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Chocolate as a Pedagogical Tool for Teaching about Race and Racism: A High School Lesson Plan

TLDR: The following is a 2-3 day lesson plan for high school educators adapted from and inspired by Dr. Carla Martin’s course “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food” at Harvard University. The main goal of this lesson plan is to develop students’ contemporary understandings of race and racism by situating this knowledge within the historical processes of colonization, slavery, and racial representation—through chocolate! Students should already have basic knowledge about the world geography, colonization of the Americas, chattel slavery, and the Jim Crow era.

Background for Teachers

What’s the big deal about chocolate?

Chocolate is a unsung hero of many of our everyday lives in America, especially in the lives of young people who always appreciate a chocolate candy bar after a long day of school, some chocolate cake after they’ve finished their vegetables at dinner, or a waffle cone full of chocolate ice cream on a hot summer day. If chocolate is ever controversial, it is because we may disagree with our friends or family members about whether white chocolate versus milk chocolate versus dark chocolate is the best, or in deciding if it’s really that much worth it to spend a few extra dollars on a Dove bar over a Hershey’s in the supermarket checkout line. However, what if we step back and begin to think about how chocolate got to the checkout line, on our plate, or in a waffle cone? What if we begin to think about chocolate as something that is cultural, political, social, and historical? Why in our society, for example, do we use the word “chocolate” to describe dark skin? What might chocolate be able to tell us about social phenomena like race and racism when we dig a little deeper? In fact, to understand race and racism through the lens of chocolate—something that seems like such a mundane yet integral part of our everyday lives—allows us to understand, as Michael Omi and Howard Winant tell us, how race and racism indeed shapes all part of our society and our identities. [1]

This is where Dr. Carla Martin steps in. Dr. Martin is a lecturer in the Department of African and American Studies at Harvard as well as the founder and executive director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI), an organization which works to advance quality products and ethical practices in chocolate supply chains, especially issues related to unfair treatment of Black and Brown farmers in Africa and Central America. In her work and studies, Dr. Martin looks at the historical and global processes of colonization and harmful labor practices in the rise of chocolate production and consumption, predominantly focused on the people of Central America and West Africa. Through a disciplinary approach—combining anthropology, sociology, economics, history, political science, biology, African American studies, Latinx studies, and more—she teaches about the history of growing cacao (the plant used to make chocolate), chocolate’s changing cultural meanings from days of Aztecs and Mayans to being eaten by people around the world today, the relationship between the European colonization of Mesomerica and the rise of slavery to the global chocolate market today being controlled by only a few companies which often treat Black and Brown cacao farmers unfairly, and the ways that we have understood and represented race in and through this history to the contemporary moment. Her class at Harvard, called “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food,” is extremely popular. Incentivized by weekly chocolate tastings, this course brings together a unique group of students, many of whom are white and middle-class, that typically wouldn’t take a class focused on questions of race and racism.

Schools in the United States can be understood as institutions of knowledge and identity formation which have historically been both constituted by and constitutive of meanings of race since the moment European colonizers began eliminating Indigenous people and enslaving Africans on this land, Bettina Love calling them “spaces of Whiteness”—Black and Indigenous people have nonetheless remained resistant and resilient, forging since their own institutions of knowledge and collective identity, which included establishing the public school system in the American South.[2-5] Nevertheless, the dominant mode of American schooling has always been one that seeks to do away with Indigenous culture and sensibilities, disempower and exploit Black people, and uphold ideals and systems that privilege white people. Talking specifically about the logic of whiteness in schooling/formation of knowledge, Du Bois writes, “How easy, then, by emphasis and omission to make children believe that every great soul the world ever saw was a white man’s soul; that every great thought the world ever knew was a white man’s thought; that every great deed the world ever did was a white man’s deed; that every great dream the world ever sang was a white man’s dream.”[6] A decade later, Carter G. Woodson would echo Du Bois’ sentiment, writing, “Why not exploit, enslave, or exterminate a class that everybody is taught to regard as inferior? There would be no lynching if it did not start in the classroom.”[7] What Du Bois and Woodson are fundamentally pointing to, and what I am presupposing in my own argument here, is that, as Jarvis Givens puts it, “violence inflicted upon Black bodies” by white people originates “at the level of ideas and knowledge.”[8] Thus, the intervention that Dr. Martin makes through her course allows us think about how chocolate can be used as a salient pedagogical tool for constructing anti-racist knowledge not only at the university level, but for all learners, especially in spaces that are white and middle-class.

