The Riddle of the Sugar Sphinx: Reflection on A Subtlety


Yesterday I went to the organized event “We Are Here” at the Kara Walker Exhibit in Brooklyn. The exhibit is placed in the condemned Domino Sugar Factory. The “We Are Here” event was in response to the numerous social media posts disrespecting the art and making the space negative for people of color. So yesterday hundreds of us came through to start dialogue and balance the space back to respect.

The following is my reactions and thoughts.

I recall the story of the Sphinx’s Riddle. How this factory was the temple and the question is presented by the Sugar Sphinx. In the mythological story, if one could not answer it, they would be devoured by the Sphinx. This concept carries over in my mind on how the U.S. and other colonized countries can never seem to answer the Riddle of race. How it’s always posed that black people are the problem. “The Negro Problem” was the riddle presented post-slavery when in reality we ourselves are not the problem. It’s the treatment we receive that is an issue. I also thought about James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”. How in the end of the book I read how if the “relatively conscious” black and white people do not work to end this riddle, if white people continue to veil themselves in ignorance, this country will continue to head towards what the prophetic end of the essay: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”. Or in the myth, devoured by the Sphinx.


My Paul Mooney voice rose it’s head when I witnessed the abundance of white families with their babies. Smiling and laughing, enjoying themselves. The severe contrast of the white & black faces in the room were astonishing. I thought about how did this turn into a family Sunday Funday event for them. What exactly were they thinking as they pointed to their babies mouthing something I could not hear. Smiling. What the hell were they smiling about?! I felt really hurt. I wanted to slap and hug Kara Walker at this moment. For making me feel that way.


Beloved by Toni Morrison came through here. I thought about how a character was discussing how she essentially grew up on the same plantation as her mother but was estranged from her. Black slave mothers were forced to let go of their children emotionally because they knew the high chance of them being sold off. At the same time they were forced to care for and breastfeed white babies. The slave master and his family had on demand access to their “mammy” and her children could only hope to see her. Even today there are still high trends of Caribbean nannies being underpaid with no sick leave for white families throughout NYC. This theme was noticed with the all the molasses children distanced from the Sugar Sphinx. We had access to her as we walked around and took pictures. More people stood behind her, gawking at her labia and ass. Giggling and smiling. As her children were glued in place, melting under burden. Not being able to access their mother.


It is an an obvious detail that slavery was harsh on the human body. However, people are highly unaware of the effects of racism on the human body today. One example is the high levels of cortisol in black women. A steroid triggered with stress. One that stunts weight loss and increases high blood pressure. Our bodies manifest what we go through. Black bodies have fell under the weight of racism. That is the reality. It doesn’t matter if Michael Jordan made it or that we have a black president; when the masses are still falling it needs to be addressed. Our bodies and our very health tell the story of our lives. What we endured.


Under the white gaze, the Sugar Sphinx has endured much humiliation. But yesterday I feel like we were able to give her the respect she deserves. She is the sum of our ancestors. The strength and severe vulnerability was very real. I wanted to cloak her. I wanted to kick everyone disrespecting her out. I wanted to just see her be left alone. I wanted her to be in peace. I want to celebrate her. I was at least able to look at her differently. With reverence and respect. I was able to glare at the disrespectful individuals and see them cower under my stare and walk away. I was able to at least protect her for a moment.


Thanks to the organizers for “We Are Here”, I was able to participate in that space. Share with others and felt that at least for the day, we were able to turn that space around. We turned it into the temple it was. It became sacred ground.


One thought on “The Riddle of the Sugar Sphinx: Reflection on A Subtlety

  1. Reblogged this on The Rockstar Anthropologist and commented:
    I absolutely understand the sentiment of this writer regarding this controversial and provocative piece by Kara Walker. I’m very familiar with, and a fan of Kara Walker. I appreciate the work that makes me feel uncomfortable and puts me in a place where I the weight of subjugation and the burden of racism. It is confrontational. I haven’t gone to see this yet, but I do plan on viewing this.

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