Dietrich College's Podcast
Episode 5: Taking History Off of the Shelf with Edda Fields-Black
Edda Fields-Black discusses her contemporary symphonic work “Casop: A Requiem for Rice,” which tells the story of enslaved laborers on rice plantations in Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia. She also previews her upcoming book about an often-untold story about Harriet Tubman. The first woman to lead men into battle in a major U.S. military operation, Tubman recruited spies, scouts, and pilots who guided 150 African American Union soldiers to rescue more than 750 blacks enslaved on rice plantations in the Combahee River Raid during the Civil War.
Richard Scheines: Welcome, Edda.
Edda Fields-Black: Thank you.
Richard Scheines: So, I had the opportunity to attend the orchestral debut of “CASOP: A Requiem for Rice” last year and I was blown away by the power of that performance, by the artistic interpretation of the history; by many, many things. So, I'd like to start off having you tell us about that project, what it is, how it came to be, et cetera, et cetera.
Edda Fields-Black: Okay. “A Requiem for Rice,” “CASOP: A Requiem for Rice” is a contemporary classical music piece. It is the first symphonic work about slavery. And, I've been collaborating on it with three-time Emmy award winner John Wineglass and internationally-renowned filmmaker Julie Dash now for a couple of years, and it really grew out of my research on rice farmers both in precolonial West Africa in the upper Guinea Coast and then in the South Carolina, blacks who were enslaved on rice plantations in the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry. And it came out of a personal experience that I had.
I grew up knowing that my dad's family was from coastal South Carolina. I grew up spending time every summer for much of my childhood with my great-grandmother and my cousins in Green Pond, South Carolina. And a couple years ago – it was probably about 2013 – I was in Charleston for a two-part conference. One was a public conference and the other was more of an academic conference up in Columbia. They were separated by a weekend, and I thought this is the weekend I'm gonna start the family history.
I thought I was gonna complete it in a weekend also. And long story short, I ended up calling the two cousins who I'd known since I was a child who kind of kept me engaged. I grew up in Miami, Florida, a grandchild of the great migration. They kept me engaged with my South Carolina family. Looking for the graveyards where our family was buried, my grandmother and grandfather's family. Come to find out, my grandfather's family was buried on a rice plantation, and when I made my way out there to this growed up cemetery in the woods I was really shocked by the state of their graves.
Richard Scheines: Not good?
Edda Fields-Black: They were broken, one was open, it was full of water, with my cousin's skull floating at the top. And what that did for me over a period of time is it changed the way I looked at history. History for me was no longer something that I wrote for my students and my colleagues. It had to be something that came alive, because in a number of ways I saw a lot of neglect, right? So, our family had neglected this cemetery because it was on a plantation and because we were ashamed, and we all migrated north and south and tried to forget –
Richard Scheines: About the whole thing.
Edda Fields-Black: – about the whole thing. And then working with my colleagues in South Carolina who are all white, most of them are men – [whispers] all of them are men –
– that there was a lot of shame on their side.
Richard Scheines: Sure.
Edda Fields-Black: You know, for white families that are descendent from slave owners.
Richard Scheines: Exploiters.
Edda Fields-Black: And black families that are descended from the enslaved, right? And even from white families that are descendent from poor white families, right? There's just a lot of shame that pervades this period. And what I wanted to do was I wanted to the history first of all in a way that touched people emotionally. So, if I could take people back to that cemetery where I was on that day, if I could get them to feel it the way I felt it I thought then they're gonna understand slavery differently than if they read my books, right?
Number two, I wanted to make something we could all be proud of. I wanted to make something beautiful out of this very painful and tragic history, the one that nobody wants to talk about. But if you dress it up and make it pretty and bring people together in the process – black and white – then we're able to talk about it, right? Those were my goals. I thought they were – they sound pretty simple. [Laughs]
Richard Scheines: No, they don't. But I can see the ambition, which is partly to get people viscerally connected to it.
Edda Fields-Black: Exactly.
Richard Scheines: And to put it on stage and to put it to music. And was there any ambition to do film? Because usually when you think about, you know, graves are neglected or the experience you had, that a documentary film…
Edda Fields-Black: Yes. Two parts. Julie Dash, the internationally-renowned filmmaker, the first African American whose film “Daughters of the Dust” had a major studio release, is going to shoot film installations which will be shown in performance. So, this will actually be a multimedia work in its final form.
