Black Rice by Judith Carney

by Ellen Bastrmadjian

“Black Rice” is a poignant retelling of the origins of one of the most critical crops in America today. Contrary to popular belief, rice was not introduced to the Americas by European settlers and slave traders, but by the slaves from West Africa. On the African continent “The Rice Coast,” which spans from Senegal in the north to Liberia in the south and east to Mali, is where rice has traditionally been grown for over two millennia. Carney begins by presenting historical evidence that cites rice cultivation in Africa through documents written by European explorers. She then delves into the history of rice cultivation in Africa, detailing landscape and climate conditions, specialized tools, and traditional gender roles. Carney switches gears and begins to discuss the introduction of Oryza glaberrima, or African rice, into the Americas – namely what is today South Carolina, where rice production was highest. She attributes this production to the indigenous African knowledge system, possessed by women in particular, that was transferred through the Middle Passage. She discusses the similarities in rice cultivation between the Rice Coast and South Carolina, such as similar gender divisions and climate/landscape conditions. Lastly, she presents her main argument, which is that rice was introduced by African slaves and discusses the legacy of that cultivation in the Americas of returning to Africa after slavery was abolished.

Judith Carney is a distinguished professor of Geography at UCLA. Her interest in the agricultural exchanges during the Columbian period and beyond influenced “Black Rice” – expanded from several published articles.

Carney has substantial evidence to back her claims with a range of information from primary documents to scientific and technical information. The wide range of evidence definitely legitimizes and makes the information interesting. She presents additional evidence and information through photographs, diagrams and maps. The unexpected visual aspect compliments the text perfectly and piques the reader’s interest in the subject. Carney’s emphasis on women’s role in the history of rice cultivation is refreshing in a field where contributions made by members of the female sex are typically overlooked in a historical context.

Carney recognizes the significance of food, which according to her, is not merely a form of sustenance but a form of cultural expression and identity. For example, she argues that the proper preparation of rice was created by African women. It is a history that is very much entwined with several other histories – slavery, the New World discovery, white supremacy, etc. Carney effectively contextualizes all of these aspects and turns something as simple as the introduction of a species on a new continent into a compelling tale.

The book is well-written and contains interesting and novel information, however, it becomes repetitive as the same information is stated several times. Facts such as slaves being able to barter a shorter work day by offering cultivation knowledge of rice and the conditions of rice cultivation are mentioned several times, using identical wording. If you are deeply interested in the exchange of rice from one part of the world to the other and all of the social, cultural and economic implications of that exchange I would recommend this book. If not, it might be easier to read the several published articles Carney has written about the topic for a more concise overview of the topic.

 

Carney, Judith Ann. Black rice: the African origins of rice cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Print.

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