This morning’s speakers at the Lowcountry Rice Culture Forum talked about rice as though it was something which grew long ago or far away, but rice revivalist Glenn Roberts takes exception to the characterization.
“Let’s stop talking about it and start doing it,” the founder of Anson Mills told me.
According to Roberts, Lowcountry residents grew their own rice plots as late as the 1980s. He’s hoping to instigate a resurgence of the practice with his Saturday afternoon talk entitled “Grow Backyard Rice Just Like Garden Tomatoes.”
As Edda Fields-Black stressed in her discussion of rice production in coastal Guinea, subsistence and commercial rice cultivation shouldn’t be conflated. While South Carolina rice plantations were nexuses of horrific human abuses, family-owned rice fields in West Africa are the source of tremendous familial and communal pride.
“There is a sense of bravado, a sense of machismo,” said Fields-Black, who conducted extensive field work in Guinea.
In his talk on the decline of the Carolinas’ rice industry, James Tuten said enslaved Africans also took pride in their plantation work: “Slaves on rice plantations would say ‘any slave can grow cotton’,” Tuten said. “There’s status in being involved in rice production. Folks involved in rice were adaptive, entrepreneurial.”
Tuten’s wrestled with the question of why African-Americans would continue working for rice growers after Emancipation, and believes their pride explains it: “They think growing rice is better than growing cotton.”
By the early 20th century, though, laboring in South Carolina rice fields was no longer a viable way to make a living. Locals with rice-growing knowledge continued to tend small, subsistence fields, but the tradition died out within decades. Still, Roberts thinks it’s not too late to reanimate the practice.
The Lowcountry Rice Culture Forum continues this afternoon. I’ll be live-tweeting if you’d like to follow along; Alternately, if you’d like to join the 150 rice enthusiasts gathered at College of Charleston’s Stern Center for the conference, Louis Nelson‘s 4 p.m. keynote address on Carolina Gold is open to the public.