Bananas: Racism, Sex, and Capitalism



The history and economy of the banana, loved by everyone, a comfort food but also an important source of nutrients given to babies and old people, takes us to colonial slavery, capitalism, military coup, racial environmental politics, gender, sexuality, freedom, multinationals and the fabrication of poverty, precarious and fragile lives in the 21st century.

Being non-seasonal, and thus available year round, the banana was ready to become a global commodity at the end of the 19th century. Four elements were essential to its transformation into a global commodity by the United States: (1) the discovery of a varietal that could be cultivated everywhere and would satisfied western tastes, (2) progress in maritime transport with the arrival of steamships, (3) the creation of the refrigeration industry, (4) the role of the U.S. imperialism in South America.

The discovery of a varietal to be cultivated everywhere was important: it belongs to the history of science and colonialism. Indeed, all colonial products (coffee, tobacco, sugar cane, cocoa, banana) have been the subject of intense scientific research since the beginning of their entry in the global capitalist market, to find the best variety that would yield the greatest harvest and best meet the taste of Westerners, could become a monoculture, and be protected from disease. The huge variety of bananas played against the capitalist research for monoculture. Botanic science came to the rescue of capitalism. In the 1820s, Charles Telfair, an Englishman, enamored with the bananas he had encountered on his journeys around the Indian Ocean and China, began a collection of plantain plants on the island of Mauritius. In 1829, he shipped a couple of banana plants to an acquaintance in England, where they eventually passed into the hands of the 7th Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, who was able to cultivate the plants and create a varietal. The Cavendish banana was formally recognized in 1836. From England, the Cavendish was subsequently diffused back into the tropical zones. By 1855, the Cavendish banana had spread from Tahiti into Hawaii, Australia, and Papua New Guinea.

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Banana loadings in Cameroon in 1912 (German Foreign Institute).

The bananas remained an exotic fruit in American cuisine well into the 1870s. In 1871, banana exports into the United States were valued at around $250,000. By the first year of the twentieth century, the banana trade had exponentially ballooned to $6,400,000. Ten years later, it had doubled again. By the mid-1880s, banana production expanded from Cuba and other islands in the Caribbean into Central America, including Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and into such South American countries as Colombia. Small-scale and independent shipping of the fruit gradually consolidated into huge shipping and production conglomerates, culminating in the formation of the United Fruit Company (UFC) in 1899.

The UFC dominated the world’s production and trade of bananas until the 1980s with plantations in Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama and Santo Domingo. Called “El Pulpo” (the octopus), the UFC found close support in right-wing governments which exempted it of taxes and helped with the repression of unions. Right-wing governments forced people to abandon their land, to clear forest to install plantations and to work in banana plantations, all for El Pulpo.

Three elements contributed to the popularity of the banana in the US: (1) it was cheap, (2) fruits began to be seen as increasingly important to a healthy diet, (3) finally, the banana peel, with its ensured sterility, offered consumers a food that was both germ-free, as well as nutritious. The UFC enrolled film and music stars to advertise the fruit. Recipes, cooking lessons, contributed to the popularity of the banana. Carmen’s Miranda’s movies helped make South America safe for banana companies: she danced and sang surrounded by banana plants, bearing hats of bananas. Carmen Miranda, the sexy, lovely and unthreatening Latina, contributed to the erasure of the exploited Latinas working in the plantations. South America was fun, full of music and dance, of men playing guitars, a place to go for vacation. United States white women could safely offer the banana to their family and invent recipes wide cooking competitions organized by the UFC. The transformation of the banana into an element of popular culture and consumption as a fun, sexy, good for your health and safe fruit masked the racialized division between the white consumer and the black producer, a division which is inseparable from colonialism and imperialism. The banana entered the U.S. thank to US imperialism which between 1880 and 1930, colonized or invaded Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Nicaragua.

