Friday, February 4, 2011

Black Rice

In honor of Black History Month, I want to share a synopsis of Judith Carney’s book, “Black Rice.”  The story is compelling to me because it challenges the dominant narrative of African slavery, which, almost exclusively, focuses on the brutally enforced subjugation of slaves and thus limits their participation in the building of America to victimhood and back-backing labor. Alternately, Carney positions African slaves as critical informants and conveyors of an entire rice culture, from production to consumption, which resulted in producing one of the most profitable export crops in America.  In telling the story, Carney demonstrates how African slaves used their rice-producing expertise as “bargaining chips” to negotiate the terms of their bondage, especially in the early years as plantations were being carved out of wilderness.

Conventional assumptions about African rice production attribute any sophistication to early Portuguese introductions of farming techniques.  One of Carney’s primary purposes in the first two chapters is to dispel that myth, and to reclaim African agricultural accomplishments that were undermined as a result of the slave trade.  Carney provides detailed descriptions that highlight the complexity, ingenuity, and productivity of these systems.  By describing how Africans leveraged the local ecology towards production, Carney illustrates an elegant agricultural system that was informed by generations of farmers, rather than something recently arrived with the Portuguese.  

Once Carney establishes Africans as innovators and practitioners of a complex rice culture, she has laid the foundation for supplanting conventional assumptions of victimhood and the complete subjugation of slaves by brutal plantation masters.  Instead, Carney posits that, at least early in the establishment of plantations, particularly in South Carolina, slaves were able to negotiate the terms of their own bondage because they, and they alone, possessed the knowledge and skills necessary for carving out productive rice growing systems from the wilderness.  It is a liberating and important dimension to the discussion of slavery, which, as Carney notes, is often presented in stark and forceful terms to convey the brutality of the slave-master relationship.  The story Carney tells is liberating because, “By recognizing the complex ways in which social relations are challenged and transformed in slave societies, we may develop an alternative perspective toward the ways in which slaves may have seized rare opportunities to negotiate and improve the conditions of their unfree labor” (p. 98).  Carney provides evidence that slaves taught white settlers how to grow rice in diverse lowland settings via the creation of irrigated systems that mirrored the mangrove systems of West Africa.  It was these irrigated systems that produced South Carolina’s highly sought after “gold” rice. 

Carney also analyzes the gendered nature of knowledge in rice production and processing, and sheds light on the particular and specialized rice growing expertise of women.  Carney extends her analysis to food preferences, and demonstrates how the rice milling and cooking processes preferred in the southern US were the same as those in West Africa, where it was the exclusive domain of women.  Carney thus highlights how rice production and consumption were synonymous with identity. As rice production systems became more entrenched, and as the imperative to produce more rice for the global system increased, the clear division of labor between men and women blurred, and the original gendered rice production system broke down, which translates, effectively, to an undermining and breakdown of identity.  Furthermore, during the mid to latter years of slavery, slaves lost their ability to negotiate the terms of bondage, and slavery became the more brutal institution that is familiar in the historical record.  

Carney’s analysis is ultimately a story of redemption grounded in Africans’ resistance and negotiation.  It is the reclamation of a history obscured by power relationships, privilege, and a discursive process that minimized or dismissed the cognitive abilities, and indeed the very humanity, of Africans.  Unfortunately, it is not ancient history because the relationships and perceptions of Africans that were initiated and formed during the slave trade still very much influence contemporary power dynamics and decision making.  The power dynamics that obscured the role of Africans in the development of a nascent American economy continue to affect contemporary agricultural development, which privileges westernized technology as “improved” and African agriculture systems as “static” and “unproductive.” 

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