Richard Scheines: I see.
Edda Fields-Black: We're finishing the score and the original music now.
Richard Scheines: Well, maybe you could just take a moment and just to pull back and just describe for the audience, you know, what you envision it becoming or what it already is so we could get a sense of that before we actually talk a little more deeply.
Edda Fields-Black: What it is at the moment is a libretto, which is the text on which the entire project is based, and I wrote the libretto based on primary historical sources. So, these are documents that were written by slave traders, slaveholders, travelers through West Africa as well as through the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, and then WPA narratives that are written – interviews that were conducted in the 1930's among people who had been enslaved as children or whose parents had been enslaved. And, I sort of took all of that – and there's a couple other things in there also, some ethnographic studies primarily from West Africa – I took all of that and I mixed it together [laughs] and I wrote this text which is about seven sections long.
And, each section is about a different segment of the rice agricultural cycle, and those are in order from clearing the land to the end of the process where the land lies fallow. Within those seven sections, each section hearkens to a different historical period and it's sort of back and forth, and these historical periods are not in chronological order. So, yes, the first section talks about clearing land and it goes back to precolonial West Africa and it's enslaved people who are African born reflecting on what they've lost, particularly enslaved men, that they've lost their control over their son's labor. They've lost their control over the land which they would've passed down to their sons.
Richard Scheines: Got it.
Edda Fields-Black: And the last section is about the great migration, right? The land lies fallow; it's been abandoned by people who moved to Philadelphia and New York and Miami –
Richard Scheines: Chicago.
Edda Fields-Black: – and they don't look back, like the cemetery in my family. But right in the middle – it's actually – I guess it's section four or five, which is flooding, the most deadly time of the rice-growing cycle – so this is the time where the floodgates of the hydraulic irrigation system are opened to bring the water up in the rice fields as the rice is growing or gestating, so that way it kills the weeds, right? That certain percentage of salinity in that water is gonna be just low enough for the rice to flourish but just high enough to kill whatever weeds might grow with it.
Richard Scheines: I didn't know that.
Edda Fields-Black: So, that's why you grow rice in a mangrove or a tidal area. It reduces — it eliminates weeding. But that's also the most deadly moment of the entire agricultural system.
Richard Scheines: Deadly — by which you mean the rice can die or everybody else can die?
Edda Fields-Black: No, the people who are growing the rice can die because you've got all this standing, stagnant water that's breeding mosquitos —
Richard Scheines: Mosquitos and malaria.
Edda Fields-Black: — and mosquito-borne illnesses. It's breeding water-borne illnesses. You know — it's the summertime and there are often sort of floods, and in some places it would flood into the slave villages and create all kinds of places — all kinds of bad things, particularly where there was no fresh water; cholera, Asiatic cholera, that kind of thing. So, at that moment, in the middle of the piece, it goes back through the middle passage. It follows that water that's flooding the rice fields, back through the middle passage, which is the passage that captives from West Africa were forced to take to the New World. So, it's not chronologically in order –
Richard Scheines: But it's got thematic coherence.
Edda Fields-Black: Yes. Exactly. So, that's part one. Part two is the original score, and John Wineglass, who is an amazing film and TV composer, he also composes prolifically for the concert hall and he's won three Emmy awards for his music, Wineglass is composing the original score which will be for symphony, full symphony, and – symphony, choir and soloists. So, we finished three movements for the February 2019 performance.
Richard Scheines: Which I heard and which was incredible.
Edda Fields-Black: Thank you. And those three movements are out in the world and they're being performed in other places.
Richard Scheines: Oh, that's great.
Edda Fields-Black: And we're now finishing the work. We're now finishing what will be a six-movement piece. And the first movement, the overture, will stand alone. I just thought it was incredible. Many people I spoke with said – and I would agree with them – that it felt as if you were in a slave ship in the first part. You felt as if you were being tossed in the hull of a slave ship.
And then there's sort of a pause, which to me was a moment of resignation where it sort of shifts into the building of the rice fields and the cutting of these huge cypress trees, some of which were eight or ten feet in diameter. And there's a kind of majesty to it and dignity that, okay, this is what it is, you know, and so we're gonna make the best of it, you know?