Why teach about Race and Racism?

More than 150 years since Emancipation and half a century since the Civil Rights Movement and social transformation out of the Jim Crow order, racism continues to structure American society. Today, life in the United States is characterized by what Michael Omi and Howard Winant call racial hegemony, that is whereas the nation’s past was characterized by violent, legally-explicit domination of Black and Brown people (such as through forced labor and lynching), racism today exists in the form of colorblind racism.[9] While many people, particularly white Americans, use phrases such as “I don’t see color” to express that they try to treat everyone with understanding and compassion regardless of their racial identity, not recognizing the racial identities of others in our communities—Black and Brown people especially—can signal that we don’t see the histories and social barriers that play a role in the challenges they may face or unique cultural contributions they contribute.[10-11] By doing so in the context of education, we engage in ways of teaching that alienate and disempower Black and Brown students while socializing white students into thinking that their privileges are inherent and that racism does not exist in our contemporary moment and—therefore—does not need to be challenged beyond being friendly to people of all races.[12] However, in a contemporary era of mass incarceration, the Black-White wealth gap, disparities for Black and Brown people in healthcare and education, widespread white nationalist politics, and the continued enslavement/exploitation of Black and Brown in global supply chains, it is crucial that educators reckon with the ways we are teaching our youth about race and racism and, just as importantly, thinking about these issues ourselves. As sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant tell us, “We cannot step outside of race and racism, since our society and our identities are constituted by them; we live in racial history.”[13] All things considered—as Black and Brown educational leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, Carter G. Woodson, Bob Moses, and Bettina Love have modeled for us throughout U.S. history—educators can do their part to challenge racism today by teaching more critical approaches to history and society that 1.) acknowledge that racism is real today and plays a role in all parts of our lives, 2.) examine the history and dynamics of racism as a human creation organized around arbitrary meanings assigned to differences in human bodies in order to justify economic oppression that especially benefits white elites, and 3.) give students the knowledge and tools needed to be identify contemporary racism and challenge it in their schools and communities. Drawing from the example set by Dr. Martin, chocolate is a creative way that we may be able to do that.

Resources for teaching about race and racism.

Lesson Plan

Introductory Activity: Unpacking Assumptions about Race, Racism, and Chocolate

Live word clouds by Poll Everywhere are an fun, interactive, and effective way to introduce a new topic to your students, especially one as complex as this. Students, of course, bring their own assumptions, experiences, and associations into the classroom about any topic, and this approach allows you to draw out what those perspectives are so that you may reference and unpack them throughout your lesson.

ChocolateWordCloud

As I discussed in the introduction, chocolate is thought of in our society as something that is ahistorical, apolitical, and acultural; however, many us of do have very personal memories, feelings, and preferences in regards to the sweet treat. This gives your students an opportunity to showcase those and begin thinking about the role of chocolate in their contemporary lives. The same applies to issues of race and racism.

  • You may consider posing questions like this in the following order. After each question, pause to discuss the word cloud that was generated, paying attention to what words/concepts seem to be the most prevalent in the classroom but also those that may be unique:
    • “What words or phrases come to your mind when you hear the word the word ‘chocolate’?”
    • “What words or phrases come to your mind when your hear the word ‘race’?”
    • “What words or phrases come to your mind when you hear the word ‘racism’?”
  • While inputting their responses, encourage students to think about the feelings, memories, images, preferences, movies, TV shows, songs, commercials, and even things they’ve learned in school that they associate with the word.

Part One: Who is Willy, Really? The Racist Origins of The Chocolate Factory.

To begin this lesson, you will be discussing this clip from the 2005 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As explored below, the novel and film have racist origins that problematically normalize slavery and mock indigenous cultures as it relates to cacao’s origins and the production of chocolate.[14] You can read more about that from David Yacovone whose work I will draw from below. In addition to showing this one clip, you may dedicate an additional class period or homework assignment to viewing the entire film before the start of the lesson.

