Two men harvest bananas at a United Fruit Company plantation, Tiquisate, Guatemala, 1945. Photograph from Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images.
But plantation gets stuck on my tongue. What did a Central American plantation owned and operated by white men from the United States look, sound, and feel like? Because Ganny was born but not raised on United Fruit, I wonder about the conditions of birth there; about midwives, or about the possibility of friends come to help with the baby. The photos I’ve seen of the plantations from company archives do not tell me much about these conditions. They mostly document labor, though with little attention to laborers: dense rows of banana trees abundant with fruit, wholly cleared dirt pathways dividing those rows, thatched-roof buildings that mark “engineers’ quarters” or “overseer’s quarters.” Even when workers are present in these photos, the captions begin with verbs, not people: “planting banana bits” and “bringing fruit to loading platform.”2
When Black workers’ faces are caught by the camera, it seems almost accidental, like the result of a last-second glance at the photographer. Looking at these photos, I crave a return to the intimate, those small glimpses of a life that might give my memory a place to land. That might restore someone like these workers, or like Ganny, as the primary subject of an imperial archive. I also think about the US South, and what it meant that, across national borders, slavery was over and yet Black people continued to live and labor on plantations.
From Limón and Santiago de Cuba to Mississippi and the Carolinas, Black families had experienced just a generation’s respite from the wide reach of plantation work before racial capitalism created new iterations of itself. Indeed, the boundaries of the Global South have often, in practice, been drawn not so much around national lines, but around the “everywhere that Black people [call] home.” Everywhere the Global North has extracted air to supply its own breath.3
And I am captured by Ganny’s birth, or rather, the place in which it happened, because of the degree to which it predicts successive migrations, and inhabits a nexus between historical process and singular life. Perhaps a more honest way to phrase what I mean is that I am astounded to find my own family located so precisely within this particular and somewhat under-accounted-for period of Caribbean migration, neocolonial violence, and diaspora. As Christina Sharpe writes in In the Wake, Ganny’s patterns of migration linger in my mind as I attempt to “connect the social forces on a specific, particular family’s being in the wake to those of all Black people in the wake.” Like Sharpe, I too suspect that the geographical narrative of Ganny’s life might tell us something about national and racial identities within the afterlives of slavery and colonialism.4
These relationships—between family biography, migration, imperialism, land theft, and labor—seem to form something both nonlinear and repeating, though not bound by the enclosure of a circle. To me, they represent the most American of stories. And also the Blackest of stories. The most Caribbean of stories. That is, American anti-Blackness has always been a hemispheric project, and so too have expressions of Black survival and regeneration. Those “small [paths we clear] through the wake.”5
Ganny’s life, and its bearing on my own—its arrangement of the planets under which I was born in Brooklyn, New York—asks that I think about Blackness in global terms. Indeed, just a couple of years after arriving on United Fruit in Costa Rica, Ganny’s family migrated once again, this time to Bocas del Toro, an island off the western coast of Panama. In three years, they had crossed through and inhabited at least three nations—four, if we might count corporate-owned land—without ever leaving the Caribbean Sea.