Richard Scheines: Not easy.
Edda Fields-Black: Not easy at all. And it's just a magnificent piece. The second movement, John and I have been – and this goes into the West Africa piece – we've been recording sounds in both West Africa and South Carolina, authentic sounds from the rice fields on both sides of the Atlantic, and he is going to revise that second movement with the authentic sounds and scoring into it segments of the libretto. In February, we read segments and that was a last-minute decision once the Sloan Foundation funding came through.
Richard Scheines: I remember that was last minute. [Laughs]
Edda Fields-Black: It was very last minute, and it turned out well for a last-minute decision, so well that John wanted to be a part of the piece. You know, so we're gonna do it correctly.
Richard Scheines: Can you say a few words about the process you use to work with John to actually get the historical perspective, the story you want to tell so that he understands what the music is supposed to be about and do?
Edda Fields-Black: Yeah.
Richard Scheines: That's gotta be very tricky.
Edda Fields-Black: It's been interesting.
Richard Scheines: [Laughs]
Edda Fields-Black: I don't even know if… I don’t know, I'll try to articulate it. I think my way of working with John is I throw a lot of stuff at him and…
Richard Scheines: Just say deal? Just do what you do?
Edda Fields-Black: No, and it's been sort of a process, because, of course, I'm a historian and I read and that's how I enter a different world is that I read things and I imagine them, right, and then I write them and then I rewrite them and then I read some more, and things inspire me through text; he's very visual. So, he told me when we first started working together that his way of working is he's got to experience the land. So I said, okay. I sent him a care package of a lot of books and a lot of text and I'm sure that he has…perused them.
At least the covers. But then we went down to South Carolina, you know, and –
Richard Scheines: So, you showed him the land.
Edda Fields-Black: I showed him the land.
Richard Scheines: Did you take him to the cemetery?
Edda Fields-Black: We did not go to the cemetery.
Richard Scheines: You did not go to the cemetery.
Edda Fields-Black: We have not been to the cemetery. But I took him to the rice fields, and I work with a team of scientists down there and we're always in the rice fields when I'm down there — they're always in the rice fields all the time, but they're always taking me out when I'm down there. So I said, “Okay, can you take John out?” So, we go out into the rice fields, and we've done that twice in South Carolina. And then when I was invited by the embassy in Senegal to come, he said, “Well, you know, I'm coming along.”
Because he wanted to see the land on the West African side as well, and that has been a really important part of his process. So, actually experiencing it as much as possible and meeting and talking with people is an important part. So for me it's really about exposing him to it. It's really about exposure and trying to be sure that he has the right experiences has been I guess the most effective way of working together.
Richard Scheines: So, Edda, let's try a clip of “Requiem,” and maybe you can set us up to listen to something from the overture.
Edda Fields-Black: Okay. So, the overture is the first movement of John Wineglasses' work and in it you feel as if you are in the hull of a slave ship and the ship is being tossed by the waves, and thus, human bodies are being tossed in the bottom of the ship. And there comes a moment, which to me feels like a moment of resignation, when West African captives become enslaved people and they resign themselves to building these rice fields in the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry.
Richard Scheines: Edda, can you set us up for a second clip? It's so much fun to listen to something from the libretto portions.
Edda Fields-Black: Yes, I can. I would like to share the fifth segment of the libretto, which is called “Flooding/Drowned,” and it describes the period in the rice cycle where the rice fields are flooded, and this is the moment when the rice is sort of – it's already been planted, and so it's growing, it's gestating. And, slave managers, trunk minders, would bring the water up over the rice while it's growing and that way the weeds – it would prevent weeds from growing. This is also the most deadly moment in the rice-growing cycle because of the summer season, because of the standing, stagnant water.
Richard Scheines: Mosquitoes.
Edda Fields-Black: Breeding mosquitoes and mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria. Also breeding water-borne illnesses, all kinds of gastrointestinal diarrheal diseases, including cholera and dysentery. It was a very deadly time for the enslaved, particularly for enslaved children and women of childbearing age. So, it's at that moment that the libretto goes back through the middle passage. The middle passage, the forced transport of African captives from West Africa to the coastal South Carolina – to the New World, to the New World.
