Chocolate is political. Critical awareness of where cocoa beans come from, who works for the pleasurable consumption of chocolate products, and of the ethics and sustainability of food production is not confined to foodies discourse. Debates about fair trade and workers’ rights and child labor are nothing new, either, yet they reveal an uncanny resemblance to (neo-)colonial trading systems. In 1920, W.E.B. Du Bois perceptively described the contradictions underlying the United States’ appetite for colonial commodities. In “The Souls of White Folks,” he writes: “Rubber, ivory, and palm-oil; tea, coffee, and cocoa; bananas, oranges, and other fruit; cotton, gold, and copper—they, and hundred other things which dark and sweating bodies hand up to the white world from their pits of slime, pay and pay well, but of all that the world gets the black world gets only the pittance that the white world throws it disdainfully.” In his text, Du Bois links the exploitation of African Americans to that of Africans under colonial rule. He defines whiteness as a system of exploitation and oppression in which commodities from the colonies play a decisive role. This facet of the history of chocolate is full of deep discrepancies— the (re-introduction of) labor practices akin to slavery and forced labor alongside the rise of cocoa consumption. Due to the growing demand for cocoa, slavery resumed in the early 1880s and continued until long after the First World War.
In early advertisements of cocoa, the modes of production were sanitized by promoting tropical landscapes with contented laborers. These images thus convey a highly idealized version of what places in South America and West Africa looked like in the Euro-American and European imagination. This trade card, dating roughly from the 1890s, was given to customers, according to the reverse of the card, who shopped at “Jones & Day, Dealers in Groceries and Fruits, 56 N Main Street, Courtland, NY.” The image of the black woman in this card, dressed in spotless white, peacefully kneeling on the ground and collecting cocoa pods, suggests a dialectical relationship between the “Other” and the “civilized.” It was that woman and other indigenous people who knew how to cultivate, harvest, and prepare cocoa—knowledge that whites in North America and the so-called Old World valued and benefited from greatly. In this image, the product (cocoa) as well as the racial identity of the woman are defined by their spatial and cultural distance from the “civilized” and “modern” United States. The image promises pleasure to the consumer, pleasure in consuming tropical riches and pleasure from exploring a foreign, “exotic” world. Through being associated with a brown-skinned woman in a tropical setting, chocolate is redefined. It does not appear as an industrial product (which it already was at that time), but becomes a pleasurable commodity, connected to the riches of nature, to exoticism, to recreation away from everyday life and the constraints of civilization. Eating chocolate can thus carry one away to a tropical fantasy that is peaceful and abundant.
On another level, the notion of primitivism is qualified by a different reading of the image, one that suggests the superiority of a simple way of life. The woman in the picture can hardly be described as “backward.” She is dressed in a clean white dress and communicates purity. She kneels in what can be regarded as the Garden of Eden, reaping fruits from the tree. This scenery is pastoral as it is free of the constraints of modernity. It implicitly suggests that those who indulge in chocolate can step outside of civilization and “return” to a place in harmony with nature—a trope that can also be found in many contemporary advertisements for organic and fair trade food products. The pastoral has been defined as a re-mythification of the natural environment. This fantasy is offered by the manufacturers of chocolate who apparently succeeded in positioning the harvesting of cocoa and production of chocolate outside of civilization. In contrast to the image that falsely suggests otherwise, what is silenced and erased in such an imperial cast of American pastoral ideology is the fact that the majority of People of Color in the Global South as well as black Americans who lived where the card circulated, hardly appreciated sublime nature or dwelled in pastoral settings when their own relation to that nature was mostly defined by their physical labor.
What is equally interesting is that the card is painted in warm, natural colors. The colors of the cocoa pods and the landscape correspond with the skin color of the woman, thus also reinforcing a visual connection between cocoa and chocolate, and people with a certain skin shade. The association of chocolate with blackness, however, is not based on a vague similarity of some people’s skin color to the color of an edible product. Instead, it is based on the imagination of “dark people,” tropical places, and practices that produce chocolate. There is nothing “natural” about the connection of certain brown and black products with the pigmentation of human beings. This association was learned through endless repetition and evolved into appearing “natural”. According to Roland Barthes, mythologies participate in the making of our world. Myths help us to make sense of our experiences within a culture. It is precisely their function to naturalize the cultural, and thus to make dominant cultural and historical values, attitudes, and beliefs seem entirely “normal,” “natural,” self-evident, and common sense. If one understands chocolate as a myth that is seemingly de-historicized, albeit having a historical context, it becomes obvious how advertisements convey a peaceful plantation setting without immediately evoking slavery, exploitation, and violence. And yet, although these dreadful historical facts are not explicitly and intentionally evoked, they are not completely erased either. They occupy a shadowy existence, somehow lurking in the background. What is presented to the viewer is thus a world without contradictions, a mode of consumption in which the existence of non-white people is legitimized by their function to work for white consumers. And this world, a world of clear-cut boundaries between “Natives” (or “savages”) and the “civilized world,” between rawness and refined materials, between black and white, is not only pointed out, but literally imposed on the consumer. They contribute powerfully to the racialization of chocolate by linking this commodity to tropical landscapes and brown-skinned bodies.
Yet, chocolate has not exclusively functioned as a racial metaphor for black people. What underscores its floating nature is the fact that cocoa and chocolate consumption has also been firmly linked to popular images of whiteness, especially so since the first quarter of the 20th century. Many ads from this period onwards illustrate that images of black people obviously ceased to be suitable for advertising. Instead, cocoa and chocolate were implicitly whitened and their targeted consumers differed as much as the discourses through which chocolate floated. These images of whiteness, of white female elegance or white innocent childhood, depended upon the prior circulation of contrasting images in order to be meaningful to and understood by the consuming populace.
In my book Chocolate and Blackness: A Cultural History, I argue that one cannot understand the history of chocolate without understanding its relationship to Western representations of blackness. Tracing the histories of imperial expansion and colonialism, the history of consumerism, and food history in relation to chocolate provides the material basis on which chocolate as a racial signifier for blackness is grounded. It demonstrates the long-standing connection between cocoa/chocolate and toiling brown-skinned bodies. The mythical, symbolic elements of chocolate, as well as its many aesthetic pleasurable associations, obfuscate these social and economic realities.