, but rather as a menace to society. This is a fear every black mother possesses; we’ve witnessed the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, and far too many others, suffer through the same fear, only theirs were realized.

On July 28, World of Wellesley, a diversity group, organized a “Gathering of Peace”(#WellesleyStandsUnited), in concert with faith and secular organizations. Around 75 attendees sang together and supported each other as individuals shared personal accounts of their experiences as parents, students, and citizens and offered suggestions for future actions and steps toward healing. After each testimony, the group that stood in a circle of unity recited, “We see you. We hear you. We are grateful for you.” Though we still await the next steps by the school administration and police department to these verbal assaults, it was a promising demonstration of what can be possible in Wellesley to create an inclusive and welcoming environment.

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My daughter and her friend make signs for the Gathering of Peace. July 28, 2016. Photo by Nikki A. Greene

Ultimately, I want my children to feel safe not only on our block, where we are surrounded by a diverse group of loving, openhearted, and open-minded Wellesley College faculty and their families. Ultimately, I want my kids to thrive in whatever space they occupy in order to stand confidently in the brown skin they are in. In the meantime, we are taking off to Martha’s Vineyard this week, one last getaway before school starts. The Vineyard, the town of Oak Bluffs especially, has historically been a vacation refuge for black families to fellowship while swimming on the beach, strolling on the sidewalk, and, yes, even while eating ice cream. There, we all walk with our backs a little straighter, heartened to see families like our own, families who have faced their own set of microaggressions in their hometowns. Our time will overlap with President Obama and his family again this year. I certainly wouldn’t mind my children turning their faces upwards to meet their eyes.

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Menemsha, Martha’s Vineyard. Summer 2014. Photo by Martha McNamara

 

 

Black Portraitures II: BLACK GIRL MAGIC

Black Portraitures II Conference in Florence, Italy provided the beautiful surroundings, amazing fellowship and excellent scholarship that made for a perfect formula for BLACK GIRL MAGIC. You’ve seen this hashtag: #BlackGirlMagic. You may have also come across #CarefreeBlackGirl (In fact, I think I’m raising one):

These hashtags have come to mean much more in the last year. The #SayHerName movement encourages us all to remember the cis and trans black women who have been killed during altercations with the police or while in police custody, especially in the wake of the possible suicide of Sandra Bland while in a jail cell in Texas. We need to recognize women cross the country who continue to work within social, cultural, political and academic programs, movements, and institutions in order to advance black people across the country and around the world. This is my small tribute to those women I met or reunited with in Florence.

Deborah Willis was the driving force behind the Black Portraitures II conference along with a hardworking team of collaborators from New York University, Harvard University, the Studio Museum in Harlem, among others. Dr. Willis is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Dr. Willis has worked throughout her entire career to highlight and celebrate the creativity, talent, and beauty of African Americans, primarily (though not exclusively) in photography. Because of her and the wonderful conference staff members, BLACK GIRL MAGIC was palpable throughout our time in Florence.

Dr. Deborah Willis and Dr. Nikki A. Greene. Black Portraitures Reception at La Villa Pietra.
Dr. Deborah Willis and Dr. Nikki A. Greene. Black Portraitures II Reception at Villa La Pietra, Florence, Italy.

As a photographer, curator, historian and documentarian, her commitment to the arts is unequal to most academics today. Her numerous books include Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the PresentOut [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty; Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers – 1840 to the Present; Let Your Motto be Resistance – African American Portraits; Family History Memory: Photographs by Deborah Willis; VANDERZEE: The Portraits of James VanDerZee; and co-author of The Black Female Body A Photographic History with Carla Williams; Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery with Barbara Krauthamer; and Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs (both titles a NAACP Image Award Winner). Most recently, inspired by Deborah Willis’s book Reflections in Black, Thomas Allen Harris’s film Through a Lens Darkly premiered at Sundance in 2014 (and is now available on Netflix).

THANK YOU, Deborah Willis, for bringing us together so that we can continue to do “the work.” You’re an incomparable mentor and inspiration to so many of us.

Chirlane I. McCray, 1st lady of NYC and Wellesley graduate with Nikki A. Greene
Chirlane I. McCray, 1st lady of NYC and Wellesley graduate with Nikki A. Greene. Black Portraitures II Reception at Villa La Pietra.

There were too many wonderful scholars, artists, students, and art aficionados on hand to name them all (there was so much fangirling going on). I was particularly thrilled to meet Chirlane McCray, New York City’s First Lady (and Wellesley College grad ’76), Spelman College’s new president and art historian, Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, art historian and curator Dr. Kellie Jones, feminist scholar Michele Wallace, and writer Michaela Angela Davis. All of my Dark Room Faculty Seminar sisters made the time spent there that much more enjoyable, of course. And there were so many magical moments…

We occasionally owned the streets of Florence. Right, Jasmine E. Johnson?!

