My 2ndgrade classroom has a diverse group of children with a range of ethnicities and complexions. On Valentines Day, our teacher brought us different kinds of candies and deserts to celebrate the occasion. As we ate, admired, and traded our treats together, a dialog with heavy historical, political, and racial ties quickly developed.
“Your skin looks like this chocolate!” one white student said to a black student. “Are black people made of chocolate?” he asked. The child’s tone of voice had a kind of playfulness and naiveté that is typical of young children, and so the question did not feel like a racial attack at the time, but I distinctly remember leaving class that day with the question, “What am I made of?”
As a person of mixed heritage with both white and black family lineage, I have always occupied a unique space in the conception and conversation of race in America. The question of, “What am I made of” extends far beyond the scope of a child’s comments about chocolate, for it is rooted in the larger question of the nature of identity for people with a multiracial composition. My skin is pretty light, and so it would not appear that I am made of chocolate, but I still identify as a black person in every way.
Comments such as the ones made by my 2ndgrade classmate are actually quite common in our society. Black women with dark complexions are often referred to as “dark chocolate” in a sexualized and racialized way. Chocolate and vanilla have become well-established cultural metaphors for whiteness and blackness. And in the scope of racism and prejudice that black people experience, these comments can often appear trivial or even meant to be complements. But are these comments and associations merely benign connections between the color of chocolate or vanilla with various skin tones, or is this another product of white supremacy and other historical factors? In order to answer this question, we must take a look into the history of chocolate manufacturing and consumption as it relates to blackness.
A bitter-sweet history
When we look at the history of chocolate production, we are looking at a history of African slave labor. Between 10 and 15 millions slaves were stolen from Africa and brought to work in various farms and plantations that manufactured cacao, cotton, and sugar in the Caribbean, Europe, and the Americas. In addition to the alarming number of slaves that were forced into labor, 40 out of every 100 slaves dies in the process of being transported across the Atlantic. The African people were considered property under the system of chattel slavery, and the conditions were so severe that the life expectancy for a slave in the Caribbean and Brazil was only about 7 to 8 years. (Martin, 2019)This statistic shows the horrific nature of the violence that was involved in chocolate production. The system known as Encomienda allowed Spanish colonists in America to force indigenous people in to permanent servitude. It is important to understand that racism against these African slaves emerged and grew out of a desire to continue to justify the extremely profitable system of slavery. Even after the abolitionist movements that eventually banned legal slave labor, indentured servitude and other forms of slavery still persisted. (Martin, 2019) Here we see the dehumanization of black people and the link between the ownership of black bodies and the products that their labor creates. If people began to feel that slavery was in fact the exploitation of human bodies and lives for profit, it would become more problematic to continue this practice. So the dehumanization of black people emerged from an incentive to maximize product, rather than some innate quality of black people. Just like we cannot accurately consider the history of this country without looking at slave labor, we cannot consider the social, political, or economic history of chocolate without acknowledging the gruesome history of violence and exploitation that made chocolate manufacturing so profitable. (Orla 2011)
Dehumanization of black bodies in modern advertisements and pop-culture
But this connection between the ownership of black bodies and the production of chocolate has been preserved and enhanced by the original and modern systems of chocolate consumption and advertisement. While in many ways the history of slavery as it relates to chocolate have been hidden and erased, in other alarming ways this history has shaped the consumption of chocolate in very tangible ways. This can be seen very clearly in the product design and advertisements of several different chocolate products. Here are some examples:
The French company Banania used a common racial caricature of a primitive, smiling black face in its advertisements. These ads perpetrate the notion that black people are simple, and it removes any notions of coercive labor or violence by including the well-known wide smile. Another non-so-subtle implication of these advertisements is the association between black people and primitive beings such as monkeys, through the use of bananas and the way in which black people are drawn, which has been a long-standing racist notion.
The Spanish company Conguitos sells a product that explicitly resembles the black body, which further reinforces the association between the consumption of blackness and the consumption of chocolate. The name “Conguitos” roughly translates to “little person from the Congo”. Here, the black person is also diminished into a childlike, primitive being that is designed for consumption, as emphasized by the tribal spear, lack of detail, simple facial expression, emphasized lips, and wide eyes. All of these factors contribute to the dehumanization of black people through this product.
Perhaps the most disturbing example of the connection between chocolate and the consumption of black bodies is the case of Belgium’s chocolate hands. These chocolate hands are considered a delicacy in Belgium, but they have a truly horrifying origin. When the Belgian King Leopold II occupied the Congo, it was common practice to cut off and collect the right hands of Congolese slaves. The hands became a symbol of allegiance to the throne and even a form of currency. The chocolate hands symbolize and glorify this history, while reinforcing the notion that black bodies are meant for consumption. (Martin 2019) When gruesome practices such as collecting Congolese hands are normalized and removed from their violent origins, the violence and racism is maintained while the awareness of the true history is diminished.