  • Begin by asking students to raise their hands if they are familiar with the story of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory; that could be the 1971 film, the 2005 film with Johnny Depp, or the original 1964 children’s book by Roald Dahl. Now have a student volunteer summarize the plot. You will probably hear back that five children, including Charlie, won golden tickets to tour Willy Wonka’s secretive chocolate factory; after each child except for Charlie failed to impress Wonka, they were each taken away by Oompa Loompas, leaving Charlie to inherit the factory.
    • Ask your students to describe the Oompa Loompas. Most of us know them as the small, brown or orange, Wonka factory workers that sing catchy tunes as they whisk away the naughty children who have failed to meet Willy’s standards.
    • Have your students break into pairs, brainstorm what the lives of the Oompa Loompas are like, and then share out to the group: How did they get to the factory? How much are they paid, and what kinds of benefits might they receive? Where are their families? How do you think they feel about their jobs? What are their individual personalities and lives like? What is their relationship to the chocolate their producing?
  • Introduce the YouTube clip “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Loompa Land” from the 2005 film in which Wonka explains how he came into contact with the Oompa Loompas while exploring Loompaland.[15] Post chart paper in four different locations of the classroom with the following quotes and related questions on them. Break students into four, pre-established groups; have them discuss and write out their responses on the sheets for 7-10 minutes.
    • “What a terrible country it is… The whole place is nothing but thick jungles, infested by the most dangerous beasts in the entire world.” How does Wonka represent Loompaland? What other countries do Americans often stereotype this way? Do you feel that it is wrong for Wonka, who is an outsider, to describe to another country this way, especially based on such a limited experience there?
    • “I went to Loompaland looking for exotic new flavors for candy. Instead, I found the Oompa Loompas.” What was Wonka’s primary motive for going to Loompaland? Think about it from his perspective as a business owner from another country. What might be wrong with Wonka saying he “found” the Oompa Loompas? Were they ever actually “missing”? How might the Oompa Loompas feel about a stranger coming to take their country’s plants, especially the cocoa beans that they view as sacred/religious, for his own financial gain?
    • “The Oompa Loompas ate nothing but green caterpillars, which tasted revolting. But the food they longed for most was the cocoa bean. An Oompa Loompa was lucky if he found three of four cocoa beans a year. But oh how they craved them. And all they’d ever think about was cocoa beans.” The film then shows Oompas Loompas bowing down to worship the cocoa beans and dancing around it headpieces made from cocoa pods. How does Wonka represent the food and culture of the Oompa Loompas? How does he use their love of cocoa beans to his own advantage? What does Wonka taking the cocoa beans and selling them for his own financial gain mean for the sacred/religious value that the Oompa Loompas place on them?
    • Speaking to the chief in Loompaland, Wonka says, “Come live in my factory. You can have all the cocoa beans you want! I will even pay your wages in cocoa beans if you wish!” Reflecting on that memory, he tells the family in his factory, “They are such wonderful workers.” How does the film represent the Oompa Loompas’ language? Why do you think the Oompa Loompas now sing in English when they initially spoke the language of Loompaland? How does Wonka use their love of cocoa beans to his own advantage? What purpose do the Oompa Loompas have for Wonka? Based on the way he represented their country, their food, and their language, do you think he actually values their culture or just their ability to work and produce chocolate for him?
  • Go around the room and have each group share out some of the key points from their quote discussion for 3-5 minutes each.
  • Have students return to their desks. Share the following with them:

As some of you have discussed in your responses to the clip, Willy Wonka represents the Oompa Loompas and Loompaland through unfair stereotypes and uses them for his own advantage while doing it.[16] However, it is important that we realize that this just isn’t the case of one character in a movie, but actually represents a longer real history of how people in the United States and Europe represent certain people and their cultures and have taken advantage of them—or exploited and appropriated them—for our own enjoyment and financial gain, particularly as it relates to chocolate.[17] As some of you may have gathered from our discussions so far, in our real world, these are the unfair, often inaccurate, racist ways in which we represent the people of African and Latin American descent, the people who we do actually have to thank for the chocolate we enjoy today.[18] That’s something that we will be exploring in the rest of our lesson.

Nonetheless, these racist representations were not a coincidence to the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and were intentionally written in by the author Roald Dahl when he published the book in 1964, a time when Black and Brown people around the world were engaging in social movements to challenge white supremacy, racism, and poverty; such as the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, and the American Indian Movement here in the United States. Historian David Yacovone tells us that Dahl originally wrote the Oompa Loompas in as enslaved Africans.[19] The following image, in fact, shows how they were illustrated in the 1964 edition of the book:[20]

OompaLoompas

According to Yacovone:[20]

When Charlie and the four other golden ticket holders and their parents first spied the Oompa-Loompas Wonka explained that the workers were not made of chocolate, but they “are real people! They are some of my workers!” They belonged to “a tribe of tiny miniature pygmies known as Oompa-Loompas. I discovered them myself,” Wonka exclaimed. I brought them over from Africa myself—the whole tribe of them, three thousand in all. I found them in the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had ever been before.”