Betty - BPII

There was a paper on BETTY DAVIS by De Angela Duff! Thanks for the shout out for my “Feminist Funk Power” article during your presentation!

We got to “whip our hair back and forth” when we needed to (Autumn Womack!):

When we heard Imani Uzuri sing on stage during the Out of Body panel on music, we were moved:

We also learned that magic can exist anywhere, even in a hair pick (Thanks, Ebony Coletu!)

Ultimately, all we needed to do was just stand around and see all of the beauty, talent, and intelligence that inhabited the spaces of the Odeon Theater and Villa La Pietra in Florence. As a result, WE WERE ALL BLACK PORTRAITS worthy to behold.

Zadie Smith Cool

Zadie & Me
Just…cool.

On Monday, December 1, 2014 renown author Zadie Smith gave a reading from a then novel-in-progress – Swing Time – at Wellesley College. I had the distinct pleasure of introducing her and facilitating the Q&A to a standing-room only audience! I’ve transcribed my introduction below. The gist of it: Zadie Smith is COOL!

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The entire Wellesley College community is absolutely thrilled to welcome Zadie Smith this afternoon, the last author in this fall’s impressive Distinguished Writers Series at the Newhouse Center for the Humanities.  I would like to extend on behalf of the Wellesley College community, a big warm THANK YOU to the Director of the Newhouse Carol Daugherty and the Program Coordinator Jane Jackson for curating and executing such wonderful events throughout the year. There is so much leg work that goes on behind the scenes to create elegant, inspiring and intellectually stimulating conversations for all of us here at Wellesley.

Zadie, we’ve anticipated your arrival since early September because your face has been on display on nearly every corner of this campus! I am honored to introduce Zadie Smith, [writer of four novels, two compilations of short stories, and many, many other stories published] as in The New York Review of Books, including most recently “Find Your Beach.” I’ve only met her for the first time today—but I can already confirm that she is cool. You know this through her writing already, right? Here’s what I mean though: Robert Farris Thompson, Yale University scholar of African art coined the term, “an aesthetic of cool,” which signifies “the sense of a deeply and complexly motivated, consciously artistic, interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, or of responsibility and of play.” It’s an African principle of cool as poise, serene beauty, self-possession that stems from confidence. Your writing has continuously reflected this aesthetic of cool that requires restraint and willful energy that keeps the reader turning page after page. Often times, the interwoven narratives are not easy to traverse, but they are always worth the adventure.

She graduated from Cambridge in 1997. Her acclaimed first novel, White Teeth (2000) won a number of awards and prizes, including the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best First Book), and two BT Ethnic and Multicultural Media Awards (Best Book/Novel and Best Female Media Newcomer). White Teeth has been translated into over twenty languages. Her tenure as Writer in Residence at the Institute of Contemporary Arts resulted in the publication of an anthology of erotic stories entitled Piece of Flesh (2001). In 2013, Zadie Smith’s short story, The Embassy of Cambodia was published in the United Kingdom as a stand-alone story in book form, selling in excess of 40,000 copies in the first year of publication. Zadie Smith’s second novel, The Autograph Man (2002), a story of loss, obsession and the nature of celebrity, won the 2003 Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction. In 2003 and 2013 she was named by Granta magazine as one of 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists.’ On Beauty was published in 2005, and won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction. She has also written a nonfiction book about writing entitled Fail Better (2006). Her book, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, came out in 2009. Her novel, NW (2012) was named as one of the New York Times ’10 Best Books of 2012.’

Since like many other readers in this room, I’ve been following Smith’s work since her debut groundbreaking novel White Teeth in 2000, which introduced us to the endearing characters of two families living in North London, adeptly acknowledging diverse topics such as unlikely friendships, interracial marriage, immigration, and even the fraught legacy of colonialism. Smith found—crafted really—her literary voice very early, at age 22. That’s Cool. I read White Teeth feverishly, sighing woefully – especially at that hair relaxer scene. Nodding in agreement when Archie Jones finally began to relate to his Pakistani friend Samad Iqbal. And literally laughing out loud, sometimes uncomfortably, at/with her protagonists – again that relaxer passage. I marvel still today at how she continues to mature and experiment in her writing (I speak here of NW specifically) offering still ever so much for her faithful readers to devour. That is cool.

Few authors address the complicated terrains of race, sex, and class with the level of sophistication and humor with which Smith has through four novels and numerous short stories. Smith manages to create scenes of quasi-Shakespearean tragedy within modern spaces from a fictitious Boston-area academic community called “Well-ington” as configured in her second novel On Beauty (published in 2005 and in her latest novel NW published in 2012) readers return to Smith’s native London diving us into a throbbing neighborhood with another cast of sometimes hilarious and equally frustratingly sad charactersWhile reading NW, I smiled despite many heart-wrenching passages because Smith would often do something unexpected, like inserting lyrics from Nas’ “If I Ruled the World” that kept playing in my head after I closed the book! She is my peer. She gets me. That. Is. Cool.

