Chocolate and the Construction of Blackness


A review of From Cocoa Slavery to Chocolate City: Chocolate as a Racial Signifier in the Constructions of Blackness, by Silke Hackenesch.

What if someone told you that the post-workout chocolate bar you’re about to devour, or that cocoa you’ve just sprinkled into your warm milk, had, in fact, a very questionable history? What if someone told you those warm brownies you just pulled from the oven were related to sexualized discourses of race and the body? While Silke Hackenesch’s dissertation, From Cocoa Slavery to Chocolate City: Chocolate as a Racial Signifier in the Constructions of Blackness, does not implore its readers to give up all of the sweet treats they may hold dear, she does complicate the relationship between our favorite chocolate products and the mass proliferation of racial stereotypes and misconceptions from the colonial period to the present.

Hackenesch explores both the semantics of chocolate and its role in the construction of race and the popular imagination as it concerns blackness. She shows how past and present consumers and producers of chocolate are all, at times, complicit in the production and circulation of what she deems, “entanglements of chocolate and blackness” (p. 1). Her wide-ranging study offers a broad timeline of racialized, sexualized chocolate production. Hackenesch addresses a blind spot in current scholarship that does not examine, as such, the means by which chocolate and blackness act in tandem to produce a popular myth that black bodies and chocolate are “naturally” related. She throws into relief unspoken assumptions about the means by which references that conflate chocolate with blackness and vice versa are understood or promoted as givens. Hackenesch suggests that her study ushers in a new framework for scholars to connect studies examining cultural commodificiations of race and how popular culture and popular goods and services shape that commodification.

Chocolate and race are inscribed with meaning and those meanings constrict variables of understanding and interpretation producing the semblance of a racial and social reality that gains traction in societal discourse. Hackenesch argues, “Similar to the semantics of race, chocolate is empty, but endowed with mechanisms of control so that it produces reality—i.e. skin color—instead of merely reflecting or describing it” (p. 3). Joining a growing number of scholars across fields on the subject, she also illustrates that those meanings often retain the same or similar contours across geographical borders, regardless of linguistic or cultural differences. “The example of the chocolate signifier illustrates how configurations of vision and visuality invest the body with social meaning. It demands visibility in the sense of a bodily reinscription, making the racialized body a site of resistance and celebration, but at the same time capitulating to the economies of (racial) visibility,” she explains (p. 55). It is passages like this where Hackenesch alerts the reader to the thorny realities of race—a social construction taken up in real and significant ways, not just by those wishing to oppress others, but also by those who are oppressed.

Hackenesch’s dissertation has four focal points: “the economic realities of the cocoa business and the material condition of Blackness and chocolate”; chocolate’s “imaginary potential” and how it is constructed, with what it is associated, and “who consumes it”; its visual iconography and representation in advertisements; and chocolate’s use “as a floating signifier that can be forcefully ascribed [to] or appropriated in affirming self-reference by African Americans” (p. 25). The end result is a careful examination of the racial dynamics behind economic production and cultural representation. Hackenesch extends the discussion on how marginalized groups have adopted what initially was a potentially degrading equation of one’s race with a consumable product to a “sweet” and sensual distinction. She forces readers to reconsider the uncritical acceptance of chocolate and its production in a global marketplace. She maintains, “What is … revealing is the tension that occurs when analyzing chocolate as an affirmative signifier in contrast to the social realities of the cocoa business, which is heavily tainted by slave labor, exploitation, and child labor” (p. 11). Blurring the lines between those social realities and those semantic signifiers is integral to the erasure of the problematic connections between a person’s racial and ethnic identity and an edible food product. Examining postcards, sheet music, memorabilia, trading cards, and advertisements, Hackenesch illustrates how these visual and material artifacts have a part in creating an inescapable “reality.”

Her discussion on kinship practices within the American black community offers particularly interesting insights. She begins with a theoretical exploration of the means that connect chocolate and blackness. While not all blacks ascribed to the practice of using terminology that reinforced this connection between chocolate and blackness (many found it dehumanizing), Hackenesch emphasizes naming as a political practice. She writes, “Race, as a socially constructed identity, can thus be a powerful tool not only for oppression, but for a group’s self-actualization; in the latter sense, it provides a source of belonging, self-esteem, and also a shared historical experience” (p. 17). Yet Hackenesch carefully reminds her readers that chocolate as a signifier for blackness is tied up with class, gender, age, and location as much as it is with race. She explains, “Its meaning is neither fixed nor absolute, but established differentially in relationship to other variables” (p. 18). Hackenesch stresses how the embrace by some American blacks’ self-reference as “chocolate” is not accepted by other populations in the global African diaspora, particularly the black population in Germany. When theorizing blackness and its place in modernity, Hackenesch rightly focuses on slavery and popular ideologies of white Europeans as well as the creation of a “natural” link to laboring forces and, later, to chocolate products.

