How Caribbean ‘Black Cake’ can help the region transcend its traumatic past

Photo of Black Cake, a traditional Caribbean Christmas dessert, taken from Grandma Irma’s Guyanese Black Cake recipe in 2020, used with permission.

By Patriann Smith

On November 15, Black American media magnate Oprah Winfrey wrote on Facebook about being touched by “reading #BlackCake, the story of a mother who passes away and leaves her children a flash drive that holds untold stories of her journey from the Caribbean to America.” So touched, in fact, that she made it into a series that is streaming on Hulu. Those two words, “Black Cake,” indelibly resonate with the authentic Caribbean psyche, something that author Charmaine Wilkerson must have known when she wrote the book, which makes visible the myriad of literacies, Englishes, and languages used by Black immigrants to both survive and thrive.

At a time when anti-Blackness and xenophobia remain rampant across the globe, Winfrey is using her platform to make visible the plight of Black immigrants in the United States, many of whom are Caribbean, and others who increasingly migrate from Africa. After watching the entire series with my Caribbean family, I thought, “What an exceptional decision to bring this book to life on the screen and to silence invisibility!” It had been the first time in my brief decade of living in the United States that I had seen anything Caribbean so celebrated, so lauded, so accepted, so seen.

“Black Cake” has been praised not just by Oprah Daily, but also by NPR, BuzzFeed, Glamour, PopSugar, Book Riot, and She Reads as “one of the best books of the year.” Wilkerson, an Italy-based American writer who has also lived in Jamaica, paints imaginaries of transnationalism and of migration through the character of Eleanor Bennett, who has just passed away in present-day California, leaving behind an inheritance which presents a puzzle that her children, Byron and Benny, must solve. Mired in the mystery of a black cake that has emerged from the history of a family recipe, Eleanor tells the captivating story of an impetuous young swimmer who is forced to flee her island home because she is a murder suspect.

This slow and painful unraveling of secrets allows Eleanor’s children to reconcile their understanding of who they are. In the process — through her betrayals, secrets, memories, migrations, and names — they also fully come to know Eleanor for who she was so that they can “share the black cake when the time is right.”

For many Caribbean people, reading the book, or watching the series, is reminiscent of Black Cake itself, or as some call it, rum cake, or fruitcake. What is often obscured, though, are the linkages the delicacy shares with the literacies of enslaved Africans. The Collin Street Bakery recently described the evolution of Jamaican Black Cake, explaining that it “can be traced back to the fusion of African culinary traditions with European influences:

In the 17th and 18th centuries, English fruitcakes were popular in Britain. Typically made with dried fruits, nuts, and spices, fruitcake was especially present during festive seasons like Christmas. Having experienced the holiday tradition of fruitcakes at the hands of their captors, enslaved Africans took the concept of fruitcake and began adapting the recipe. By incorporating local ingredients and using the rich tapestry of culinary traditions brought with them from home, the enslaved people created a unique Caribbean version…

Emerging out of the devastation of enslaved people trying to keep their culinary traditions alive, these African ancestors transformed the British fruitcake into Black Cake, a clear manifestation of their capacity to transcend the devastating impositions of their brutal and racialised reality, using their literacies to flourish.

There is no escaping the history that has produced the Black Cake delicacy, nor is there any running from the cries of survival that preceded it — which, for Black immigrants from the Caribbean, have been silenced for decades, often invisible despite the colonial legacy of slavery by which it is provoked. As a Black Caribbean mother and descendant of slaves who, like Eleanor and so many other Black immigrants, migrated to the United States not as a murder suspect but as a suspect nonetheless — racialised, linguicised, raciolinguicised, and xenophobised in a quest for survival — I am drawn to the complexities within which she was mired. I understand the ways in which institutional forces positioned her transnationally by using her own literacies to entangle her.

In tracing the journey of young Eleanor — a biracial girl born of a Black mother and Asian father who migrated for survival and found herself mired in the past that became her children’s future — the conundrum for many Caribbeans often becomes this:

Black Cake is good and we love Black Cake, so how can we condemn the people from whom we got it? After all, even though they hurt us, the British were cultured, and we survived it, and now we are past it. There’s no need to think of the slavery, we can now move forward without it. And there’s no racism in the Caribbean like the racism we see in the US so why do people bring that stuff here? We don’t need to use the word ‘Black’ here, trying to limit ourselves to how White people see us. Can we all just let people be who they are, humans, let this go, leave race alone, move on?

But the cake itself will always be just that: Black Cake. Even when it is called fruitcake, and it's not as dark, or rum cake and you can’t fully see the raisins, it is still in essence, Black Cake — and so it is with Black peoples worldwide. The Eurocentric structures that invoked a system of racialisation to denote Black peoples as substandard, inferior, wild, illiterate, and uncultured, do not disappear because we decide they do not exist. As noted in books like “Plantation Pedagogy” and “Language, Race, and the Global Jamaican,” the colonial entanglements of our personhoods with the languages, literacies, cultures of the Europeans with which we seem perpetually entwined must be acknowledged, accepted, and addressed if we are to make any headway with acceptance of the inherited entangled self and the imperfections of an enslaved ancestral past.

Because race is a social as well as structural construction, what this looks like in the Caribbean is often different from what it looks like across Africa, just as it looks different in the United Kingdom as opposed to North America. Racialisation undergirds the literacies of Caribbean children in and beyond the region, imposed by the colonially inherited structures that designed certain languages to be superior to others, leaving Caribbean education at a crosswords. It must discard the old and paint new imaginaries that deviate from reimposing the decadent structures of enslavement on the minds of the children who will become our future.

Much like Black Cake relies on a seamless integration of ingredients, intersections of race, language, and the migration of Caribbeans in the United States must also engage in the struggle for a transraciolinguistic justice. This structural burden of race is already being borne by African Americans like Atlanta prosecutor Fani Willis, who is committed to upholding justice even as she and her family are threatened and targeted; attorney Ben Crump, who holds the powerful accountable in cases like George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Tyre Nichols, and so many more.

Refreshingly, with actions like Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley recently putting the figure of USD 4.9 trillion owed in slavery reparations to her country alone, we are witnessing the arc of the moral universe beginning to bend, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, towards justice in a fight that has been redemptively undertaken by African Union and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) members. Their recent establishment of a global reparations fund and call for formal apologies from European nations emphasises how a past that remains very much present must be confronted to reclaim just futures.

Our capacity to address slavery remains critical to using our literacies to authentically represent the multiple levels of reality that “Black Cake” — the book and the series — explores. As far as the cake itself goes, in its constitution, we see the capacity of Black people to utilise what a system has imposed to transcend the oppressive system itself. Dichotomies imposed by subjugation are suddenly transformed, freed with the literacies of the mind and liberated by imaginaries of the soul. Migrations of survival invoke various representations of and responses to Blackness: there is no running from being Black, no matter where one lives. This realisation requires both an acknowledgement of our entanglement with race while allowing for a complete transcendence of it.

As Caribbeans enjoy Black Cake this Christmas, may it awaken within us the silenced cry of our enslaved African ancestors for justice, for peace, and for literacies that make visible our quantum imaginaries.

Patriann Smith, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of South Florida. Dr. Smith is well known for her award-winning research which considers how literacy teaching, research, assessment, and policy are influenced by the intersection of race, language and (im)migration. You can learn more about Smith and her work, here.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.