Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Book Review 409: Black Rice
When I first encountered Judith Carney’s argument about African origins of rice in the Americas in a magazine article in 2000 I was unpersuaded. Her book, “Black Rice,” is more persuasive but carries more than a whiff of special pleading.
The difficulty is her contention that Europeans (in this case, the Portuguese, French and English) did not cultivate rice and therefore could not have done it. However, European travelers in the Age of Discovery were deeply interested in what they found — that’s why they were out to make discoveries, not to mention money. The English had close contacts with Italy and the Levant, rice-growing areas.
Carney’s interest is in South Carolina and West Africa, with tangential attention to rice in Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Nicaragua. Carolina was settled by Europeans in 1670 and by Africans at the same time.
The Africans, many of them, were from areas of West Africa where three distinct agronomies for rice had existed for centuries. Carney makes excellent evidence for their profound influence on the wet rice cultivation along the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina and part of North Carolina. But she elides the certain fact that English colonists were trying to grow rice in Virginia from their earliest settlement.
They were successful, too, although with dry or upland rice. They apparently had some method of “whitening” (hulling) the grain, a problem Carney makes much of. The Virginia rice was probably Asian, less difficult to process than African rice, but still, it had to be milled.
I think she makes her case that the white post-Reconstructionist historians who attributed the skill in Carolina rice cultivation entirely to Europeans were fantasizing, but I do not think she quite proves her case that the skills were entirely African.
Her case has many threads. One is cooking styles. Asian rice is sticky (except when it isn’t) while African rice properly cooked stays in distinct, long grains. As you find in gumbo. Gumbo is African in inspiration but Southerners also eat a lot of rice and gravy, which is not African-inspired.
She is also concerned to discern the gendered division of rice labor in Africa and in Carolina, privileging women’s role. Let’s just say that her descriptions tending to show that women were dominant in African rice cultivation— based on her fieldwork — are contradicted by other observers.
There are surprising controversies regarding agriculture in what became the United States and not just about whether slave labor was or was not more efficient (in the peculiar sense that economists use that word) than free labor. If you read Northern-oriented historians you learn that Lancaster County, Pa., had the highest farm receipts of any county for hundreds of years, while Southern-oriented historians say Georgetown County, S.C., the hub of Low Country rice, was the richest county in the country.
Some authorities say most slaves in the US were imported from the Caribbean, others say the majority were imported direct from Africa.
Carney had a good case but overplayed it. She also lengthened it by about twice by endless repetitions.