After luring them in with the promise of endless cocoa beans, according to Yacovone:[20]

Wonka “shipped them over here, every man, woman, and child in the Oompa-Loompa tribe. It was easy. I smuggled them over in large packing cases with holes in them, and they all got here safely.”

Once enslaved and shipped over to England in way similar to that of real enslaved Africans on the Middle Passage, Wonka not only forced them to do labor in his factory for nothing but beans in return and no chance of leaving or asking for more, but he also performed unethical experiments on them at his own leisure, such as turning them into blueberries.[23] This treatment reflects the real violent ways that enslaved Black and Brown people have been treated by Europeans and the United States in the production of chocolate both historically and even in many ways in today’s world.[24-25] Eventually, Dahl would revise this racist representation in his story in 1982 after decades of criticism from the NAACP, but he continued to use such racist representations in other stories, and as we just saw, those representations continue to circulate through the 2005 film, one the most popular movies about chocolate in our contemporary lives.[26] By not questioning the meanings behind these representations, as you all have done so well today, and understanding their histories, we hide the ways in which Black and Brown people still experience racism in our world today. To learn this history, we can all do our part to create a world without racism and poverty.

Part Two: Culture, Colonization, Slavery, and Chocolate Bars: How Chocolate Went from Something Sacred to Something Bittersweet

In part two, I will work with Professor Martin to further develop this lesson plan to include the cultural and spiritual significance of cacao in ancient Mesoamerican culture, the fundamental role of colonization and slavery in appropriation and production of chocolate in the Global North (drawing on my earlier blog post in the course), and the inequality and role of consumers in global chocolate production today.

Part Three: How to Recognize and Respond to Racism Today

To wrap up the lesson, teachers will revisit the earlier considerations around race and racism in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, examining chocolate’s broader use as a racist metaphor for Blackness in the twenty and twenty-first centuries. To end, students will again respond via live word clouds to the initial questions, comparing their original word clouds to the newly-enlightened ones, and the teacher will discuss ways for students to challenge racism in their lives today, which may include: creating a community action project to address an issue of racial inequality in their community in partnership with a local chocolate shop/producer, starting a reading/discussion group to talk about issues related to race and racism, starting a “Chocolate Week” to educate their school or community on the history of chocolate and celebrate/support the producers who we have to thank for it, implementing strategies to call out and change racist behaviors or representations. To celebrate their new knowledge, students should have a chance to enjoy ethically-sourced chocolate at the conclusion of the lesson!

Endnotes

[1] Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York, Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2015), 137.

[2] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006), 392.

[3] Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,”  399.

[4] Heather Andrea Williams, Self-taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 13.

[5] Bettina Love, We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2019), 13.

[6] W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk,” Monthly Review 55, no. 6 (2003):  46.

[7] Sylvia Wynter,  “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues,” Forum H.H.I. Knowledge for the 21st Century 1, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 57-59.

[8] Jarvis R. Givens, “‘There Would Be No Lynching If It Did Not Start in the Schoolroom’: Carter G. Woodson and the Occasion of Negro History Week, 1926–1950,” American Educational Research Journal (2019): 9.

[9] Omi and Winant, Racial Formation, 132, 211.

[10] Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, 5th ed. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 2-4.

[11] “Color Blindness,” Teaching Tolerance, accessed May 07, 2019, https://www.tolerance.org/professional-development/color-blindness.

[12] Bettina Love, We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019), 14.

[13] Omi and Winant, Racial Formation, 137.

[14] Donald Yacovone, “Oh No! The Depressing Truth About the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory Workers,” History News Network, December 30, 2018, accessed May 3, 2019, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170755.

[15-16] “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Loompa Land,” Youtube video, 3:41, “Willy Wonka,” January 16, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQ5GgslLgVQ.

[17] Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. (New York City, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2013).

[18] Jack Bareilles, “Women, Gays, and Other Voices of Resistance,” Zinn Education Project, 2011, accessed May 13, 2019, https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/women-gays-and-other-voices-of-resistance/.

