Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their color is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refined, and join the angelic train.
Phillis Wheatley, “On Being Brought from Africa to America”
The mother bending over a baby named Shug
chuckles, “Gimme some sugar,” just to preface
a flurry of kisses sweet as sugar cane.
Later, when she stirs a spoonful of Domino
into her coffee, who’s to tell the story
how a ten-foot-tall reed from the Old World,
on being brought to the New, was raised and cropped
so cooks could sweeten whatever tasted bitter?
Or how grade-A granulated began as a thick
black syrup boiled for hours in an iron vat
until it was refined to pure, white crystal.
When I was a child whose payoff for obeying
orders was red-and-white-striped candy canes,
I knew that sugar was love.
The first time someone called me “sweetheart,”
I knew sugar was love.
And when I tasted my slice of the wedding cake,
iced white and washed down with sweet champagne,
don’t you know sugar was love.
One day Evelina who worked for us
showed up with her son Bubba and laughed,
“Now y’all can play together.” He had a sweet
nature, but even so we raised a little Cain,
and Daddy told her not to bring him back.
He thought I’d begun to sound like colored people.
She smiled, dropped her eyes, kept working.
And kept putting on weight. She later died of stroke.
Daddy developed diabetes by age fifty-five,
insulin burned what his blood couldn’t handle.
Chronic depressions I have, a nutritionist
gently termed “the sugar blues,” but damned
if any lyrics come out of them, baby.
Black-and-white negatives from a picture
history of the sugar trade develop
in my dreams, a dozen able-bodied slaves
hacking forward through a field of cane.
Sweat trickles down from forehead into eye
as they sheave up stalks and cart them to the mill
where grinding iron rollers will express a thin
sucrose solution that, when not refined,
goes from blackstrap molasses on into rum,
a demon conveniently negotiable for slaves.
The master under the impression he owned
these useful properties naturally never thought
of offering them a piece of the wedding cake,
the big white house that bubbling brown sugar built
and paid for, unnaturally processed by Domino.
Phillis Wheatley said the sweet Christ was brought
here from Asia Minor to redeem an African child
and maybe her master’s soul as well. She wrote
as she lived, a model of refinement, yes,
but black as Abel racing through the canebrake,
demon bloodhounds baying in pursuit,
until at last his brother caught him,
expressed his rage, and rode back home to dinner.
Tell it to Fats Domino, to those who live
on Sugar Hill, tell it to unsuspecting Shug
as soon as she is old enough to hear it.
One day Evelina’s son waved goodbye
and climbed on board a northbound train,
black angels guiding him invisibly.
In class he quoted a sentence from Jean Toomer:
“Time and space have no meaning in a canefield.”
My father died last fall at eighty-one.
Love’s bitter, child, as often as it’s sweet.
Mm-mm, I sure do have the blues today:
Baby, will you give me some sugar?