Richard Scheines: Okay, let's listen.
Okay, Edda. So, it's very interesting for me as dean to hear the personal stories of my own faculty. So, could you say a few words about your journey, how you got to be interested in becoming an academic and how you got to be a professor?
Edda Fields-Black: Yeah. That's something that I haven't thought about in a while, but I will say that my mother is actually a historian and an archivist and founder of a community-based archives in Miami, Florida, and, so I grew up with a social studies teacher/librarian/historian as a mother, and I used to earn pocket money by conducting oral histories with her aunts and uncles. As soon as I could work a tape recorder, she would give me a list of questions and send me over to usually my Uncle Sammy or my Uncle John's houses to interview them and record them, and it didn't take long for me. I would read Mom's questions and then I would have questions of my own, so I began writing my own –
Richard Scheines: You got hooked on how interesting people's stories are.
Edda Fields-Black: I got hooked, yeah. I did, I did.
Richard Scheines: I should digress by telling you that we have in Dietrich a board of advisors, and one of the members of our board of advisors, Sach Takayasu, who is a very eminent business person from Japan, was on Obama's council of foreign something-or-other I can't remember, but she has decided that at this point in her career to pause and do a master's degree in oral histories from Columbia University.
Edda Fields-Black: Wow.
Richard Scheines: She's doing it, so I'm gonna have to connect the two of you. She is loving it.
Edda Fields-Black: That would be great. I would love to talk with her. I loved it also from a very young age.
Richard Scheines: But still, getting interested in oral history as a child is a far step from deciding to do a Ph.D. and live on zero money for five years.
Edda Fields-Black: For a very long time.
Richard Scheines: Ten years.
Edda Fields-Black: You know, I was also one of these kids – and I don't encourage this at all with my own or with my students – who knew what I wanted to do at a pretty young age, and I tell people that in many ways as the granddaughter – it's really I guess the daughter of the great migration, because my dad's parents left South Carolina when he was in grade school and they moved to Miami. So, he was born in South Carolina and raised in Miami, and I don't think he ever wanted to go back to South Carolina. But I grew up very much with similar ideals that many of my first-generation students do as the child of migrants and they're the children of immigrants.
So, you had to be a doctor or a lawyer or a judge, and my mother's uncles were doctors and lawyers and judges, and my dad was a lawyer and he owned his own law firm, and so I was taught that I was gonna be a lawyer and I was gonna take over my dad's law firm. And, I tried to think that I was going to do that, you know? And, the closer I got to college it just didn't make sense to me. I didn't want to go to law school.
Richard Scheines: Law wasn't for you.
Edda Fields-Black: I didn't want to be a lawyer. I wanted to do history, you know? And not just as a major that was gonna prepare me to go to law school, but I wanted to do history. I wanted – at the time I thought, you know, I want to write history textbooks. And I remember – I would talk to people a lot. I was a very precocious student. I was the student who would knock on your door and sit on your couch and ask you an hours' worth of questions just because I was curious, and most of my teachers and professors loved it. I'm sure I annoyed the crap out of them and they just didn't tell me so. [Laughs]
Richard Scheines: At least for the first two hours. [Laughs]
Edda Fields-Black: So, I would talk to people a lot, and in talking – I can't even remember who I talked to and they said, "Well, you know, most people who write history textbooks are actually professors." Well, that was it. I was gonna be a professor.
Richard Scheines: Professor.
Edda Fields-Black: And I was gonna write books about my research, and I didn't know what that research was going to be. I knew that it was going to be something on the African diaspora. That's all I knew. I didn't know where it was gonna start or end. My mom's specialty was African American history and the Caribbean, because of course we're in Miami, but sort of local history of Miami and its extensions.
So I said, okay, I'll leave that part open but I'm gonna do history. I'm going to be a historian. I'm going to be a scholar. And I continued along the path of just talking to people who were professors and asking them how they did it and piecing it together, and quite honestly that's how I ended up in graduate school. [Laughs]
Richard Scheines: Where did you go to graduate school?
