African American Food History African Food Culture Diaspora Food Culture Food People and Food Places

An Interview With Dr. Edda Fields Black, Author of Deep Roots

Hi Dr. Fields-Black, We are so glad to have you here at Afroculinaria to

talk about the African contribution to rice cultivation in the US and the

roots of the Gullah/Geechee people…

1. Where are you from?  How does your heritage inform your work?

I was born and raised in Miami, Florida.  My maternal grandmother was born in Miami, but my great-grandparents emigrated from the Bahamas; my father’s family is from the South Carolina Lowcountry.  I like to say that I was the child of both immigrants and migrants and was raised “first generation” on both sides.  I grew up in a “Bahamian yard” in Miami.  My maternal grandparents and five of my grandmother’s brothers and sisters—except for one brother whose second wife made him move twelve blocks away—lived on one block.  My grandmother lived right next door to us.

As a child, we visited my extended paternal family, great-grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins, every summer in Green Pond, Whitehall, and Over Swamp, South Carolina with my parents and paternal grandparents.  Though I had been curious since an early age about my grandparents’ “peculiar” speech patterns, my mother’s historical and genealogical research about my father’s family in preparation for and during family summer vacations was my first inkling of Gullah as both a rich language and culture with its own peculiar history. I remember during these trips making several trips to the family cemetery to record genealogical information off of the headstones.

2.  What got you interested in rice and the Lowcountry and the connections to West Africa?

When I was an undergraduate English/history double major at Emory University taking my first African history class, my professor Dr. Kristin Mann encouraged me to apply for the Cuttino Prize, a summer abroad scholarship.  I had read and was fascinated by the Gullah/Geechee literature.  And, the political situation in Nigeria, where Professor Mann conducts her research and where she first directed me, was rapidly deteriorating.  This was in the very early 1990’s.  So, I decided to apply for a study abroad scholarship to go to Sierra Leone to investigate the Gullah/Geechee connections.  I fell hard for Sierra Leone; there was no going back.  I almost did not come back (I mean this literally, you can ask my mother!).  Going to West Africa at nineteen years of age changed my life.  Fairly early in my undergraduate career, I had already identified that I wanted to be an historian.  My mother is an historian and archivist; so I had grown up with the craft.  The opportunity to study abroad cemented for me which history I wanted to write; it had to be Africa.

If you are in Sierra Leone and you are from a Gullah background, what else are you going to study besides rice?  Any taxi driver would tell you that!  I did not settle on rice until I entered graduate school initially at the University of Florida.  I also did not learn until much later that my dad’s family is from one of the last regions of the Lowcountry where African American sharecroppers produced rice.  But, the summer in Sierra Leone was the catalyst for it all.

3.  Many scholars have stressed the larger communities of Wolof, Manding,Fula, etc. why Guinea-Bissau, and the smaller rice growing groups?

You have to look at the Upper Guinea Coast as a region, the nature of the enslavement mechanisms there—warfare caused by state expansion and Islamization, drought, famine, locusts(!), and judicial processes for “crimes” like witchcraft accusations, theft, adultery, debt—and how they changed over time.  Research has shown that smaller stateless societies located on the coast were more likely to be raided by states in the interior.  They also participated in trade by raiding.  Unfortunately, due to the nature of the historical sources, we know much more about the ethnic identity of the captives imported into the non-English-speaking colonies in the New World.

4.   How long did you conduct fieldwork in West Africa? What were the advantages of actually working and living with the communities?  Whatwere some of the more *interesting* moments of your study?

I began my research in Sierra Leone, undertaking language training and research in the summer of 1994. Leading up to the summer of 1996 when I was scheduled to undertake pre-dissertation fieldwork, I had to make a difficult decision because of the uncertainty about the political situation in Sierra Leone.  So, I spent the majority of the summer in Guinea.  But, I spent 3 weeks in Sierra Leone in the middle of my trip.  I was planning to go to the countryside to visit Rokupur Rice Research station with a colleague when my mother’s voice rang in my ears (quoting Bill Cosby, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out”…This was one interesting moment).  Thank goodness I nixed the plan and caught my flight back to Guinea.  The rebels entered the capital city of Freetown shortly after I returned to Conakry.

I conducted 12 months of fieldwork in Guinea, lived in the mining town of Kamsar, and travelled to several coastal villages at every stage of the rice cultivation cycle.  Building trust between the researcher and the researched is the advantage of living with people in the villages, sleeping in the mud houses, and taking your shower outside with everyone else (a few more *interesting* moments).  Without trust, people will not share their stories with you, which is what you are seeking.  You won’t even have clean clothes, fresh water, or rice to eat.

