Few objects embody and communicate histories of land and labor like food. Netflix’s High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America is a popular new series that narrates and analyzes generations of Black food tradition in the African Diaspora. The show briefly mentions benne seed or sesame in the United States, but this seed also influenced Black food history across the Americas.
This post is an invitation to think about Black life and land in Mexico through benne seed. People do not usually associate sesame with Black food traditions, but like in the U.S. South, this seed is part Black agricultural history in southern Mexico.
Sesame seed (Sesamum indicum) is an oilseed plant endemic to Africa and Asia that Black people have grown in the Americas since the colonial period. In the coastal lowlands of South Carolina–where enslaved Black people transformed the landscape into rice country but had to grow their own food–Black folks often planted sesame seeds in their gardens and called the seed benne.1 In most of the Americas, Black farmers call benne seed ajonjolí, and during most of the early twentieth century, Afromestizo and Afro-Indigenous communities in Costa Chica helped Guerrero become the largest sesame seed producer in the hemisphere.
The origins of benne seed in Guerrero are unclear. Sesame might have crossed the Atlantic Ocean with enslaved Africans as benne or via the Pacific Ocean on the Manila Galleon as linga, zhima, or til. In any case, renowned historian of Guerrero, Tomás Bustamante Álvarez, suggests that by the late nineteenth century, landholders began to look to ajonjolí as an economic resource in Tierra Caliente.2 From sesame seed plantations in the Tierra Caliente, the Ontañón family established the soap brand and company Bola de Nieve or Snowball. Like Pear’s Soap or Procter & Gamble advertisements in late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Bola de Nieve ignored its Black and Indigenous producers and sold notions of white purity and scientific racism instead.3 The company began to convert old cotton land in coastal Guerrero into sesame plantations as it expanded after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). By 1938, the region in Mexico with the most self-identifying Afro-descendants was part of the hemisphere’s largest producer of benne seed.
Despite local control of land, soap and vegetable-oil companies dominated sesame production. Even after the government distributed land to communities as ejidos, multinational companies and local caciques controlled the markets and marketability of ajonjolí. Industry consumes most Mexican benne for various products from soap to perfume to industrial lubricants. Culinarily speaking, ajonjolí is also all over Mexican food; it is mashed up for mole, hardened into candy, and quite literally on top of plenty of pan dulce. In Costa Chica, Francisca Aparicio Prudente writes that in afromestizo cuisine, ajonjolí is most common in alegrías and mole de guajolote.4 At the same time, racist language could be encoded directly on sesame in Mexico; people often characterized seed varieties as criolla, trigüeña, and negra. Only the best quality criolla seeds made Bola de Nieve’s white toilet soap. Rather than liberated farmers, as a cash crop in Costa Chica, ajonjolí helped enrich companies like Bola de Nieve, Procter & Gamble, and Colgate-Palmolive at the expense of afro-descendant farmers.
Without acknowledging its connection to the Black Diaspora, many progressive white farmers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century used the phrase “open sesame” to refer to any promising crop. Sesame can grow in few US ecosystems outside of semi-tropical South Carolina. In Mexico, politicians and businessmen touted up ajonjolí as an “open sesame” for industry and agriculture alike, but only benefited the former. Partially because collective ejidos did not require irrigation or paved roads, Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) promoted sesame cultivation as agrarian reform in coastal Guerrero.
Since many Sesamum indicum varieties are drought-resistant and grow well in sub-par soils, the government promoted its cultivation in areas unsuitable for other crops. Corn and beans intercrop well with ajonjolí in second-class soils, but without additional support, ajonjolineros are left with little access to upward mobility. Like Black benne farmers in South Carolina, first enslaved and then emancipated, afrodescendiente ejidatarios in coastal Guerrero grew ajonjolí in leftover or discarded lands. In both cases, however, local landholders did not leave Black farmers to their own devices.
Reminiscent of violence against emancipated Black farmers after the Civil War, mestizo landowners and smallholders formed guardias blancas or white guards to terrorize ejidatarios during Mexico’s agrarian reform. Few regions had guardias blancas more notorious than those of coastal Guerrero. This political history tends to focus on Costa Grande, but it encompassed Costa Chica too. From San Marcos to Ometepec, families like the Venturas killed dozens of ejidatarios in the 1930s and 1940s. In most cases, ejidatarios fought back, and in many cases, they won more land, but few ajonjolí plantations became open sesame for Afrodescendientes on the coast. It remains to be fully understood what ajonjolí meant to Black traditions in Costa Chica, but the environmental account of sesame provides an angle into the social and political history of Black life in Mexico.
Coastal Guerrero is a layer of cake of oilseed extraction histories: Aztec leaders forced Amuzgo and Tlapanecs to pay tribute in chocolate; colonial hacendados enslaved Africans on cotton plantations; after the sesame boom of the mid-twentieth century came the postwar coconut expansion. However, as High on the Hog emphasizes, Black food history contains more than extraction and resistance; it also carries legacies of collective action between Black people and the land. Whether we call it sesame, benne, or ajonjolí, Sesamum indicium holds both memories and multitudes of Black life in the United States and Mexico.
- Dorothea Bedigian, “African Origins of Sesame Cultivation in the Americas,” in African Ethnobotany in the Americas (New York, 2013), pp. 67-120. ↩
- Tomás Bustamante Álvarez also notes the legacies of afrodescendiente arrieros (muleteers) in Tierra Caliente during the colonial period and nineteenth century, Las transformaciones de la agricultura o las paradojas del desarollo regional: Tierra Caliente, Guerrero (Mexico City, 1996), pp. 67, 99. ↩
- Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York, 1995). ↩
- Moises Zeferino de Jesús García writes that Atole de ajonjolí is particular popular in Costa Chica among Amuzgo speakers, Diccionario Ñòmndaá Ñòmtsco. amuzgo – español, español – amuzgo: variante lingüística de Xochistlahuaca, Guerrero (Mexico City, 2012). ↩