Requiem for Rice


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Creative Team Edda L. Fields-Black, Trevor Weston, Jonathan Green & Julie Dash at Julie Dash’s University Lecture at CMU 4/2016. Photograph by Gail L. Manker.

Requiem for Rice

West African rice production technology — developed by farmers in the Upper Guinea more than 500 years before the trans-Atlantic slave trade — laid the foundation for South Carolina’s commercial rice industry.[i]  The agricultural skill, ingenuity & technology of enslaved Africans made coastal South Carolina rice planters the richest planters with the largest slave holdings in the US South.[ii] 

The floods that fertilized the inland & tidal rice fields also created the most deadly living environments for enslaved laborers in the US South. Tens of thousands of enslaved men, women & especially children perished in the stagnant, cold, mosquito- & disease-infested swamps. Along the Savannah River, approximately two-thirds of children born on rice plantations died before they reached age 15, forty percent in their first year up until the Civil War. Historians have no way of counting the stillbirths & miscarriages among enslaved women.[iii] 

Our ancestors lost their youth, health, lives & babies as a result of reshaping the coastal landscape, carving rice fields out of cypress swamps, building earthen embankments “nearly three times the volume of Cheops, the world’s largest pyramid,” & engineering a hydraulic irrigation system.[iv]  Yet, there are no memorials to commemorate their appalling sufferings, involuntary sacrifices or immeasurable contributions. 

Requiem for Rice is a lamentation for the souls of the dead who were enslaved, exploited & brutalized on Lowcountry South Carolina & Georgia’s rice plantations. It is simultaneously a modern take on a classic requiem — in the spirit of Verdi, Mozart, Faure & Britten — performed by a full symphony orchestra & choir, with an African & African-American inspired take on a classic requiem, featuring classical West African dance, drumming & singing.

The lamentation turns to celebration of the critical role enslaved Africans’ ingenuity, technology & industry played in the economy of the US South, laying to rest once & for all, the shackles of shame, blame, guilt & denial that pervade this painful period in European, African, American & African-American history. It reclaims African and African-American history & culture, and fosters reconciliation among people of African descent, Africans, Americans & Europeans.

Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black, Associate Professor, at Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of History, is writing the libretto. Dr. Trevor Weston, Associate Professor at Drew University’s Department of Music, is composing the original score & lyrics. Other members of the creative team include Jonathan Green, internationally-acclaimed visual artist, and Julie Dash, filmmaker & director of several internationally acclaimed films, including Daughters of the Dust, the first feature film by an African-American woman to receive a major studio release & winner of the Sundance Award for Cinematography.  

Lee Pringle, founder & artistic director of the Colour of Music Festival rounds out the Requiem for Rice Creative Team. The Colour of Music Black Classical Musicians Festival & the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project (both based in Charleston, SC) are collaborating to develop & produce Requiem for Rice.

Carnegie Mellon’s Center for the Arts in Society selected Requiem for Rice as its Performance Initiative for 2015-2017. Thus, Pittsburgh is an important incubator in which the principals have conducted our experiment as we develop Requiem. During the Performance Initiative dialogues, workshops, lectures, film screenings & art exhibitions by members of the Creative Team & collaborating organizations have taken place in Pittsburgh (in locations including, but not limited to CMU) leading up to its world premiere at the Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, SC on October 22, 2017.

[i] Samuel Johnson Howard (Chancellor) and John M. McCardell, Jr. (Vice Chancellor and President), “The University of the South – Resolution May 10 2014,” presented at Commencement ceremonies during conferral of Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts to Jonathan Green.

[i] Edda L. Fields-Black, Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora(Indiana University Press, 2008), 116-34; idem, “Rice on the Upper Guinea Coast: A Regional Perspective Based on Interdisciplinary Sources and Methods,” in Rice: Global Networks and New Histories, ed. Francesca Bray, et al.(Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2015); Judith Ann Carney, “Landscapes of Technology Transfer: Rice Cultivation and African Continuities,” Technology and Culture 37(January 1996): 31; Judith Ann. Carney, Black Rice : The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas(Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass., 2001), 1–2, 63, 96-97, 110-15.

[ii] Peter A. Coclanis, The Shadow of a Dream : Economic Life and Death in the South Carolina Low Country, 1670-1920(New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 90-91; William Dusinberre, Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps(Oxford: Oxford University, 1996), 33-35.

[iii] Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps, 80, 50-63, 69-79.

[iv] Leland Ferguson, Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America(Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), xxiv-xxv.

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Requiem for Rice