The Orchestral Debut of Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice

cropped-cropped-cropped-requiem_emailheader.jpg2019 marks the 400th anniversary since African captives were first brought to the United States when a Dutch ship carried the 20 shackled captives to the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. In honor of this important anniversary, Carnegie Mellon University is showcasing a special Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration, the Orchestral Debut of Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice presented by the Colour of Music Festival (COMF) on Wednesday, February 13, 2019 at Carnegie Music Hall (Oakland) at 7pm.

A new report, “Teaching the Hard History of American Slavery,” by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Project, finds that secondary schools in the US widely fail to teach a nuanced history about enslavement and enslaved people in the US.  Too often, when the subject is taught, it is “mistaught, mischaracterized, sanitized, and sentimentalized,” leaving students poorly equipped to understand contemporary issues of race and racism.[i]  America’s students are still being taught that enslaved people were brute and not skilled laborers who contributed little to the antebellum economies of the US South.

Yet, West African rice production technology—developed by farmers in the Upper Guinea Coast more than 500 years before the trans-Atlantic slave trade—laid the foundation for South Carolina’s commercial rice industry.  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.  The floods that fertilized the inland and tidal rice fields also created deadly living environments.  Tens of thousands of enslaved men, women, and especially children perished in the stagnant, cold, mosquito- and disease-infested swamps.

“‘Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked’ is a new approach to teaching slavery, one that takes the humanities into a new realm. We are taking history off the shelf and putting it on the stage,” said Fields-Black.

Paul Gardullo, curator of the Smithsonian exhibit, said “Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked” is a powerful demonstration of the role art and music can play in bringing back the memory of people who should have never been forgotten.

 “By breathing life into this history and seeking a way to express not just the horror of racial slavery but the creativity and resilience people of African descent who cultivated crops and shaped the landscape while keeping their lives and culture whole, ‘Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked’ will fill a massive silence in the history that no book or archive can. This work is a transformative force for truth-telling, for healing, for reckoning and for beauty within and despite pain,” said Gardullo, who also serves as director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture’s Director, Center for Study of Global Slavery AND Curator, “Power of Place” Exhibition.

“Our ancestors lost their youth, health, lives and children as a result of reshaping the coastal landscape, carving rice fields out of cypress swamps, building earthen embankments and moving as much earth with hand tools and baskets as was displaced to construct the Panama Canal, and engineering hydraulic irrigation systems. Yet, there are no memorials to commemorate their appalling sufferings, involuntary sacrifices or immeasurable contributions,” Fields-Black said.

Conveying this history through a union of classical music, African tradition, and nontraditional musical genres results in a dynamic experience that will take on emotional qualities and be a better teaching mechanism than disseminated material alone ever could be.

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