Carnegie Mellon University

Center for the Arts in Society

Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and College of Fine Arts

The Requiem for Rice

The Requiem for Rice

Edda Fields-Black, Department of History

West African rice production technology—developed by farmers in the Upper Guinea more than five hundred years before the trans-Atlantic slave trade—laid the foundation for South Carolina’s commercial rice industry.1 The agricultural skill, ingenuity, and technology of enslaved Africans made coastal South Carolina rice planters the richest planters with the largest slave holdings in the US South.2 The floods that fertilized the inland and tidal rice fields also created the most deadly living environments for enslaved laborers in the US South. Tens of thousands of enslaved men, women, and especially children perished in the in the stagnant, cold, mosquito- and disease-infested swamps. Along the Savannah River, approximately two-thirds of children born on rice plantations died before they reached age fifteen, forty percent in their first year up until the Civil War. Historians have no way of counting the stillbirths and miscarriages among enslaved women.3 Our ancestors lost their youth, health, lives, and 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,” and engineering a hydraulic irrigation system.4 Yet, there are no memorials to commemorate their appalling sufferings, involuntary sacrifices, or immeasurable contributions.

The Requiem for Rice begins as a lamentation for the souls of the dead who were enslaved, exploited, and brutalized on Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia’s rice plantations. It is simultaneously a modern take on a classic requiem—in the spirit of Verdi, Mozart, Faure, and Britten—performed by a full symphony orchestra and choir and an African and African-American inspired take on a classic requiem featuring classical West African dance, drumming, and singing. The lamentation turns to celebration of the critical role enslaved Africans’ ingenuity, technology, and industry played in the economy of the US South, laying to rest once and for all, the shackles of shame, blame, guilt, and denial that pervade this painful period in European, African, American, and African-American history. It reclaims African and African-American history and culture, and fosters reconciliation among people of African descent, Africans, Americans, and Europeans.

As part of the CAS Performance Initiative The Requiem for Rice Project will partner with The Lowcountry Rice Culture Project (founded by Jonathan Green) and The Colour of Music Black Classical Musicians Festival (founded by Lee Pringle.)  During the Performance Initiative workshops, dialogues, readings, quarter-, and semi-staged performances of the development of The Requiem will take place at CMU and nationwide leading to its world premiere at the Gaillard Performance Hall in Charleston, SC.

New artistic works are being created by the following principal artists for The Requiem for Rice:

  • Paintings by Jonathan Green, “one of the most acclaimed African American artists to come from the South”5
  • Libretto by Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black, Assoc. Prof., Carnegie Mellon University (History)
  • Music by Dr. Trevor Weston, Assoc. Prof., Drew University (Music)
  • Feature documentary film by Julie Dash director of Daughters of the Dust and The Rosa Parks Story

    The following nationally-renowned artists will bring The Requiem for Rice to life:

    • Maestro Marlon Daniel conducting
    • Film, stage, and television actress Tamara Tunie performing readings of the libretto

Read the press release for The Requiem for Rice here.

1 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.

2 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.

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

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

5 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.