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November 03, 2003

Black Rice

I didn't get my Splendid Table on yesterday, but I did catch a little bit of NPR Sunday morning in which the the interviewee talked about wild rice. It reminded me of Judith Carney's research. Her landmark book is called 'Black Rice'.

We're always giving thanks around this time of year for corn and turkey. But people forget how African slaves revolutionized the agrarian economy of the United States. Well, perhaps they never knew that it was intellectual work. Carver introduced crop rotation, of course, but what most people don't know is that rice is not native to the US. Most everything Americans know about rice comes from West African agriculture experts.

Or to put it in academic-speak:

Carney, J. 2001. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press*.

Black Rice is most remarkable because it does the radical work of a postcolonial political ecology using the very traditional and rigorous tools of cultural ecology. Situated directly in the Sauerian tradition of diffusion studies, Carney offers a rigorous historical mapping of the diffusion of rice (Oryza glabberima) from the flooded fields of pre-colonial West Africa to the antebellum plantations of North America, where it became the largest cash crop of the prewar period.

In the process, the study turns Eurocentric diffusionist notions on their heads and in the spirit of Jim Blaut, shows the contributions of non-Euro-Americans to the environmental history of global knowledge and genetic exchange. Far from lacking food surpluses as has been suggested of the region, the levels of surplus from West African rice production likely supported vast populations in the region into the 1500s, a hugely successful agroecology that ironically made the region a target for slavers. So too, the success of American plantations, populated by Europeans with little or no reliable knowledge of subtropical production, depended entirely on seizing and capitalizing on African rice production knowledge - the knowledge of the enslaved. It also depended upon the transplantation of an African domesticate, which was parlayed into the major cash-earning crop of the antebellum South. The power of this story in both contributing to, and inverting, diffusionist history is profound.

Posted by mbowen at November 3, 2003 04:50 PM

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Tracked on November 3, 2003 08:55 PM