[19-23] Yacovone, “Oh No! The Depressing Truth,” https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170755.

[24] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 186-196.

[25] Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power (New York, NY: Viking, 1985): 169-176.

[26] Yacovone, “Oh No! The Depressing Truth,” https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170755.

Bibliography

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Loompa Land.” Youtube video, 3:41. “Willy Wonka,” January 16, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQ5GgslLgVQ.

Bareilles, Jack. “Women, Gays, and Other Voices of Resistance.” Zinn Education Project. 2011. Accessed May 13, 2019. https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/women-gays-and-other-voices-of-resistance/.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Fifth ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York City, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Du Bois, W. E. B. “The Souls of White Folk.” Monthly Review 55, no. 6 (2003):  44-58.

Givens, Jarvis R. “‘There Would Be No Lynching If It Did Not Start in the Schoolroom’: Carter G. Woodson and the Occasion of Negro History Week, 1926–1950.” American Educational Research Journal (2019): 1-38.

Love, Bettina. We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2019.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York, NY: Viking, 1985.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. Third ed. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.

Williams, Heather Andrea. Self-taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006): 387-409.

Wynter, Sylvia.  “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues.” Forum H.H.I. Knowledge for the 21st Century 1, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 42-73.

Yacovone, Donald. “Oh No! The Depressing Truth About the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory Workers.” History News Network. December 30, 2018. Accessed May 3, 2019. https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170755.

The Supermarket Pastoral and Conscientious Chocolate

I credit food-oriented journalist and author Michael Pollan, and especially his brilliant book The Omnivore’s Dilemma,with much of my interest in food anthropology. I cannot recommend the book highly enough, and it is to this book that I turn in framing this study.

The eponymous dilemma that the omnivorous homo sapiens faces in asking what we “should have for dinner,” is explored by Pollan in what the book jacket describes as “a natural history of four meals,” (Pollan, 1). In between delving into the modern industrial-agricultural complex through the lens of a McDonalds meal and exploring the modern (in)viability of entirely producing one’s own food, Pollan analyzes the various “alternative” systems of food production which occupy the ground between these poles. In part of this analysis, Pollan engages in a discussion of Whole Foods and like establishments, and it is this discussion that intersects with our interests in this essay.

Pollan quite rightly describes shopping at Whole Foods as “a literary experience,” arguing that the food at such stores is made special and elevated above the “realm of ordinary protein and carbohydrates” by the “evocative prose” which surrounds it—either literally, as printed on its packaging, or in the signs and brochures that surround it in the store (Pollan, 134). Pollan quite rightly points out that the steak he examines in Whole Foods, which comes with a verbose account of the steer’s happy pastoral life, stands in stark contrast to the meat available in conventional supermarkets, where “the only accompanying information comes in the form of a number: the price,” (Pollan, 135).

What does this dearth of information tell us about conventional supermarkets and the system of production lying behind them? Any and all information accompanying a product for sale can and must be treated as an advertisement for that product. In my last multimedia essay I discussed advertisement’s function of creating a need in the consumer, but this function falls away as we begin to discuss simpler foods, especially staples: nobody needs to convince the average American that they want to buy eggs, or meat, or tomatoes–they are simply a staple of the diet. These products are available from a variety of brands and vendors, however, so it becomes a question of which eggs or meat or tomatoes. Since the products of the industrial agricultural system are held by the internal ideology of that system to be standard (a tomato is a tomato like any other tomato, an egg is an egg, etc.) there is no ground on which different companies can compete for the consumer’s dollar other than price. The methods of production cannot be discussed because they are just as standard as the product: there is only one cheapest way to produce an egg. Furthermore, the cheapest way to produce an egg is also so horrific that the consumer would rather not know—yet another indication that this food system has cheap production, high yield, and low price as its highest goals.

Image

A conventional supermarket egg carton. Available information is bare-bones: the contents (12 eggs), the USDA size classification, instructions for storage, a money-back guarantee, and the producing company’s name and information. The price would presumably be listed on a tag attached to the shelf. We will return to a discussion of the company’s name, the picture at the top, and the packaging information at the bottom left below. (Source: http://www.eggboxes.com/)

As Pollan says, “in the industrial food economy, virtually the only information that travels along the food chain linking producer and consumer is price… and farmers who get the message that consumers care only about price will themselves care only about yield. This is how a cheap food economy reinforces itself.” (Pollan, 136). And yet this paradigm is not universal, as is obvious from the existence of “alternative” groceries such as Whole Foods. Clearly, there are many consumers who care about more factors than merely price—indeed, price often becomes entirely a secondary consideration to other factors. It is a simple fact that Whole Foods is more expensive than a conventional supermarket, and its continued existence and success is evidence that there are shoppers willing to pay more. What are they paying for?

