Thursday, May 19, 2011
Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos--Storify
Summary: Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos were inspired to write this book when they discovered that they both have sugar in their family background. Those intriguing tales inspired the husband-and-wife team to trace the globe-spanning history of the essence of sweetness, and to seek out the voices of those who led bitter sugar lives. As they discovered, the trail of sugar runs like a bright band through world events, making unexpected and fascinating connections.
Sugar leads us from religious ceremonies in India to Europe’s Middle Ages, when Christians paid high prices to Muslims for what they thought of as an exotic spice, then on to Columbus, who brought the first cane cuttings to the Americas.
Cane—-not cotton or tobacco—-drove the bloody Atlantic slave trade and took the lives of countless Africans who toiled on vast sugar plantations under cruel overseers. And yet the very popularity of sugar gave abolitionists in England the one tool that could finally end the slave trade. Planters then brought in South Asians to work in the cane fields just as science found new ways to feed the world’s craving for sweetness. Sugar moved, murdered, and freed millions.
Using songs, oral histories, and more than eighty archival illustrations, Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos put a human face on this vast pageant (Clarion Books).
Storify is a brand new tool that is a perfect accompaniment for nonfiction. (Although if you are really inventive, you can probably create a very clever mad lib of a fictional story using people's tweets and Facebook posts as dialogue. Something to think about...). Using social media--Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Google--the user is able to create a story from people's tweets, posts, pictures, and videos. For example, if you want to show how people around the world reacted to Prince William's and Lady Catherine's double kiss on the Buckingham Palace balcony or the killing of Osama bin Laden, you can use the Storify Editor to search through social networking sites for these or any other key words. Then you move the posts into your story and add your own commentary. To help your story go viral, Storify can notify via Twitter the people whose tweets helped "tell" your story. This exceptionally easy-to-use tool is a perfect example of Web 2.0 creation and collaboration. Storify would also make a great addition to any lesson on globalization, which is why I opted to use it with Sugar Changed the World. Note: To use Storify, you must also create a Twitter account.
Review: Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos begin their book by explaining how sugar’s paradoxical history involves each author personally and how the lives of both Aronson’s Russo-Judaic family and Budhos’s East Indian family were determined by a global phenomenon: what the authors term the “Age of Sugar.” The goal of this informational book is stated in the title, and the authors are determined to show how “sugar changed the world” by examining how the concepts of slavery, revolution (both political and economic), and freedom are the direct progeny of humanity’s craving for [cheap] sweetness.
Aronson and Budhos also wrote this book to encourage young people to think critically. When so much of American elementary and secondary education is programmed around standardized tests, we tend to both learn and teach in separate units rather than examining how these “units” are interrelated to form history and how history can help us answer the “Big Questions.” In this case, the questions Sugar Changed the World tries to answer are “How were sugar and slavery related to the struggle for freedom?” and “How were sugar and slavery entangled with the birth of the Industrial Revolution in England? (p. 127).
I admit that, prior to reading this book, I did not know the answer to either question, nor had I ever thought about sugar in relation to anything other than cupcakes. I picked up this book because I love to eat and thought that I might enjoy picking up a morsel or two of food history. Aronson and Budhos do not disappoint in this regard. I did not know, for example, that, in the Middle Ages, sugar was originally thought of as a spice and used to juxtapose bitter or salty tastes in meat, fish, and vegetable dishes. Sweetness is mainly associated with the dessert course today, and blending combating flavors is considered cutting-edge cuisine, but consider holiday foods such as turkey with cranberry sauce or brown-sugar-glazed ham. Like most of our holiday traditions, these foods are time-travelers, linking us to medieval times.
The dessert course as we know it today was not developed until the late 18th century. At this point, sugar had become cheap and available enough to justify creating an extremely sweet dish to conclude the meal, yet at what cost? In the section “How We Researched and Wrote This Book,” Aronson and Budhos have argued that “if [their] book accomplishes nothing more than to encourage teachers to teach slavery in North America as a small part of a much larger system primarily focused on the Caribbean and Brazil—-with all that implies for understanding slavery, African American history, race, and the United States as part of a larger world--[they] will have succeeded” (p. 128). They should succeed. Of the approximately 12 million people transported from Africa across the Atlantic, only 4% were destined for North America. The other 96% were brought to the Caribbean and Brazil to live, work, and die young on the sugar plantations.
Although their language becomes a tad idealistic at times (“We are the sum of our own soul strength, not of the judgment imposed on us by others,” p. 123-124), Aronson and Budhos do an excellent job of explaining and justifying their thesis. After reading this book, I am inclined to believe that sugar really did change the world, and I am now able to answer the aforementioned questions. Reading this book was an exceptional learning experience on both the factual and critical levels. Grades 8+.
Note: On their website, the authors have provided examples of music developed in the sugar islands as a response to slavery: (http://sugarchangedtheworld.com/the-music-and-dance-of-sugar-work/). Although this particular information is not specified, these neo-African rhythms are the foundation of what would eventually become rock ‘n’ roll. Just another illustration of how sugar changed the world.