My Beginning: Part 4

Editor’s Note: This is the final of four posts where Requiem For Rice Producer and Librettist Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black shares with us how the quest to dig deeper into her own family lineage began. This is the journey that helped to shape the Requiem For Rice.

Determined not to weep in front of the class, I spoke very slowly and took long pauses when I felt my voice breaking up.  I told them there were many African-Americans with the last name Fields, not all were from South Carolina.  Not all African-Americans with the surname Fields were from Colleton County, SC.  But, those of us whose ancestors are buried on Myrtle Grove, Smithfield, and Cockfield plantations were one family, my father’s family.  I was very proud to be descended from them.  I was shocked to learn Ambrose Gonzales, whose work unfortunately defined what Gullah meant for so many in the early twentieth century and still appeared in academic debates on Gullah language and identity, had written his racist theories essentially about our family.  He put his despicable thoughts into my ancestors’ mouths.  Gonzales was certainly a product of his time, despicable times.  Those were his shortcomings, not ours.  The air was thick with disbelief as my wide-eyed students hung on my words.  Then, we moved on and discussed the reading.

After my students and I deconstructed Gonzales, I spontaneously flipped the classroom.  I had forewarned the students they would read aloud from Gullah language texts, but promised that I would not subject them to reading Gonzales’ folktales.  I had planned for them to read from Lorenzo Dow Turner‘s study, the first scientific study of the Gullah language.  Instead, I decided that I would read from Gonzales.  It took some of the power away from his incantations.   I knew the dialogue which he put into the mouths of former slaves from Myrtle Grove plantation was a product of his untrustworthy memory and wild imaginings.  Strangely, though, I felt the familiarity of Anna Richards Frazier, my late great grand-mother, and Jim and Mamie Fields, my late grandparents who first introduced me to the Gullah language and culture.  I felt the warmth of my Cousin Katie (Mother Gillard) who, at 105 years young, keeps the Gullah language alive for and in me.

The irony was not lost on me, the expert on the history of West African rice farmers and enslaved Africans on Lowcountry rice plantations finding her ancestors buried on a rice plantation.

My own family is emblematic of the exploitation, neglect, shame, and loss which are the legacy of enslavement. It is carried by the descendants of Africans enslaved on rice plantations in the South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina rice plantations, sugar, cotton, tobacco, and indigo plantations throughout the New World.

To memorialize and lament the sacrifices and sufferings of Africans enslaved on Lowcountry rice plantations, to celebrate the innumerable contributions to the economy of the US South, and to tell our ancestors’ stories, we need a “Requiem for Rice.”

Author: Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black

Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black is an Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Department of History. Her research specialties are pre-colonial and West African history and their connections to the African Diaspora. Fields-Black has written extensively about rice farmers in early modern West Africa, as well as Africans enslaved on Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia rice plantations. Fields-Black is currently writing an epic history of the Gullah Geechee from their Western African origins to the publication of Lorenzo Dow Turner's study of the Gullah Geechee language

3 thoughts on “My Beginning: Part 4”

  1. I have tears in my eyes and goosebumps all over from reading your blog about finding the history of your ancestors on the Combahee River rice plantations. As one living in the Lowcountry, it has always been apparent that the enslaved African-Americans did all the work down here and the whites made a huge profit from their enslaved work, done in the most difficult of conditions, heat, disease, alligators, poisonous snakes and, of course, no freedom to say “NO”. And then the whites believed that they were entitled to their wealth and were somehow superior, although they did no work at all! When you look at the beauty of Old Sheldon Church, a pre-civil War church, now in haunting ruins, built by the enslaved African Americans, you know a bit of their skill and artistic ability. The work of cutting the timber, clearing the swamps for rice fields, digging the canals, and building the dikes for rice to grow has been compared to the work of building the pyramids in Egypt.
    Your work is helping to set this sorry, distorted history straight. Thank you. Jessica

  2. I vividly remember this class, Edda. It was by far one of my most impactful classes at Carnegie Mellon. It was uncomfortable and heartbreaking to be exposed to Gonzales’s poisonous hate, but necessary to understand our county’s history. I cannot imagine how difficult it was to make the connection to your family. History seems so distant until you realize it isn’t — just one of many takeaways from that class.

    I look forward to continuing to follow your journey!

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