Guest lecturer discusses history of sugar, connection with race

Sera Simpson

A visiting professor discussed the contemporary relevance of sugar plantations in Texas and how it affects the modern food system in a lecture Tuesday.

Professor Ashanté Reese, an assistant professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, gave a lecture called “The Carceral Life of Sugar: Plantations, Prisons and the Contemporary Food System” in Patton Hall. This talk focused on Reese’s research on the agriculture of sugar in Texas and the use of the convict lease system to support this food system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

In her work, Reese said she also focuses on how these processes relate and compare to current American consumption and the prison system. 

Reese said her project focuses on studying the relevance of the plantation in modern Black life and in the construction of the state and food system. 

“I hope to contribute to a collective receiving, reinhabiting and reimagining of the world within and beyond the carceral structures that shape our lives,” Reese said. 

She said the convict lease system is connected to American consumption in general, but particularly to American sugar consumption, which is higher than any other country. 


“Our contemporary need for sugar in particular — and for globally circulated foodstuffs in general — is ideologically and materially connected to these plantation paths,” Reese said. 

Reese said prisoners are still working on farms today despite the abolition of convict lease, except now the farms are owned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. She said the Texas Department of Criminal Justice operates 47 prison farms. 

Gaila Sims, an American studies graduate student, said the lecture is part of the department’s racial retrenchment hiring process. The talk was sponsored by the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, the Department of American Studies and the Department of Anthropology.

“The department is one of the five different ones that are participating in this hire,” Sims said. “This is going to be one of the finalists for the hire … we’ve had a number of job talks over the last two to three weeks.”

Geography senior Prisilla Benitez, was inspired by the talk to learn more about history and its modern implications. 

“It’s a history that we’re not taught in school … and going to talks like these makes me realize that there’s a lot of history that still plays a huge part in our society,” Benitez said.