I have said that Pollan attributes to the foods available at Whole Foods “complex aesthetic, emotional, and even political dimensions,” above and beyond conventional supermarket products (Pollan, 134). I would argue—and indeed, it seems to be a central tenant of AfAm 119x—that food naturally, inherently, and inevitably has such dimensions. Yet if this is true, how do we account for the undeniable difference that Pollan describes? These dimensions are inherent in food, but they are not immanent in it—they cannot be erased but they can be hidden. And they are hidden with stunning efficacy by the modern industrial agricultural system. A steak for sale at a conventional supermarket has these dimensions but the consumer confronts none of them—they have been conveniently censored for the consumer’s eyes by the collective action of every link in the production chain preceding him. As people have taken less and less part in the production of their own food, it has become increasingly possible to remain in ignorance about one’s food. Quite simply, someone who does not make their own sausages never needs to know how sausages are made. Much of my experience in AfAm 119x has been learning about the historical, political, cultural, and other dimensions of chocolate that had always been hidden to me even as I consumed it for many years. Even outside of classrooms there is a constant conflict between forces trying to hide and forces trying to expose these dimensions—for example, the laws which forbid recording devices inside slaughterhouses and the humanitarian groups which smuggle cameras in so we can see how our pork pigs die. The modern mainstream paradigm of food production in this country gives the consumer as little exposure to these dimensions as possible, and most of us like it that way.

Most, but not all. As Pollan points out, one of the key ideals underlying the late-20th-century organic movement in America which gave convoluted birth to Whole Foods and its ilk (for a comprehensive and lucid account of this movement’s history, read Omnivore’s Dilemma) was the restoration of some of the flow of information about the various dimensions of our food. People wanted to know more about how their food was made, and they wanted the chance to tell those producing their food more about how they wanted it produced. But the state of food production in this country had already reached the point where direct observation was and is nearly impossible. According to Pollan, the food you or I eat every day comes from a farm that is, on average, fifteen hundred miles away (Pollan, 136-137). We wanted to know more, but we didn’t have the “time or the inclination” to go find out for ourselves. The “organic” label, and every other such label found in supermarkets, is an “imperfect substitute,” in Pollan’s words, “for direct observation,” (Pollan, 136). Here, Pollan introduces a vital critical term: the “Supermarket Pastoral.”

 

“…to bridge that space we rely on certifiers and label writers and, to a considerable extent, our imagination of what the farms that are producing our food really look like. The organic label may conjure an image of a simpler agriculture, but its very existence is an industrial artifact… “Organic” on the label conjures up a rich narrative, even if it is the consumer who fills in most of the details, supplying the hero (American Family Farmer), the villain (Agribusinessman), and the literary genre, which I’ve come to think of as Supermarket Pastoral. By now we may know better than to believe this too simple story, but not much better, and the grocery store poets do everything they can to encourage us in our willing suspension of disbelief.” (Pollan, 137)

 

Such stores as Whole Foods cater to those consumers who are dissatisfied with knowing nothing about their food, but the informational lacuna is filled not by the consumer’s critical observations but by narrative—narrative that takes a literary form but serves the function of advertising. In the remainder of this essay I will engage with three brands of chocolate that participate in modified forms of the Supermarket Pastoral paradigm of advertisement narrative. I will explore the ways in which the narratives constructed by Endangered Species, Divine, and Fearless brand chocolates modify Pollan’s conception of the Supermarket Pastoral by analyzing the rhetoric that they employ and its implications.

I have selected these three companies because they represent excellent examples of three of the most common narrative strains generally found in Supermarket Pastoral. Because of certain unique traits of chocolate as a commodity, however, these strains are far less intermingled than they might be with more conventional products.

Let us begin with Endangered Species chocolate. The narrative presented by Endangered Species focuses primarily on animal welfare and environmental conservation.

