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The First MLA Cookbook

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Recipe by Daksha Chouhan

Sea of Poppies and the Curry of Diaspora

My mother-in-law, Daksha Chouhan, shared this recipe for Stuffed Aubergine Curry with me. Curry is the colonial entanglement that connects Africa, Asia, and Europe in her culture –Kenyan Indian British—and mine –Afro-Jamaican Chinese British. Daksha learned to cook from her mother who learned a repertoire of generations of Indian recipes in Kenya. In his epic novel of Asian indenture in the shadow of the Opium Wars, Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh telescopes inwards and outwards from the belly of the ship the Ibis. He writes of the urgent intimacy formed amongst the jahaji-bhain, or ship sisters. He writes, “It was astonishing, for example, to discover that in making mango achar, some were accustomed to using fallen fruit while others would use none that were not freshly picked; no less was it surprising to learn that Heeru included heeng among the pickling spices and that Sarju omitted so essential an ingredient as kalonji.” Ghosh gives the reader a sense of the scale of variation for the same dish household, family, and village. What will become of the collective recipe when the women reach a new land with strange fruits?

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Curated by Grace Aneiza Ali

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Photography

by

Ming Smith

Ming Smith,  Pan Pan Lady (Betty) , Harlem, NY, ca 19xx, 35mm black and white photography, Vintage gelatin silver print, 54 x 40 in. (framed)

Ming Smith, Pan Pan Lady (Betty), Harlem, NY, ca 19xx, 35mm black and white photography, Vintage gelatin silver print, 54 x 40 in. (framed)

Race, Myth, art, and justice

Dress-Up Play

Curatorial writing By Tao Leigh Goffe

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass 

In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall 

Its veil. 

— “Harlem Shadows” (1922), by Claude McKay

 

Drawing with light amongst the shadows of Harlem, Ming Smith presents two women in her portraits Little Lil Kim and Pan Pan Lady (Betty). In one, a little girl who looks to be no more than four years-old is anxious to grow up and in another, a woman, perhaps in her 80s, is poised at a diner counter. One is brimming with the frenzy and vibrancy of youth, the other possesses a patience and stillness that comes with age. They could be the same woman, captured by the camera, suspended in time.

The ethereal veil of Smith’s Harlem in black-and-white tones evokes the surreal style for which the artist is known the artist is known. Playing pretend, the little girl addresses the camera with her sassy gaze, wearing fishnet stockings, a tissue-filled brassiere, and high heels that are too big for her. Smith’s use of hand-tinting adds a delicate accent of yellow oil paint to illuminate the sentimental in the portrait, forming a halo for a little girl playing dress-up like the brazen New York rapper Lil’ Kim.

Adorned in a simple bandana, we meet Betty lost in thought, perhaps in remembrance of a life past, resting her hands on a Harlem diner counter. Which side of the counter? It is unclear. Has the Pan Pan Lady lived a life tending to others? Or, is she taking respite in a soul food meal—fried, baked, or barbecued —as the restaurant sign, partially visible, indicates?

Paired together, the images question the roles allotted for black women, indicting the limiting myths about them. Like the women who wander the streets at night in McKay’s Harlem Renaissance poem, Little Lil Kim and the Pan Pan Lady navigate race, space, and gender between public and private realms. Smith says their names, Lil Kim and Betty, resonating with the collective protest “Say Her Name” where Naming is an act of justice.  The noir texture of the two photographs connects a genealogy of girls playing in the dark and walking with “weary feet,” as McKay wrote, wandering from street to street. 

 Yet, Ming Smith, who understands that Seeing is also an act of justice, frames the tenderness of these everyday of lives, typically unnoticed and unrecorded. She uses light to compose amongst dark shadows. And in the words of Gordon Parks, she “grasps them and gives eternal life to things that might well have been forgotten.”[1]

[1] Maurice Berger, “A Photographer Who Made ‘Ghosts’ Visible,” The New York Times, January 11, 2017.

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Caribbean Syllabus

In response to the lacuna in the European colonial archive of indenture, readers are invited to consider how Caribbean diasporic intellectuals and artists have represented the lived experience of the institution. Reckoning with reparation, repatriation, remittances, and futurity, the figure of the “coolie,” a derogatory term, became synonymous with Asian contract labor. Indenture forms part of the long history of unfree labor that began with seventeenth-century debt peonage from Europe and re-emerged in a new form after abolition when hundreds of thousands of Asians, from British India and China, were imported to perform agricultural labor across the hemisphere. Imagined in the British 1803 ‘Trinidad experiment’ as a solution to the impending crisis of the Haitian Revolution, and as a “racial barrier” between Africans and Europeans, indentured laborers were coerced to sign contracts up to eight years at a time across the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Danish Caribbean and Latin America. Paid subsistence wages to work in deplorable conditions, many could not afford return passage and were forced to re-indenture. An experience colored by abuse, fugitivity, and suicide, the entanglement of debt, race and labor, also includes smaller waves of indentured African and Javanese migrants who were conscripted into unfree plantation economies after emancipation.

 Key Questions

  • How do the descendants of indenture mourn and mediate the lived experience of the institution and represent its afterlife?

  • In the mosaic of unfree labors that shaped the hemisphere, how do race and language play a role in approaches to analyzing indenture in relation to enslavement and blackbirding?

  • Who is indebted and to whom?

  • In what present forms does debt bondage continue in the Caribbean?