I enjoyed sitting in on the book discussion that took place on campus treating On Beauty just a couple of weeks ago with faculty, staff, and students.  Of course, this academic community of WELLINGTON felt a little too close for some of my colleagues. At one point during the discussion, and it was a lively one – which touched on a number of issues including Kantian philosophical debates of the sublime and beauty, the imperfect personal/personality development of Levi, the exploration of authenticity, ambiguity, and the inheritedness of identities, Englishness or blackness, for example – one person remarked to a faculty member about a criticism a character or description (I don’t remember the exact point of contention), “You didn’t like the book?!” She immediately stood her ground, stating with her post-it note laden copy in hand, “It’s not that I don’t like the book. I love the book. I don’t argue with a book that I don’t love.” I return to this: “an aesthetic of cool,” which signifies “the sense of a deeply and complexly motivated, consciously artistic, interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, or of responsibility and of play.” The tension and play between the words on the page and the emotional response from the readers is coool.

With that, I invite you to please welcome ZADIE SMITH.

ZS and me1

In-Transit/En tránsito in Santiago, Chile: Wellesley College Faculty Exhibition & Talk

Galería Macchina, Universidad Católica, Santiago, Chile. August 2014.

I’m excited to be traveling to Santiago, Chile this week to brag about my brilliant colleagues in the Department of Art, Music, and Cinema & Media Studies at Wellesley College for the opening of In-Transit/En Tránsito, organized by Chilean artist and Associate Professor of Art, Daniela Rivera. The exhibition takes place at the Galería Macchina at the School of Art at Universidad Católica from August 20 through September 23.

Participating artists include: Carlos Dorrien, Candice Ivy, Jenny Olivia Johnson, David Kelly, Nicholas Knouf, Phyllis McGibbon, Salem Mekuria, Qing Ming Meng, Andrew Mowbry, Daniela Rivera, Betsy Seder, and David Teng Olsen.

I’m also thrilled to be taking funk on the road! I’ll be speaking about my own research, “The Feminist Funk Power of Betty Davis & Renée Stout,” at Galería Macchina at the School of Art at Universidad Católica on Tuesday, August 20 at 6p.m. Musicologist Daniel Party will serve as moderator.

Azúcar Negra: Still Digesting Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”

I’ve been struggling to put into words the kind of phenomenological experience I had going to see Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that no amount of preparation could actually equip you. Just being there–anxious, confined, exhilarated and unsettled–has made one of the greatest impressions on me as an art historian woman of color.

Fallen Sugar Sculpture. Kara Walker, A Subtlety. Domino Factory. Brooklyn, New York. July 5, 2014. Photo by Nikki A. Greene.

Since my visit to the Domino Factory in Brooklyn on July 5, I cannot rid myself of Celia Cruz singing out her signature refrain: “¡Azúcar!”  Her hook is not a gimmick, but rather an affirmation of her blackness. A firm recognition of the labor of many black bodies that endured the Middle Passage to the Americas to harvest crops, including sugar cane, in places like her native Cuba. The Afro-Cuban proudly asserted in one of her many classic songs, “Azúcar Negra” (written by Mario Diaz):

Soy dulce como el melao’/Alegre como el tambor/Llevo el ritmico tumbao’/Y Africa en el corazon/Hija de una isla rica/Esclava de una sonrisa/ Soy calle y soy carnaval/Calle corazón y tierra/Mi sangre es azúcar negra/Es amor y es música/ Azucar azucar negra/Cuanto me gusta y me alegra/Azucar azucar negra/Ay cuanto me gusta y me alegra

I’m sweet as molasses/Merry as the drum/I wear the rhythmic tumbao’/And Africa in the heart/Daughter of a rich island/slave of a sunrise/I am street and I am carnival/Street, heart and earth/My blood is brown sugar/It is love and music/Black (Brown) Sugar Sugar / How much I love it and it makes me happy/ Black (Brown) Sugar Sugar / Oh how much I love it and it makes me happy*

The excitement of the long-awaited pilgrimage to Brooklyn to one of the most tweeted/blogged/televised/talked about installation of the year subsided once I stepped inside. Once I finally reached the Creative Time‘s sign fully announcing the exhibition, I smelled the molasses-dripped walls of the Domino factory before I entered. The scent enveloped me as I looked around at the vacuous space containing throngs of people navigating the rust and licorice-colored puddles that gathered in the unexpected sloping corners and passages around the carefully-placed sculptures of brown-sugared “children” holding baskets.