ImageImage

 

(Source: http://chocolatebar.com/)

The packaging features various beautiful photos of charismatic at-risk species, with a little banner promising “10% net profit donated to help support species, habitat, and humanity,” or simply, “10% net profits donated.” This video outlines the narrative in more detail:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chsse1OUk4w&feature=youtu.be

The video hits three main points: the environmentally conscious sourcing of ingredients as evidenced by various certifications, promotion of farming practices that “nurture sustainable communities,” and, most importantly, the 10% annual net profit donation to aid species conservation. According to the video, buying an Endangered Species chocolate bar is “promoting true global change.” This narrative even pervades every element of the logo:

Image

(Source: http://chocolatebar.com/)

The company describes itself on its website as follows:

Image

(Source: http://chocolatebar.com/)

The consistent narrative is one of environmental stewardship, with a secondary emphasis on ethical trade (though one notices that there is no certification to give corroborative specifics to the latter claim). Let us move on for a moment to examine Divine chocolate.

In contrast to Endangered Species’ emphasis on animal welfare, Divine chocolate is focused on the human element. Divine touts itself as “the only fairtrade chocolate company which is owned by its cocoa farmers.” The story on the website tells of a Ghana cocoa farmers’ collective which, with the help of fairtrade and charitable organizations, decided to start producing its own chocolate bar in the U.K. (and now the USA as well). The Kuapa Kokoo collective has an ownership stake in the Divine chocolate company, and representatives from the collective serve on the board of directors. Farmers belonging to the collective are shareholders and receive dividends. According to the site, the Kuapa Kokoo collective has been empowered by this relationship to negotiate better working and trade standards and to begin combatting child labor and the impacts of climate change on cacao farming.

ImageImageImageImage

(Source: http://www.divinechocolate.com/us/)

The site is festooned with such happy pictures as these, showing joyous cocoa farmers. The last image pictures the first dividend check being paid to the Kuapa Kokoo collective.

Like Endangered Species, Divine also uses symbolism on their labels:

Image

(Source: http://www.divinechocolate.com/us/)

The Adinkra symbols are clearly meant to display the values of the company, but their use also puts a spin on the narrative of cultural sensitivity and respect. Divine portrays itself as chocolate whose producers are happy and empowered, actually own and help to operate the company, and are living and working within the values of their culture.

Finally, Fearless chocolate, whose narrative seems a bit more scattered. The slogan of the company is “organic+superchocolate.” The latter portmanteau references the low-temperature cooking style that the company uses in order to maintain more of the “superfood” health benefits of chocolate:

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 5.21.33 PM

 

(Source: http://www.fearlesschocolate.com/)

In line with the emphasis on health and purity, Fearless touts a large list of certifications sure to please any hippie food-purist:

OtherLogos

(Source: http://www.fearlesschocolate.com/)

 

Linking the health benefits with the personality the company seems to want to cultivate, the site bills Fearless chocolate as “Inspired Superfood Chocolate bars to fuel your bold lifestyle!” The company’s name is explained as follows:

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 4.09.36 PM

(Source: http://www.fearlesschocolate.com/)

 

The rhetorical casting of the company—and therefore the consumer, if they buy in—as “Fearless” crops up again on the first slide of the fascinating slideshow linked below, which is rich with narrative rhetoric. “Organic Super Chocolate for Super Humans,” reads the slide. The slideshow mostly showcases the organic family farm from which the company sources its chocolate.

http://www.fearlesschocolate.com/source/

http://www.fearlesschocolate.com/source/

The slideshow emphasizes the benefits afforded to the local workers and villages by the presence of the farm, which has a school for children on the grounds. The company has a Direct Trade relationship (much like the one we heard explained at Taza) with the farmers, “founded on mutual respect, fairness, and the alignment of goals.” The last slide of the slideshow again hearkens back to the identity attributes—fearlessness, boldness, the “courage to dream and act”—that the company claims for itself and offers to its consumers.

The final element of the Fearless narrative is physically manifested in the bar’s shape: each bar has a bite-shaped indentation at the top right corner which represents the “bite”—portion of profits—that the company donates to various “champion changemakers” who are publicly nominated. These “changemakers” are individuals or organizations advocating some kind of cause, and there is no unifying theme to what the various causes are other than that they effect some kind of change in the world that Fearless wishes to endorse.

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This page displays recent nominations:

http://www.fearlesschocolate.com/blog/

http://www.fearlesschocolate.com/blog/

Fearless chocolate sells itself on a multi-faceted narrative linking ethical farming practices, organic production, a foodie-style emphasis on nutrition, a certain nebulous boldness of identity which the company both claims for itself and seems to offer through the consumption of its chocolate, and a very general giving-back/charity aspect which engages in the same identity branding. Overall the company seems to claim a moral, nutritional, and qualitative high ground.