The banana industry was very much a pioneer industry, with firms set up and joint ventures created. On one side, jungle clearance and thousands of workers lost to disease, as well as creating the port, rail, housing and other infrastructure from scratch, on the other, the world of suburban consumption. The increasing demand for bananas, and the lucrative banana trade had massive effects on the production of plantains on Caribbean, Central American, and South American farms. Small-scale cultivation gradually gave way to more intense production to maximize yield and minimize loss. Gradually, one breed of bananas began to stand out as a particularly profitable fruit, the Gros Michel or “Big Mike.” The Gros Michel was the perfect candidate for plantation monocultures, and rapidly supplanted most other bananas grown for American and European consumption.

The switch from polyculture to monoculture transformed the landscapes of Latin America in “Gros Michel” farms. The acres of Gros Michel banana crops became all genetically identical. But monoculture had its dangers and in the 1930s, Panama disease annihilated the Gros Michel commercially. In 1958, the fruit conglomerates turned to the Cavendish. In Central and South America, the UFC also launched the “banana wars.” Its most famous episode was the 1954 CIA coup against the elected democratic government of Guatemala. The population had overthrew the right-wing dictatorship and elected a democratic and socialist leaning government. The US launched a campaign with accusations of communism and supported the claim of the connection between communism and “anti-banana” position with a film, “Why the Kremlin Hates Bananas.”

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Airplane cropdusing a banana plantation in Nicaragua. / Still from Fredrik Gertten’s documentary Bananas!* (2015)

In the 1960s, under the pressure of the IMF and the World Bank, bananas multinationals divested most of their plantations in Central America and transferred them to local growers or governments. They also started to adopt the discourse of ethical capitalism. President Eli Black of Chiquita (former UFC) declared in 1973 that “We may well be the most socially conscious American company in the hemisphere.”

One aspect of the popular culture around the banana has been its sexualization connected with Blackness. One of its most famous representations was Josephine Baker and her banana skirt in 1926 in a Paris which was caught in a wave of “Negrophilia.” Initially made of rubber, her banana skirt turned into strategically-placed, menacing spikes that invoked mental associations with male organs. A critic, Fernand Devoire praised Baker’s performances with these words: “Josephine Baker, our lives on the banks of the Seine were weary and depressing before you came along. In the eyes of Paris, you are the virgin forest. You bring to us a savage rejuvenation.” In her banana skirt, Baker became “Fatou,” who, in the show, went down a tree like a monkey (with the monkey’s favorite treat, bananas-around her hips) to the rhythm of a barely dressed “savage” men’s drums, and entered into the life of a white explorer who had been sleeping underneath the tree. Baker’s banana skirt has been the subject of many essays. Here, what is interesting is the connection made between Blackness, banana and sex. As Alicja Sowinska reminds us, “bananas were a part of a music-hall tradition that used them not only as a focal point of comedians’ skits (simple banana-peels were often inciters of the most hilarious scenes of falls and slippages in early cinema), or as an indispensable accessory of the minstrel shows (with their atavistic affiliations), but also as a suggestive joke.” Following Baker’s show, dolls dressed in banana skirts became sold across Europe by the thousands. Stickers publicizing Baker’s movie, Zou Zou, were distributed among fruit vendors in Paris to be placed on the bananas they were selling. The connection between bananas, monkeys and Blacks firmly entered Western imaginary: savage sexuality, the Black phallus, Blackness and animality.

By the 1920s and 1930s, many lyrics alluded to the banana as a phallic symbol. “I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana,” by the Happiness Boys, “Banana In Your Fruitbasket,” by Bo Carter with: “Let me put my banana in your fruitbasket and i’ll be satisfied.” In 1943, Busby Berkeley’s performance “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” featured dancers riding gigantic banana and strawberry props as Carmen Miranda sang. By the 1940s, the sexual images of the banana had become increasingly associated with racist images of the fruit, as the creation of the “Miss Chiquita” character for the United Fruit Company’s advertisements attests.

