Going Banana, Becoming Plantain

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Bananas and plantain, although both belonging to the Musaceae family are not the same things. Examining the history of exploitation and displacement of both fruits, Akil Scafe-Smith unfolds their political significance, as well as the links they establish between the Carribeans and the diaspora.

Article published in The Funambulist 31 (September-October 2020) Politics of Food. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

In a Youtube video by the South-London-born comedian Michael Dapaah, an African man and Caribbean man, both played by Dapaah, engage in an argument about the pronunciation of the word “plantain”: 

“Listen ‘ere’,” says the gold-tooth wearing Caribbean character, “is it mountAYN or mountIN, tell me dat smart man?” To which the African character replies, “You know, you are a kwasia [fool], it’s not an English quiz! This is called a plantAYN because you are not planting anything. Where’s the ground?” 

At the end of the minute-long clip, an English man (also played by Dapaah) wades in on the debate. “Woah, woah lads, relax! This right ‘ere, is a banana mate,” he says, alluding to a plantain he’s holding in his right hand. “You know… small banana [now holding an actual banana in his left hand], big banana [alluding again to the plantain]. What’s all this plantAYN, plantIN stuff?”

Beyond invoking a well-versed conversation between the African and Caribbean diaspora in the United Kingdom, and beyond reflecting, perhaps unknowingly, a deeper global ambiguity over the exactitude of the Musa paradisiaca, Dapaah’s satire is a critical entry point into a geopolitics of fruit that continues to influence how space is organized across the Black Atlantic. For the work of all those, myself included, who’ve used the banana as a lens through which to understand how flows of labor, commerce, and cultural capital have helped underpin Caribbean diasporic identity and spatial politics for over a century, it illumines a crucially overlooked question: what about all that plantain stuff?

Reading Food /// 

Scafe Smith Funambulist (1)
Banana harvest in Costa Rica in 1879. / Gordon Shunway.

First, a few steps back. Though using a banana as anything other than something to eat (certainly not a “lens”) may sound strange; “reading food,” meaning looking critically at the histories, supply chains, preparation and consumption rituals, mythologies, nomenclatures, agricultural-technological shifts, and architectonics of foods, is a powerful way of understanding world histories. This is not only true in a Eurocentric sense, where we might perhaps think of certain spices, coffee, tea, or sugar as both archives and apparatuses of colonial expansionism. Reading food resonates just as much in how we tell our own stories and carve collective identities within and for our own communities. 

Reading food also has important implications for how we understand different modes of spatial production. By thinking of space through our mouths (and all the ways food ends up in them) researchers, practitioners, professionals, activists, and denizens across the world have been able to make profound changes to the way we live with food and the spaces in which we live with it. Reading foods to understand space and politics can seed (pun intended) immediate, albeit often small-scale changes in our personal and collective food politics. Whether it’s by dissuading the purchase of certain products, encouraging the cultivation of others, prompting conversations about recipes, rituals, histories, and identities, or merely providing the sustenance for those conversations and others, framing space through food posits change at the tip of our tongues.