Black Women's Geographies and the Afterlives of the Sugar Plantation

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<jats:title>Abstract</jats:title> <jats:p>This essay examines how several contemporary black women artists—Attica Locke, Natalie Baszile, Beyoncé, Ava DuVernay, and Kara Walker—interrogate the afterlives of the sugar plantation in present day literature, performance, and visual art. Drawing on Katherine McKittrick’s conceptualization of “black women’s geographies,” I show how these artists turn to the landscape and built environment of the sugar plantation and factory to restore black women and the US South to the global history of sugar. Part one, “Plantation Pasts,” examines Locke’s 2012 novel, The Cutting Season, alongside Kara Walker’s 2014 installation, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, as critiques of the sugar plantation’s ongoing economic viability through plantation tourism and modern agribusiness. By foregrounding a “logic of perishability” that insists on the plantation’s dissolution and demise, Locke and Walker interrogate these sugar plantation afterlives to exhume, expose, and ultimately revise buried histories of racial dispossession and consumption in the US and global sugar industries. Part two, “Plantation Futures,” examines how Natalie Baszile’s 2014 novel, Queen Sugar, its television adaptation created by Ava DuVernay, and several of Beyoncé’s music videos—“Déjà Vu” (2006), “Formation” (2016), and the visual album Lemonade (2016)—“return” to Louisiana’s sugar plantation geographies to confront the violent histories of slavery and Jim Crow and to reconcile African Americans’ contentious relationship to land, agriculture, and contemporary southern identity in the post-Civil Rights era. Given the limits of colonial and state archives of slavery, I argue that these artists reestablish the landscape and architecture of the sugar plantation and factory as counter-archives, wherein the slave cabin, big house, refinery, and cane fields are figured as contested sites of official history and memory. In doing so, they “respatialize” hegemonic geographies, exposing and indicting the persisting legacies of racial-sexual dispossession and violence, on one hand, and positing embodied practices of pleasure, mourning, and collectivity as modes of “reterritorialization” on the other, imagining a new relationship to land, agriculture, and the earth.</jats:p>






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Mcinnis, JC (2019). Black Women's Geographies and the Afterlives of the Sugar Plantation. American Literary History, 31(4). pp. 741–774. 10.1093/alh/ajz043 Retrieved from

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Jarvis C McInnis

Cordelia and William Laverack Family Assistant Professor of English

Jarvis C. McInnis holds a BA in English from Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, and a Ph.D. in English & Comparative Literature from Columbia University in the City of New York.  Jarvis is an interdisciplinary scholar of African American & African Diaspora literature and culture, with teaching and research interests in the global south (primarily the US South and the Caribbean), sound studies, performance studies, and visual culture.

He is currently at work on his first book project, tentatively titled, “The Afterlives of the Plantation: Aesthetics, Labor, and Diaspora in the Global Black South,” which aims to reorient the geographic contours of black transnationalism and diaspora by exploring the hemispheric linkages between southern African American and Caribbean literature and culture in the early twentieth century. Jarvis’s research has been supported by numerous grants and fellowships, including the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, the Ford Foundation Pre-doctoral and Dissertation Fellowships, and Princeton University’s Department of African American Studies postdoctoral fellowship. His work appears or is forthcoming in journals and venues such as CallalooMELUSMississippi QuarterlyPublic Books, and The Global South.

Professor McInnis hopes to curate a classroom space where his students feel free to take intellectual risks, and where they can use African diaspora literature and culture to celebrate and affirm black humanity and creativity; interrogate and dismantle systems of power, injustice, and inequality; and imagine new futures and more just worlds. 

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