Banana as a phallic symbol entered dancing shows through exoticized and racialized women, either the unthreatening Latina (Carmen Miranda), or the “savage” Black woman (Baker) who played with the stereotypes associated with Blackness and sexuality.

The historical and cultural context in which these associations (and we can still discuss if Baker was making an ironic use of Western stereotypes) were made was one of increasing presence of Africans in Europe after WWI, with the arrival of jazz, the movement of Négritude, the affirmation of a Black and proud identity. In the US, it was the struggle against lynching and Jim Crow laws. There was a tension between the emerging Black consciousness in France, the Harlem Renaissance movement in the US and the proliferation of colonial imagery. More than 134 000 West Africans had been sent to Europe as soldiers and workers during the war triggering anxiety and fascination. The interwar period in France has often been referred as the “Banania years” because “declinations of the stereotype,” as Michelle Rosello puts it, branded African and European imagination. Léopold Sédar Senghor registered his protest by writing: “I will tear all the Banania laughs off every wall in France.”

Banana plantations are monocultures (i.e. where only one type of crop is grown), and 97% of internationally traded bananas come from one single variety, the Cavendish. On thousands of plantations, from Belize in Central America to Ecuador, the fruit is genetically identical: the same variety in plantation after plantation. This lack of genetic variety makes plants highly susceptible to pests, fungi and diseases and therefore large quantities of insecticides and other pesticides are applied to the crops.

Agrochemicals are applied by hand and aerially sprayed. It is estimated that 85% of chemicals sprayed by plane fail to land on the crop, instead saturating the whole area, including workers, their homes and food. Large banana plantations present a big challenge to the producer. The rapid depletion of the soil’s nutrients requires the application of expensive chemical fertilizers in order to maintain high levels of productivity. When the bananas are packed, workers must apply fungicides and disinfectants such as formaldehyde to protect the fruit during shipment. In many regions, the land has been so contaminated that future agricultural use is impossible. One other clue of the severity of the impact of these chemicals is the silence of the plantations. There are no bird song or animal calls because there is no longer any wildlife. In summary, banana growing involves an intensive use of pesticides, covering banana bunches with polyethylene bags to protect them from wind, attacks of insects or birds and to maintain optimum temperatures. Pesticides go into the water used for drinking, cooking and washing.

For plantation workers and local people, the health impacts of extensive agrochemical use are numerous, ranging from depression and respiratory problems to cancer, miscarriages and birth defects. Tens of thousands of workers left sterile by the use of a nematicide, DBCP, in Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the 1970s are still seeking justice in the US courts from the multinationals involved. Over the last two decades, pesticide use in Central America has more than doubled, leading to increased environmental and health problems.

In a 2002 investigation, Human Rights Watch found that Ecuadorian children as young as eight work on banana plantations in hazardous conditions. Children began working between the ages of eight and thirteen, most starting at ages ten or eleven. Their average workday lasted twelve hours, and fewer than 40 percent of the children were still in school by the time they turned fourteen. In the course of their work, they were exposed to toxic pesticides, had to use sharp knives and machetes, to haul heavy loads of bananas, to drink unsanitary water, and some were sexually harassed. Roughly 90 percent of the children told Human Rights Watch that they continued working while toxic fungicides were sprayed from airplanes flying overhead. For their efforts, the children earned an average of $3.50 per day, approximately 60 percent of the legal minimum wage for banana workers.

Chiquita, Del Monte, Dole, Favorita, and Noboa have all, at some time, worked with plantations on which children labor, more than 70 percent of the children interviewed by NGO said they had worked on plantations that almost exclusively supply Dole. Workers on banana plantations in countries such as the Dominican Republic, Belize and Costa Rica are migrants who have little chance of exercising their labor and other social rights, especially if they have no legal status in the host country.

The exploitation of vast tracks of land by banana companies has often driven out indigenous populations. In the Caribbean coastal regions, the Cabecar and the Bribri peoples are presently facing the threat of the contamination of their rivers, pressure on their lands, as well as the negative effect on their culture when their young people begin working on the plantations. The displaced groups either become banana workers or become an uneducated, underfed and, underemployed source of cheap labor.

