The Rice Plant and Black Knowledge

By Rashad Bell, Nuala Caomhanach

Feb 20 2020

“The millions of Africans who were dragged to the New World were not blank slates upon which European civilizations would write at will. They were peoples with complex social, political, and religious systems of their own. By forced transportation and incessant violence slavery was able to interdict the transfer of those systems as systems; none could be carried intact across the sea. But it could not crush the intellects, habits of mind, and spirits of its victims. They survived in spite of everything, their children survived and in them survived Africa.” —Melville Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past (1958)¹

Rice is a dietary staple of the world. Historically, rice (Oryza sativa) has a long association with originating in Asia, but another species of rice (Oryza glaberrima) became a significant crop produced in colonial South Carolina and the Greater Caribbean. The management of production created a very different labor and social system for enslaved Black people than Cotton. While physical ability was a main factor for plantation owners and managers in selecting African people for enslavement, in the 1600s, Black women and men were also chosen because of their specialist knowledge.

In west Africa, rice was cultivated by the “dry land” method. People from this area knew how to grow rice without using the irrigation systems method used in Asia. In the late 17th century, when Europeans settled South Carolina demand for labor with rice-growing techniques increased. Enslaved Black men first cleared the swamp-infested lands of the Carolinas. Women were especially valuable for their role in rice production. Enslaved Black women poured Rice seedlings into water-soaked muddy soil.  Rice takes approximately three months to grow for harvesting. Removing the rice from the hulls, called threshing, involved repetitive strenuous motion to remove the rice. Enslaved people created a tool, known as a mortar and pestle, for this task. Women then separated the hulls from the rice by winnowing. Once the rice had been harvested, the entire process began again for the next season.

Enslaved men and women who had escaped enslavement often joined the Maroons, a freedom-fighting community. Using their own knowledge of the environment, they survived by growing rice as a staple part of their diet in Suriname and Jamaica. The rice cultivated in the United States by enslaved Black people was not merely the movement of Black people into an exploitative slave complex, but the diffusion of an entire cultural system, from production to consumption. The circulation of west african knowledge of rice in the Americas highlights how communities of Black people developed new cultural and social values as a consequence of escaping and surviving an exploitative slave complex.

A Closer Look

¹ Sidney W. Mintz, Introduction to the 1990 edition of Melville Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past, 1958 [1941]. (Boston: Beacon Press).


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