Edda Fields-Black: Well, I'll start – the other piece that came together, I was an undergraduate at Emory and I was, again, very precocious, so I had talked up all of my professors, and when anything came across their desk they shared it with me. So, Emory had a summer study abroad scholarship and I was taking a West African history course, which I loved and I'm sure I was very verbal in it, and my professor said, "You should apply to go to West – you should go to Africa, you know, next summer." And I thought, okay, I'll do it. And I won. I was the first student ever to go to Africa and the first one not to go to Europe. And they awarded two that year and I won. So, to my parents' chagrin I was off to Africa for…
Richard Scheines: Your parents weren't happy with that?
Edda Fields-Black: No.
Richard Scheines: They wanted you to go to Europe and do something simpler?
Edda Fields-Black: They wanted me to stay home and be…[laughs]
Richard Scheines: Even simpler still.
Edda Fields-Black: A very accomplished – right – sort of socialite of a –
Richard Scheines: I got it.
Edda Fields-Black: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Richard Scheines: But now you went to Africa and that kindled some interest in this entire area.
Edda Fields-Black: Absolutely. So, from that trip, my senior year at Emory or my senior semester, 'cause I graduated early, I knew where I wanted the history to start. I knew it had to be based in West Africa. I knew it had to be based in the precolonial period and that I had to keep going back and forth to West Africa for the rest of my life because I was hooked. So, then I applied to graduate school and decided I was going to be an Africanist and applied to African history graduate schools, but this was the period before we had Atlantic Africanists and I was always interested in the diaspora.
I was always interested in sort of New World African cultures and their relationships to precolonial West Africa and understanding those relationships from contemporary sources and not from 20th century sources. So, I really wanted to understand how cultures changed in precolonial West Africa so that I could then understand better the African diaspora. I wanted to go back and forth between the two.
Richard Scheines: So, you had to go to Africa often.
Edda Fields-Black: Oh, yeah, and I had to go to the market. [Laughs]
Richard Scheines: Now when you did, did that involve text, oral histories, combinations? How – what are the sources like that you actually ended up gravitating to?
Edda Fields-Black: The first – for my first book, “Deep Roots,” because the historical period is so early it's really the prewritten period. So, I used historical linguistics, archeology, botanical sources, botanical and biological studies of mangroves to understand that early period, and the written sources that are written by travelers. The travelers' accounts really come in at the end. And unfortunately, for the area of West Africa that I was in, for the ethnic groups I was working with, they really don't keep oral histories the way societies with hierarchical states do, so I did not end up collecting a lot of oral traditions for my dissertation, although I studied quite a bit of oral history and oral traditions in graduate school. So, I took the kitchen sink approach.
Richard Scheines: Well, I could tell you – I shouldn't divulge this because it's confidential in some way, but when we were doing your promotion case many, many years ago people were just amazed at the number of different ways.
Edda Fields-Black: Yeah.
Richard Scheines: Linguistically, biologically, oral histories-wise that you were getting at this topic. So, you left an impression that has lasted with me for I don't know how many years, but it's gotta be eight, ten years ago.
Edda Fields-Black: Thank you. And that work continues now because I lead a team of scientists in South Carolina, and I have the approach – I'm continuing that approach, but now instead of sort of just looking at interdisciplinary sources we're actually creating the archive and we're gonna create it first in South Carolina and then we're gonna go back to West Africa.
Richard Scheines: So, you just have a few projects in the hopper. Just a couple.
Edda Fields-Black: Just a few.
Just a few.
Richard Scheines: Well, let me ask you then how you got from graduate school to Carnegie Mellon. How did we get lucky?
Edda Fields-Black: Yeah. It's been a while. It's hard to remember. So, I was actually on a fellowship, a dissertation fellowship at Oberlin College when I was applying for jobs, and my Ph.D. is from Penn and so I'd been in Philadelphia for three years sort of on and off, 'cause I went away to West Africa. I was always in West Africa. And Philadelphia was a lot. I thought Miami was a lot. I'd lived in Miami, I'd lived in Atlanta. This was Philadelphia in the '90s and it was rough.
Richard Scheines: That's a decade of move, isn't it?
Edda Fields-Black: Exactly.
Richard Scheines: Yep.
Edda Fields-Black: I was not accustomed to all of that. I was a Southern girl and I just wasn't [laughs] – so I thought maybe I want something smaller and slower and more in the country, so I went out to Oberlin.
