"Sugar and Civilization" explores the connections among racialized and gendered consumers, producers, and cultural workers during a critical period in U.S. and global history. As a study of U.S empire, this work reckons with the United States' acquisition of many tropical sugar-producing regions after 1898, and how their incorporation into the nation reconfigured understandings of how territorial sovereignty would be exercised through migration and trade policies. Since sugar could be produced either from cane raised on those newly-acquired islands, or from sugar beets grown in domestic temperate climates, policymakers began from the early-1900s forward to consider the relative merits of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, Cuba, Colorado, California, and Louisiana. In describing and representing sugar and the workers who produced it, leaders in the U.S. accordingly mapped the spatial logic of production and consumption in ways that defined their nation's imperial vision. I show how the movements of both commodities and laborers—in and outside the boundaries of the nation—shaped understandings of race and nation during a time when sugar production and consumption were increasing exponentially. Tariff making, in particular the sugar tariff alongside immigration policy, was thus a site for an emerging imperial racial formation as policymakers, workers, and consumers sought to influence how U.S. sovereignty would be exercised in the movement of commodities and people across borders.
In order to understand the lives and perspectives of workers in many locations my dissertation illustrates that the Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, African American and Anglo workers who tended sugar cane and beets also ate sugar and candy. As they did so, they spun their own stories about how they fit into the global sugar economy. By following a range of historical actors in multiple locations, this dissertation documents that sugar created spaces of resistance to global capitalism as consumers both internalized and contested their longings for sweetness. I argue that sweetness cannot be understood merely as a natural human desire, but was constructed from a shifting set of cultural longings and production imperatives, often organized around notions of race, gender, and civilization. Powerful businesses, in conjunction with the state, used new technologies and economic practices to foster what I term cultures of craving among U.S. laborers and consumers. Such cravings were reinforced through songs on the radio and in the parlor, in kitchens and candy shops, and in the fields and factories where sugar was produced. When, in 1934, New Deal policymakers renegotiated a new system for protecting the U.S. sugar market, they did so with these consumers in mind. As they reformulated policies to maintain U.S. global hegemony in the world of sugar, policymakers in the 1930s brought about the culmination of decades of debate over how to balance exclusion and expansion in U.S. American democracy.