Approximately ten million captives survived the Middle Passage and disembarked in the New World. Of the more than 160,000 captives who disembarked in the Carolina and Georgia colonies, an untold number were sold to planters in coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Approximately 60,000 of these captives were purchased in West Africa's Upper Guinea Coast, where the inhabitants had grown rice for hundreds if not thousands of years before the advent of Europeans and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The ingenuity of captives from the Upper Guinea Coast, not just the brute labor of the enslaved, helped South Carolina planters identify a staple crop and subsequently launch and sustain South Carolina's commercial rice industry. Enslaved laborers made coastal South Carolina rice planters the richest planters with the largest slave holdings in the US. Yet, enslaved laborers never profited from their ingenuity or labor. The loss of their lives and the exploitation of their skills have gone unmourned.
The overall death and infant mortality rates on Lowcountry rice plantations were ghastly. Both remained unspeakably high in South Carolina and Georgia's coastal plains until the beginning of the Civil War. The floods that fertilized the inland and tidal rice fields also created a deadly environment for enslaved Africans. Two-thirds of enslaved children born on rice plantations in the nineteenth century died before they were fifteen years old; almost forty percent, a conservative estimate, of infants lost their lives during their first year. In pockets of the Lowcountry, such as along the Savannah River, the enslaved population suffered a ninety percent death rate between 1833 and 1864. Diseases such as chronic malaria, respiratory ailments, and cholera proliferated in the swamps' stagnant water on all Lowcountry rice plantations.
Enslaved infants and children wasted away from tetanus and “puniness”. Gastro- intestinal and bowel diseases afflicted them with deadly bouts of diarrhea. No slave was spared malnutrition or winter/early spring work—ditching and repairing the rice irrigation system while standing knee-deep in cold, wet swamps. Women were particularly burdened with arduous tasks of rice pounding, overwork during pregnancy and too soon after childbirth, as well as infection from working in the swamps a few weeks after leaving the childbed. These factors contributed to immune deficiencies, low infant birth weights, and overall mortality. The addition of miscarriages and stillbirths, which historians have no way of quantifying, to the infant/child mortality rates would have made these ghastly rates even more horrific. The death rates in the eighteenth century were likely even more shocking. Disposable in life, Africans who were enslaved on Lowcountry rice plantations have been forgotten and neglected in death. Many of their graves located by Lowcountry creeks are today unmarked and untended.
Requiem for Rice is a lamentation for the repose of the souls of the dead who were enslaved, exploited, and brutalized on Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia's rice plantations and who remain unburied, unmourned, and unmarked. It is a modern take on a classic requiem performed by a full symphony orchestra and choir. An African and African-American inspired take on a classic requiem, it also features classical West African dance, drumming, and singing. The lamentation ends in celebration, 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. Requiem ends in celebration of enslaved African ancestors' lives, ingenuity, labor, and sacrifice for generations unborn and unseen, reclamation of our history and culture, and reconciliation among people of African descent, Africans, Americans, and Europeans.
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 conduct our experiment as we develop Requiem. Other early support was provided by the Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation. Requiem will premiere in 2018.