Richard Scheines: A little smaller than you had thought maybe?
Edda Fields-Black: Yeah.
Richard Scheines: A little more out in the country?
Edda Fields-Black: One extreme to the other. I went screaming back to Philadelphia.
Richard Scheines: [Laughs]
Edda Fields-Black: And Pittsburgh was really a happy medium.
Richard Scheines: Yeah, that's been my experience.
Edda Fields-Black: Yeah. And Carnegie Mellon felt like the place where I could come and get my work done, and it has been lonely – it was lonely – for much of my – the early part of my career, being the only Africanist on campus, and so that has his drawbacks but it also had its benefits, you know, just in terms of protection in getting work done. So, Carnegie Mellon's been a good place to get started and certainly I can blame Carnegie Mellon for helping me cook up the “Requiem.”
Richard Scheines: Oh, yes.
So, Edda, I understand that you are working on a third book.
Edda Fields-Black: Yes.
Richard Scheines: Can you tell us about that?
Edda Fields-Black: Yes.
Richard Scheines: Give us a little preview.
Edda Fields-Black: I'm so excited, especially with the Harriet Tubman bio pic opening on Friday, or Thursday depending on the theater of your choice. So, the book is entitled “‘Combee’: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Civil War Transformation of the Gullah Geechee,” and I will say that the one aspect of Tubman's life that we know very little about is her Civil War service. She actually goes down to Beaufort – she answers a call, okay? 1861, November, the U.S. Army wins the battle at Port Royal in Beaufort, South Carolina, and slaveholders in that area – these are sea island cotton plantations – they flee before the U.S. gets there and they leave millions of dollars of cotton about ready to be harvested in the fields.
Richard Scheines: The fields.
Edda Fields-Black: And millions of dollars of enslaved property on the plantations. And there's a call that goes out to abolitionists and northern volunteers to come South and help these blacks who are destitute adjust to freedom, and Tubman is one of the people who answers the call, one of two blacks. The second is Charlotte Forten who's a teacher born free in Philadelphia and she actually taught white students in Massachusetts. So, Tubman comes down to Beaufort, South Carolina and she works as a cook and a nurse and a spy and she's a spy for the US Department of the South, the US Army. Long story short, she recruits a group of spies and scouts and they cook up a raid, and they drive three gun boats up a river in coastal South Carolina surrounded by nine rice plantations.
Richard Scheines: Harriet Tubman?
Edda Fields-Black: And they free 756 people in six hours.
Richard Scheines: I did not know that.
Edda Fields-Black: Nine times — is it nine? It's eleven times more than she freed on the Underground Railroad.
Richard Scheines: That — why isn't that more part of the popular imagination, the popular culture? That's incredible.
Edda Fields-Black: Because my book hasn't come out yet.
It is the first original research on Harriet Tubman in almost 20 years and it will be the only book about her Civil War service.
Richard Scheines: This is so exciting. When do you expect to finish it?
Edda Fields-Black: Well, we'll have to talk about that, Richard.
Richard Scheines: It always comes around to that one way or the other.
Edda Fields-Black: Well, I tell you, I've been working on this for a while and I've reconfigured this book after I got sick for a variety of reasons, one of which is because this is what lights my fire and that's all I'm doing these days. If I don't – if I'm not 100 percent in it I'm not in it at all. So this book really – I'm very passionate about it.
Richard Scheines: But you're doing this in parallel to “CASOP: A Requiem for Rice” and finishing that project.
Edda Fields-Black: Yes. And Queen Rice.
Richard Scheines: Queen Rice. What's that?
Edda Fields-Black: Well, those are those scientists.
Richard Scheines: Oh.
Edda Fields-Black: Those are the scientists.
Richard Scheines: Tell us a little bit about what that involves.
Edda Fields-Black: Well, I just have to answer the question of when will it be ready; it's on my agent's desk right now in terms of the book proposal, and so I'm hoping to have a book deal very, very soon, and then I hope after that it'll be out in two years.
Richard Scheines: Excellent.
