Monday, March 22, 2010

Books: Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas


Black Rice by Judith Ann Carney (2002) is on the book list for Food History at NYU. I still have not been able to take this class even though the subject matter appeals to me more than anything else in the curriculum. Given my college focus on African American History and Culture, and with February being Black History Month, I decided it would get the book into my reading rotation.


It is a dry book but with tons of useful information and then some repetition of that information. The initial section about rice farming history in Africa was really interesting at first. I loved learning about the different kinds of rice that existed and about how warring villages would capture those were had specific talents for rice cultivation. But quickly, as Judy Ann Carney set to work presenting seventy zillion ways in which she could convince and prove to readers that rice farming was almost entirely women’s work, and then seventy zillion ways to convince and prove that the techniques and strains of rice were not from Asia, but from Africa, I started to beg for the ships to take us to America.


Once safely in America, it was fascinating to learn about slave owners buying new slaves based on their experience with rice cultivation. And that sellers could lie; saying that so and so came from a tribe and was a pro at growing rice, when really, they might not have any particular experience at all.


There were plantations in which an owner bought so many slaves from a given rice producing town, that their language was spoken widely and uprising or disobedience became more common. Because of this, slave owners tried to ensure that they did not have too many slaves from one town or another. Similarly, on plantations in which the slaves had particularly strong rice-growing knowledge, they could use their expertise as power, to bargain for better hours and for plots of their own to grow subsistence crops.


But after a while, I felt like the same information was being proven to me seventy zillion ways again.


It’s a very interesting book that takes you from Africa, to the American South East, to South America and in some cases, back again to Africa. But I do not recommend it for light reading.

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