Now that we have explicated the narratives constructed by these three companies, how do they engage with and alter the more typical narratives of the Supermarket Pastoral? What are the implications?

The narrative strain at work in Endangered Species chocolate could be roughly summed up as “animal welfare and environmental conservation.” A typical meat product found in Whole Foods might be accompanied by text emphasizing the humane and kind treatment of the animals, the greater happiness and comfort they enjoy over their factory-raised brethren, and—widening the scope somewhat—the greater happiness and health enjoyed by all animals due to the lesser environmental impact of this style of animal raising. These kinds of meat brands and Endangered Species chocolate both pander to the animal lover in us. This is effective because the part of us that loves animals is in conflict with the part of us that loves animal products. Our concern for the environmental impacts of meat is another, broader manifestation of this same anxiety. By offering a narrative that compares favorably to the “normal,” cruel methods of raising meat, these products help ameliorate some of the guilt and cognitive dissonance we experience due to this conflict—rather than condemn ourselves for eating meat at all, we are permitted to pat ourselves on the back for choosing the more humane and sustainable option. The odd thing at work with Endangered Species’ use of this narrative, however, is that chocolate is not an animal product. The animals that Endangered Species promises to protect and help are entirely tangential to the process of chocolate production. Endangered Species chocolate represents a version of the Supermarket Pastoral which panders not to the consumer’s desire to ameliorate the morally repugnant aspects of their food’s production, but to their desire to be a good, animal-loving, environmentally-conscious person. The narrative operates the same way but extends outside the product’s natural purview.

The narrative at work in Divine chocolate is somewhat a reversal of this—it could be roughly stated as “welfare of beings actually involved in production.” In this case, however, the concern is not for the exploitation and cruelty visited on the animals who constitute the meat, but the exploitation and cruelty visited on the people who produce the chocolate. It is in many ways a version of the typical narrative I have just outlined of ameliorating guilt and anxiety over the inherent and inescapable cruelty of meat agriculture, but meat agriculture has been replaced by the exploitative global capitalist system. Just as we know that cows suffer to produce beef, we know that third-world laborers suffer to produce chocolate, and the narrative at work offers us a more humane and conscientious option. In both cases, the product makes itself more palatable by drawing a comparison to a worse version of itself—Divine does not offer us a chocolate that opts out of exploitative international capitalist cash-crop economic arrangements entirely, but it elevates itself above others of its kind. Furthermore, Divine can appropriate the Adinkra symbols while being shielded from accusations of cultural appropriation because of the greater voice that its workers have in the corporation—but these culturally important symbols are still being used as a marketing ploy, so it can hardly be denied that the culture is being exploited. It is immaterial whether this cultural exploitation is coming in part from within the culture.

Finally, the narrative at work in Fearless chocolate could be summed up as a nonspecific linking of desirable identity traits, high culinary and nutritional quality, and ethical high-ground. This linking is done purely through rhetorical force, and the links hardly stand up under much scrutiny. Fearless, however, ties together the implications these three examples have on the genre of Supermarket Pastoral as a whole. By employing this disjointed narrative, Fearless is selling us the chance to be a certain kind of person. We are the bold, the changemakers, the sort of people with discerning taste in chocolate, the sort of people who prize superfood nutrition, the sort of people who want their food to be ethically traded and free of such trappings of the evil military-industrial complex as GMOs—or we are the sort of people who choose chocolate that doesn’t exploit those poor African laborers (as much), or we are the sort of people who buy themselves chocolate and donate to environmental charities at the same time. And we know that we are this kind of person because we buy this or that product.

I do not mean to totally deny that these companies are doing good or that they are better than most of their peers, but we must always remember why these stories are being told on our chocolate wrappers and egg cartons—to make us buy the product. The sad truth of it is that however much good is tangentially done, companies and the commodities they produce exist to make money, and the storytelling is necessary to make a product that is more expensively produced commercially viable. There is unfortunately a trade-off between doing something cheaply and doing it well in most cases, especially in food production, and those companies which choose to do it well are only privileged to do this because they can sell the story of that goodness along with the product itself.

 

 

Sources:
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Penguin Press, New York, NY. 2006.