The 1990’s have seen increased deforestation after a slowing down period, which began in the 1960’s. In anticipation of the opening of the market for bananas in Eastern Europe and the formation of the European Union, the “Wild Bunch” began expanding their production. Although now there are laws against deforestation of primary forest, land buffering national parks, and the vegetation along riverbanks, these laws are frequently ignored.

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Bananas being dispatched from a banana farm at Chinawal village in Maharashtra to the market / Photograph by Abhi Riksh (2016)

The banana’s sex life (or lack of it) is cause for growing concern to big business and scientists. The domestic banana is an asexual clone, one that results from the sedate, artificial act of vegetative propagation. Hence the search for its genome with the hope that the information will reveal much about the genes that make a banana what it is, and more importantly what it might be with a little extra help. Scientists are working for the agro-business industry to find the perfect banana.

The examples of many current struggles (abolitionism, colorblindness, racelessness, anti-racism, anti-Apartheid) were founded on the idea of progress and the universal subject. Both have experienced serious setbacks. The idea of justice is today more important than the idea of progress, hence the return of the demands for reparations of past crimes and injustices. But the demands are by a group for a group. Their goal is not seeking to build a universalizing alliance but to further the needs of one group. Take for example, the CARICOM countries whose claims for reparations (to former slave-trading nations including the UK, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark) are being channeled through the United Nations convention on the elimination of racial discrimination, and processed with the help of the London law firm Leigh Day. Among the demands made on European former slave trade nations are that they:
• provide diplomatic help to persuade countries such as Ghana and Ethiopia to offer citizenship to the children of people from the Caribbean who “return” to Africa. Some 30,000 have made such a journey to Africa and have been offered generous settlement packages, but lack of citizenship rights for their children is causing difficulties;
• devise a development strategy to help improve the lives of poor communities in the Caribbean still devastated by the after-effects of slavery;
• support cultural exchanges between the Caribbean and west Africa to help Caribbean people of African descent rebuild their sense of history and identity;
• back literacy drives designed to improve education levels that are still dire in many Caribbean communities;
• provide medical assistance to the region that is struggling from high levels of chronic diseases such as hypertension and type 2 diabetes that the Caricom reparations commission links to the fallout from slavery.

One of the most important, and most contentious, demands will be for European countries to issue an unqualified apology for what they did in shipping millions of men, women and children from Africa to the Caribbean and America in the 17th and 18th centuries.

But what is the nature of the crime in the banana’s business? Exploitation? Racialized environmental policies? Unequal development? Who are the victims? The workers in the fields? The workers in the factories? The people whose environment is being polluted by chemicals used in banana plantations? Who are the perpetrators: states which allow multinationals to lease out local production? Multinationals? The WTO? The difficulty in the fragmented terrain is to construct counter-hegemony from a whole series of different positions and not from one front alone.

The most promising terrain to launch a battle might take place around the banana as commodity: to reveal what is behind easily taken for granted, to show the interconnections, the crossed routes and levels of significations, the global/local dimension. Bananas are purchased without thought given to their origin, the conditions under which they were grown, or what person/child aided in their harvesting and transporting processes.

In conlusion, for more than twenty years, a deadly pesticide, chlordécone, was used in Martinique and Guadeloupe despite being banned in the U.S. and France. The racial dimension of the crime has been barely tackled due to the strength of republican ideology which forbids conversation about race. The two islands were French slave colonies, they are today French departments where high rates of unemployment, poverty, and illiteracy combine with a lack of alternatives. The racialized and class-based State policy of allowing chlordécone to be used is symptomatic of the ways in which the Fifth Republic has been serving capitalist interests. While descendants of slave owners, who are today at the head of the banana economy, received the protection of the State, descendants of enslaved and indentured workers continue to be the victims of racial capitalism.