Another example from popular culture of the ways in which the history of slavery is still preserved in chocolate culture is the original depiction of the Oompa Loompas in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.It turns out that in the original version of the story, the Oompa Loompas, Willy Wonka’s labor force, were described as dark skinned, childlike ‘pygmies’ that Willy Wonka found in the African jungle to bring back to his factory. (Robertson 2010) Not only are the Oompa Loompas radicalized in a manner that glorifies the history of slave labor in chocolate production, but they are made to be unthreatening and primitive beings who work without conscious and sing songs. I find this knowledge about the Oompa Loompas origins very disturbing for several reasons. It dehumanizes black people and glorifies slavery in a way that erases the aspects of violence and cruelty of slavery, transforming the suffering of millions into some sort of comic relief for the story. It also displays how acceptable and common the concept of having slave labor was that Roald Dahl thought to include it in a children’s story. But perhaps why I find this particular example of the connection between chocolate and slavery so relevant to my narrative is because within the original dialog of the story, the protagonist Charlie Bucket actually asks if the Oompa Loompas are made of chocolate because as he describes, “Their skin is almost black!” (Robertson 2010) This reminds me of the same question that my 2ndgrade classmate asked, and the ways in which the legacy of slavery that was glorified in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory still persists today. Even though the blackness of the Oompa Loompas has since been written out of the story, the knowledge of the original story provides us with important insight on the connection between black bodies and chocolate.
What these examples and the horrific nature of the history of slavery for chocolate production show is that there has been a long-standing monetary interest in the ownership and consumption of black bodies. The profit of slave labor and the products that come as its result has incentivized the large-scale dehumanization of black people and has lead to the fetishization and fantasy of black bodies as representing the products that they create, rather than the reality of their existence, pain, or humanity. In a sense, the black body has been so ‘delicious’ for whiteness to consume that it has become a deeply embedded aspect of our culture, because its consumption has been associated with the sweetness of sugar and chocolate and not the bitter truth of slave labor. While the origins of this slave system have been hidden and pushed out of the public conscious, these dangerous notions about ownership of the black body extend to our culture today, and this is seen in more than just chocolate consumption. Look at the tendency for white people to touch black women’s hair without permission, the constant appropriation of black ideas, features, and culture, and the hyper-policing, monitoring, and brutalization of black youth by police. These are all current manifestations of the notion that black bodies are meant to be owned, controlled, exploited, and consumed, just like the association between chocolate and blackness. These are features of a system of white supremacy that distorts or erases the evidence of past atrocities while preserving the dehumanization that arose from it. (Lowell 2005)
Who is made of what?
So in the context of chocolate’s long history of exploiting black people, and the racism that emerged as a means of preserving these systems through dehumanization, the seemingly innocent question of “Are black people made of chocolate” appears to be rooted in decades of racism, slavery, and ignorance. This is not to say that my classmate (or Charlie Bucket) asked the question with malicious intent, but rather that he was conditioned at such a young age to associate black people with the product of their labor. In fact, this question also can serve as evidence of this history, considering that people with light complexions are not asked if they are made of wheat, wood, or another substance with similar tone, even by children. After studying this history, I now feel that I have an answer for my classmate. Black people are not made of chocolate, but chocolate is made of black people, in the sense that it has been historically created through their oppression and forced labor. And as for my questions of what I am made of, I have come to realize that I am both a product and consumer, in the sense that my ancestors were both consumed to make chocolate and consumers of chocolate itself. I feel that this identity allows me to look at my own internalized biases that stem from slavery and understand the ways in which I have both suffered and benefitted from these systems. This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy chocolate anymore because of its violent history, just like it doesn’t mean we can’t still feel pride for a country with a violent foundation. Instead, it should serve as a reminded for us to critically analyze our conceptions of race and recommit ourselves to understanding the true history of our world, regardless of how unpleasant it might be.
1. Sampeck, Kathryn, and Jonathan Thayn. 2017. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.”
2. Martin, Carla. “20190403 Race, ethnicity, gender, and class in chocolate advertisements” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, Emerson Lecture Hall, Cambridge, MA
3.Martin, Carla. “20190306 Slavery, abolition, and forced labor ” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, Emerson Lecture Hall, Cambridge, MA
4.Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 . The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
5.Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. pp.
6. Robertson, Emma. 2010. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History.
7. Ryan, Orla. 2011. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa.