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.”

My Beginning: Part 3

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series 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.

I originally read Ambrose Gonzales through the lens of an academic historian.  Studying Creole languages, I was reading debates among Creole linguists on the origins and nature of Creole languages.  My goal was to acquire interdisciplinary tools to bring something new to my historical study of the Gullah Geechee.

But, I am also a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter.  From spending the last week of August every year from the age of six until my sister went to college, I knew my father’s family in Green Pond.  From driving south on Highway 17 between Charleston and Green Pond as an adult, I learned the highway was built over rice fields as far as the eye Picture1.beching2could see in both directions.  But, I policed the boundary between my academic scholarship and family history to maintain my scholarly objectivity, that “noble dream.”  After encountering my ancestor’s open grave on the rice plantation in Green Pond, this fiction did not matter to me anymore.  As I researched and wrote the history of the Gullah Geechee, highlighting the importance of the experiences of Africans enslaved on rice plantations, I found my ancestors’ graves in plantation cemeteries.  Without looking, I encountered their names and their lives in the plantation sources, and folklore.  The experiences of the great-granddaughter and the academic historian collided, initiating a process that would fundamentally change me as an historian.

With fifteen short minutes before the beginning of my class, it was too late to undo what was now inevitable.  I didn’t know how I was going to stand emotionally naked before my students and discuss a racist rant, which was, by the way, written about Blacks on the same plantation where my family was enslaved, my people.  The show, though, as they say, must go on.  I gathered my files, books, and laptop; I stopped in the ladies room to cry more and try to regain my composure; then, I walked slowly down the long sloping corridors and descended four flights of stairs to the basement classroom.  It was the longest walk I remember taking.  As the students arrived and unpacked their books, they murmured about the readings.  They could not believe that someone could be so racist, that something so racist could be printed and that people would not only read it, but buy it.  Once they settled in, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and made my announcement…

My Beginning: Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series 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.

The standard issue quickly deteriorated, spiraling out of my control, as I began to read folktales from Gonzales’ collection. The first story began, “Joe Fields was the most onery looking darkey on Pon Pon.” I was completely taken aback. When designing my syllabus, I had not thought about Ambrose Gonzales being a descendant of a planter family in Colleton County, South Carolina on the Combahee (pronounced “Cumbee”) River where my paternal grandmother and grandfather traced their lineages. But, I quickly rationalized, Gonzales described this Joe Fields as living on the Pon Pon, not the Combahee. A quick Google search confirmed the Pon Pon was ten miles south of the Combahee as the crow flies. I reassured myself; Joe Fields wasn’t any kin to me.

I wish it could have stopped there, but, I, in my infinite wisdom, had assigned the students to read approximately thirty pages of Gonzales’ folktales. Reluctantly, I continued reading: “Joe, runt as he was, had two sources of pride—the aristocratic lineage of his ‘owners,’ for he had belonged to the Heywards.” Then, I got a taste of Gonzales’ fictionalized version of Lowcountry Blacks’ dialect: “‘Me nyuse to blonx to Mass Clinch.’” He “‘hab him ob’shay, Mistuh Jokok, fuh wu’k ….him hab t’irteen plantesshun ‘puntop Cumbee Ribbuh. Him plant seb’n t’ous’n acre’ rice…..”

“Mass Clinch” Heyward could only be Duncan Clinch Heyward, the governor of South Carolina from 1903-1907 and author of “Seeds of Madagascar.” Heyward also owned Myrtle Grove Plantation from 1910-1918. Nathaniel Heyward who was the largest slaveholder in the US South deeded Myrtle Grove to his grandson Nathaniel Barnwell Heyward by 1851. In the 20th century, Myrtle Grove was merged with Smithfield and Vineyard plantations. Owned by the family of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Smithfield was the setting of Smith’s hauntingly romantic and nostalgic watercolors.

None of my academic training about objectivity and emotional distance or my twenty-two years of researching, writing and teaching about West African rice and rice farmers prepared me to see the disgraceful state of my ancestors’ graves on a South Carolina rice plantation.

Green Pond.Cockfield. 9 2013 130 2

In September 2013, while lecturing in South Carolina, I also conducted genealogical research on my father’s family. After a lot of coaxing, my elder cousin Jonas Fields who was the patriarch of Daddy’s family revealed to me our ancestors are buried and were enslaved on a former plantation in Green Pond, S.C. I did not nor could not understand what Cousin Jonas meant when he said our Fields ancestors are buried in “unmarked” graves. When I finally found my way out to the “grow’d up” cemetery in the woods, I could hardly identify their burial sites, little more than depressions in the ground. Family graves marked with tombs and tombstones were in utter disrepair. The concrete slab covering and wooden coffin inside of one of the ancestral graves on my paternal grandmother’s side were cracked wide open by a large tree limb. In January 2014, my Cousin Lloyd Fields, one of Cousin Jonas’ sons, our friends Drs. Travis Folk and Ade Ofunniyin , and I covered our loved one’s grave with a tarp until we could care for it properly (it has since been repaired).

Cousin Jonas passed away in November 2014. He was the last living relative to know where the Fields’ family’s unmarked graves were located at the Green Pond rice plantation and who was buried in them. A few days before his funeral, I went to the Colleton County Genealogical Society looking for information about a nearby cemetery, hoping to find records on which Fields ancestors were buried there and where. Instead, I found a photograph of my great-grandmother Eliza Fields’ grave at Myrtle Grove Plantation, but I did not know then that she was the same Eliza Fields listed on my family tree. At Cousin Jonas’ burial, my cousin Wilfred Fields, another of Cousin Jonas’ sons, confirmed that his grandmother, my great-grandmother, Eliza was buried at Myrtle Grove.  After Cousin Jonas’ burial, family members discussed the Richards/Frazier/Fields ancestors who are buried on Smithfield Plantation. In February 2015, my father’s cousin Cleveland Frazier told me when he was growing up, the elders in Jerusalem and White Hall AME Churches, where generations of our family had worshiped, still prayed about enslavement on Myrtle Grove plantation. The young people, however, did not know what the words meant. As I made final preparations before my class, my mind raced; why hadn’t I made these connections before?