Edda Fields-Black: Yeah. So, Queen Rice… I have developed a group of scientist friends over the years. They're my rice team, you know? And when I am down in South Carolina working on Combee, which is the book, the archives is not closed on the weekends – it's not open on the weekends. So, I was in the rice fields with these guys, touring rice fields and looking at trunks –
Richard Scheines: On the weekends.
Edda Fields-Black: – on the weekends. And they had bootstrapped a project with Clemson University and Nemours Wildlife Foundation and Folk Land Management, had bootstrapped a project with several other partners, including Department of Natural Resources and the ACE Basin Task Force to map all of the rice fields in South Carolina using LIDAR, and I'd been sort of advising them informally.
Richard Scheines: Where to go.
Edda Fields-Black: Where to go, what to do, what to do with this data, and they were interested in saying, "Okay, now that we've mapped this and it's so much larger than anybody ever thought it was, we're interested in understanding more about the labor of the enslaved to create this." So, they're calling on me and asking me how to do it. And, they wanted to take it to another level, right? So, they asked me to come on and take over the project, and we're applying for an NFS grant for the couple natural human systems to look at how enslaved labor transformed the coastal wetlands and then how coastal wetlands have impacted the labor of the enslaved, and then what can we learn about this historical period in the – for the contemporary period and the future where we're faced with climate change, sea level rise and urbanization.
Richard Scheines: So, what kind of scientists are you working with besides biologists it sounds like?
Edda Fields-Black: Wildlife ecologists, biologists, soil scientists, and one archeologist. And the wildlife ecologists are at Clemson, the soil scientist is at Duke, the archeologist is ABD at University of South Carolina, and then the biologists are private. One actually has a company that restores rice fields and then the other, Nemours Wildlife Foundation, is a – it's a nature preserve, it's a wildlife foundation.
Richard Scheines: So, I tell people all the time that we are the interdisciplinary college, and they look at me and they say, "Yeah, but everybody does that," but see you're an example of what I'm talking about here. If we go back all the way to your graduate school and your work on linguistics and the other things that you've done in Africa and now what you're doing with the scientists and what you've done with the musicians and with the artists, et cetera, it's quite stunning.
Edda Fields-Black: Thank you.
Richard Scheines: I think you have, as far as I can tell, now the record for the largest number of disciplines that people are working on in Dietrich College, and that's a pretty high bar.
Edda Fields-Black: Thank you, thank you.
Richard Scheines: So, congrats for that. We'll see if we can work up a certificate and give it to you.
Edda Fields-Black: It's funny. I think about it sometimes, the artists and the scientists; totally different personalities, totally different approaches, but both of them have really enriched my research and writing of history.
Richard Scheines: Oh, yeah, and you have to learn how to love them all.
Edda Fields-Black: Exactly.
Richard Scheines: I mean they all have many, many good things to offer.
Edda Fields-Black: Exactly.
Richard Scheines: Although talking to each other is difficult sometimes.
Edda Fields-Black: Yes. And talking to them sometimes is difficult.
I made a checklist for the scientists this morning. It's like you guys need a checklist. We're gonna just check it off.
Richard Scheines: Checklists are key. Okay. So, Edda, you've done an amazing number of very interesting things. People might be really curious to find out that you have been selected to give a talk at South by Southwest in the experiential storytelling track.
Edda Fields-Black: Yes.
Richard Scheines: Do you want to give a quick preview of that and tell people where to go to find you?
Edda Fields-Black: Yes. Well, John Wineglass and I are going to do a duo panel on “Requiem for Rice” and we're gonna talk about our unique collaboration. We're gonna talk about both of our personal stories. We're both descendent from blacks who were enslaved on rice plantations in sort of two different areas of South Carolina. Our third collaborator Julie Dash is as well. And we're going to talk about, you know, taking history off of the shelf and putting it on stage and working to not only bring people together but to make something beautiful out of a painful history and new ways to do that.
Richard Scheines: And I think it's a beautiful way to get the audience to be more able to connect to it in a way that they can actually relate to.
Edda Fields-Black: Thank you.
Richard Scheines: So, thank you so much for being with us. I think everybody will agree you are an extraordinary scholar and it's been wonderful to get to know you over the years I've been dean.
Edda Fields-Black: Thank you very much.
Richard Scheines: So, thank you for coming.
Edda Fields-Black: My pleasure.
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