Hackenesch explores cocoa production in the early twentieth century by examining slave labor, cocoa producers’ refusal to acknowledge human rights issues in the process of production, and a case of what she identifies as “contemporary food colonialism” on the African continent. In addition to Africa, Hackenesch explores cocoa production and worker exploitation in the Portuguese colonies São Tomé and Príncipe. She then expands the discussion from the colonies to the direct connections between cocoa production and Germany. This is an important shift for it shows how the relatively weak German colonial project was strengthened by cocoa production, using it to gain a stronger foothold in the global colonial program. In the early twentieth century, Hamburg, Germany, was one of the world’s major markets for raw cocoa (p. 84) and the German colony of Cameroon became the biggest plantations in West Africa where cocoa was its most profitable crop (p. 92). German chocolate products became an integral component to the global circulation of visualized notions of blackness. Advertisements and, in particular, postcards of black colonial figures represented in the process of cocoa production allowed consumers to participate remotely in the colonial project overseas, doing their “patriotic deed” in the name of the German nation (p. 84). The postcards served another purpose as well: collecting the cards allowed consumers to create a personal library of blackness—to pore over in the comfort of their own homes and to circulate among friends who also supported Germany’s fledgling colonial project. The collections of postcards conveyed consumers’ worldliness and their “knowledge of the ‘Other’” to visitors (p. 85). The visual connection of blackness and chocolate, as Hackenesch illustrates, was part of the larger economics of production and social capital.

Hackenesch delves more deeply into the role of social capital and chocolate consumption. “The socio-political connection of cocoa with the enslavement of Africans,” she argues, “functions as a contradictory inducement and enforcement for the discourse of in which chocolate operates as a racial signifier for Blackness” (p. 127). She further maintains that chocolate’s touch, smell, and taste lent themselves easily for a discussion on racialized bodies (p. 133). The desire for chocolate, which was at one point deemed an aphrodisiac, transferred to the dark bodies producing it. Interestingly, Hackenesch also links chocolate consumption to class. She notes that upon their near-simultaneous arrival in Europe, chocolate, coffee, and tea all were imbued with the stamp of capitalism and the ability of a consumer to pay such exotic goods (p. 140). To buy chocolate, then, in many different ways, was to buy a bit of exotic blackness.

Beyond the popularity of picture postcards of the colonial period, Hackenesch explores print and television advertisements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. She analyzes visual campaigns for popular companies such as Magnum ice cream and Sarotti chocolate and discusses the role of the sexualized “chocolate” man or woman in popular novels. Addressing the chocolate signifier in popular musical acts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, she explains why black performers referred to themselves as various types of chocolate to potential audiences. Hackenesch concludes that Afro-Germans, unlike the black population in the United States, understood and continue to understand the chocolate signifier as a wholly negative representation. This illustrates not only how connected populations differ in their embrace and acceptance of racial terminology, but also the means by which transnational studies, particularly those of diasporic populations of color, must avoid comparisons that ignore cultural differences in lieu of focusing on racial and ethnic similarities.

Scholars well-versed in related or similar topics, as well as those wanting a deeper understanding of this topic, will benefit from her meticulously organized bibliography which highlights the wealth of original sources discussed in this dissertation. Her research engages with fields including but not limited to African studies; African American studies; American studies; cultural studies; critical race theory; economics; philosophy; and political theory. Hackenesch effectively contextualizes and explains complicated theories that can speak well to both a general and more advanced audience.

At its core, this dissertation is about the complex movements of people, goods, and cultural knowledge. Hackenesch’s exploration of something as (seemingly) uncomplex as a chocolate treat highlights social and economic inequities. Spanning multiple continents this project brings into full relief the interconnectedness of ideas about blackness despite linguistic and cultural barriers. Hackenesch’s research provides a good model for those wishing to work across stark barriers of language and culture; this work illustrates how using an event or anomaly shared across geographic borders can be a fruitful approach to conceptualizing a strong multinational study. One of the best contributions this dissertation makes to the larger field of studies of race, its economic implications, and those implications’ global reach is Hackenesch’s method of using various modes of public culture to compose an argument about the geographic reach, timelessness, and quirks of narratives about blackness and their relation to economies of race and chocolate.

Kimberly Alecia Singletary
Doctoral Candidate
Northwestern University

Archives and Digital Collections

Deutsche Kinemathek, Museum Fuer Film und Fernsehen, Berlin
Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
Moorland Springarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington D.C.
Jim Crow Museum, Ferris State University, Big Rapids, MI
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Dissertation Information

Freie Universitaet Berlin. 2013. 404 pp. Primary Advisor: Winfried Fluck.

Image: Various Types of Chocolate. Wikimedia.