“We’re not taking sides, we’re just trying to help our younger people get an understanding of Southern culture,” artist Jonathan Green says, explaining why the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project is working to disseminate a clearer picture of the region during its rice production heyday. The group this September is sponsoring a three-day forum intended partly to speed the flow of factual information.
According to Green, who chairs the group, the experience of enslaved laborers in particular has been obscured by artists’ inaccurate depictions of plantation life.
Green’s contention is dramatically illustrated by two images in the Charleston Library Society’s collection. The library has extensive holdings related to rice, including 15 wordy nineteenth-century pamphlets outlining the cultivation, harvest and use of rice around the world. The pamphlets also feature cooking advice, such as the “Griddles for Breakfast” recipe from RFW Allston’s 1845 Memoir on the Production and Cultivation of Rice. (“Mix a thin batter with milk and rice flour, adding salt.”) But as an artist, Green is drawn to the archive’s illustrations.
This image was printed in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly in 1848. As Green points out, the African-American men depicted here are standing tall; dressed in a very presentable fashion and operating equipment. He believes it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of rice-related work.
This image was printed in Country Gentleman in 1941. It shows faceless, stooped women, dressed in inappropriate costume for the period and carrying rice in a way which wouldn’t have made sense within the lowcountry rice context.
So, two very different pictures, published nearly 100 years apart. Green says his group plans to take up how perceptions of rice production changed over the intervening century, and address the legacy of the stereotyping which eventually veiled the realities of early African-American life in the lowcountry.
“What people often miss here is it all leads back to rice,” says Jane Aldrich, executive director of the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project.
Tickets to the forum, scheduled for Sept. 12-14, are priced at $125. Friday-only tickets are available for $25. For a complete schedule and more information, visit the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project’s website.