Mammy in waiting I knew the “Mammy Sphinx” awaited my inspection, but I only wanted to glance at her from afar. I had to first take my cues from those children, some made of resin coated in sugar, others made of pure azúcar negra (brown sugar) who marked a path from the entrance towards the gleaming white Mammy-in-waiting. For me, they set the tone in the Domino factory. Walker wisely chose to let the conditions of space, time, and the natural elements take their due course, leaving those pure sugar babies purposely neglected, fallen, and broken. Those sculptures were best described by the sound poet, Tracie Morris, who stated at the Free University – NYC event, “Subtleties of Resistance,” held within the factory that afternoon, that the looming sculpture was “a ghost watching over all those sweet dying children.” Paraphrasing Morris, she describe how “their tiny load bearing bodies literally melting on the factory floor and in the shadows are the real story of enslaved labor, suffering, death. She watches them – gaze fixed straight ahead – protecting them, bearing witness for them.” An eery, but apt description.

A number of other elements made me trepidatious about approaching the “Sugar Mama” because it took time to acclimate to the environment: the (anti)ceremonial procession on a street in Brooklyn, the heat of the blazing sun outside, the coolness of the darkened interior, the scent (oh the stench), the reluctant dampness of melting azúcar negra, and the sticky floors coated with it audibly marking each person’s step within.

My attendance was tempered by meeting a former Domino factory worker, Mr. Robert Shelton. I’d learned about his presence as a volunteer through an article written by Leigh Raiford and Robin Hayes in The Atlantic, “Remembering the Workers of the Domino Factory.” As we approached the Sugar Mama — I can’t stop calling her that — Mr. Shelton’s availability to speak about his work within the building mediated my own conflict between the hands of the laborers who earned a living since the factory’s opening in the 1856 until its fraught closing in 2004 and the “art” and its substance in the hands of Kara Waker. Yes, his very presence made the history of the factory much more palpable, palatable, and extraordinary.

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After being there, I do understand why one would yell  (“Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit,” The Indypendent, June 30, 2014). I mostly sighed in my discomfort. It’s a tough piece, and it’s even tougher watching people in inappropriate poses at the expense of the representation of the very people victimized by institutions/systems that created versions of these kinds of “sugar mamas” and their resultant destructive forces. This, despite the public protests against such postering (“‘We Are Here’: People of Color Gather at Kara Walker Show”).

Indeed, the “Sugar Mama” was formidable. She took my breath away. But, what to do with the uneasiness of having seen a black woman’s body turned into a powerful, yet vulnerable monument to the legacy of sugar? What to do about an homage to the black, female body whose site(s) of power — her monumental frame (40′ x 70′ x 90′), her kerchiefed head, her exposed vulva — put on display for close observation, critique, and praise? The respectful and powerful introspection of the “Subtleties of Resistance” really did help to contextualize the installation with the set of readings/performances staged by Free University – NYC with original sound poetry by Tracie Morris, a reading of Frederick Douglass’s July 5, 1852 speech “What to the slave is your Fourth of July?” by Brian Jones, and Sofía Gallisá reading in Spanish of Abelardo Díaz Alfaro’s 1947 story “Bagazo.” (I wasn’t able to attend the workshop and film screening afterward. I imagine that was also immensely transformative for participants.) Being in the company of Wellesley colleagues, former students and other friends who just so happened to come through, I felt in solidarity with those who were willing to thoughtfully and courteously discuss the experience.

There are so many sentiments spoken and unspoken that must still be felt, expressed, sung, and written about. My friend and Wellesley College colleague, Dr. Elena Creef, who joined me on this journey, coined a term – “A Middle Sugar Passage.” Yes, we are travelers on a different kind of 21st century “Passage” wading through the structural failures of a post-industrial collapse of manufacturing in the United States. No, we weren’t taken against our will aboard a ship from our homeland into a foreign one, but we were made to feel like we swayed within the bowels of a vessel, with a single porthole provided in one of the walls to enhance that perception. Again, I ask, where do I — do we — go from here? …back to Celia Cruz perhaps.

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Very few pieces in recent history have done the kind of work to foster the conversations that I think this installation will engender for years to come. I’ve still got my work cut out for me. Research may answer some questions, but I may never be satisfied. That, I guess, is the brilliance of Kara Walker’s 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.

¡AZÚCAR!

BOOKS on sugar and slavery to the rescue. Photo by Nikki A. Greene.
BOOKS on sugar and slavery to the rescue. Photo by Nikki A. Greene.* Thank you to Andreina Castillo for help with the translation of the lyrics to “Azúcar Negra.”

* Thank you to Andreina Castillo for help with the translation of the lyrics to “Azúcar Negra.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 







 

 

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