There were many *interesting* moments in my fieldwork.  I was not a very well behaved by Guinea’s standards.  Guinea is an Islamic state, which was a rather conservative at the time.  By being a young, single, and outspoken (read mouthy!) woman who had my own little apartment made me by definition a more than a little naughty (any unmarried woman of child-bearing age living by herself outside of her father or husband’s home was socially unacceptable). I broke all of the rules and didn’t often do it quietly either.  I was constantly getting myself into hot water, running to my “uncles” and “aunts” to speak for me and bail me out, then turning around and telling folk that they “weren’t my daddy” and therefore could not tell me what to do!  I was a character.

Living in a foreign country for a long period of time where I knew no one before I arrived and had to depend on people whom I barely knew for the basic necessities of life really made me face my fears.  I was constantly confronted with my own assumptions about the world and about myself and other people’s assumptions about me, Americans, Black Americans, women, etc.  Many times, I learned that I had it wrong.  But, many times, I surprised myself too.  Let me stop being philosophical and be a little more concrete.  I learned that I could put up with certain inconveniences, outside toilets and showers, goats and frogs making noise when I was trying to sleep, for example.  But, there were little things that I could not and would not do, such as get my feet dirty or risk stepping barefoot on who knew what.  This posed an interesting problem when I had to walk miles through the mud to get to a boat or a village or work in the rice fields.  Everyone else did this barefoot or in flip-flops if they could afford them.  I wore boots and took flack for it sometimes.  But, I eventually learned to use humor to get myself out of sticky situations.  Once I got on board a boat or got back to the village, I would take off my boots to reveal my brightly colored toes.  Then, everyone *understood* why I just *couldn’t* get my feet dirty.

5.  What were the “aha”! moments you had while preparing Deep Roots?  Withall that preceded your work, how did you have in mind to distinguish your work from the scholarship that came before? 

I had many more “oh-no!” than “aha” moments.  The evidence, both the travelers’ accounts and the linguistic evidence, were both so fragmentary.  The first “aha” moment came when I figured out why there were no descriptions of mangrove rice cultivation for the Rio Nunez region before Samuel Gamble’s in the late 18th century: the Portuguese and Luso-African traders were smart enough to avoid the region during the deadly rainy season.  After spending several rainy seasons in the rice fields being bitten by the mosquitoes, I understood why!  But, the rainy season is the critical time when rice is planted.  So, they missed it all.  Discovering that words related to “rice” in languages spoken in the Rio Nunez region were not relatively that old and the word for “salt” is much older was an “oh-no” moment, which later turned into an “aha” moment.  I think that my use of the comparative method of historical linguistics distinguishes my work.

6. What do you think about the criticism of the Rice Thesis (the idea that Africans introduced and cultivated the culture of rice in the New World?)

I think that it is a reminder that the historiographical pendulum swings in both directions.  It challenges those of us who deal with periods and populations whose history is little recorded in written sources to be even better at what we do.

7. Why does the answer to this debate matter?  Why should we care?

I am honestly not sure that people outside of the academy care.  It matters, because it ultimately gets us closer to understanding what role Africa and Africans play in transmitting culture and technology to the New World.

8.  As someone married to another professional who works with African American/Diaspora history, how do you as a family raise young children to be conscious of their history? (A lot of us don’t know how!)

My oldest child would say that I lecture a lot.  I think that I tell a lot of stories.  We try to involve our children in everything that we do and to expose them to everything.  So, we take them to lectures, all kinds of museums all over the world, receptions, conferences, etc., anywhere where we are going, anything that we are reading and writing.  We don’t shy away from the painful parts of history.  Our oldest knows more about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery, and segregation than most American adults and more about the Holocaust (in preparation for our trip to Berlin last year) than most Germans.  Instead, we try to translate for them in an age appropriate level what is going on and how they are related to it.  We also shower them with the richness, beauty, and diversity of the cultures in Africa and the African Diaspora.  Lastly, we really emphasize family, connecting them to their familial and historical ancestors.  Our children hear every day about the sacrifices that their ancestors and elders made (and are still making!) so that they can live lives of relative privilege.  We instill in them a sense of responsibility to those on whose shoulders they stand to create a better place for their children and their children’s children.  In my family, we say “from those to whom much is given, much will be required”.

9.  What was the diet like of the people in Guinea?

The diet consists of rice (for every meal), fish, peanuts, leaves (from the cassava or potato plant), and mangoes.  On the coast, Guineans eat rice porridge for breakfast.  Lunch and dinner consisted of stew with small pieces fish, a few vegetables (possibly cassava or potato leaves cooked almost like collard greens), palm oil, and hot peppers.  Depending on the stew, you have to put in the peanut butter.  I ate many of the same dishes in Guinea as in Sierra Leone.  The only difference is that Guineans put peanut butter in everything for protein; now, I do the same.  Lastly, around May, the mangoes are ripe.  I have never seen so many and such a diversity of mango varieties; I’m talking scores and scores of mangoes that look and taste differently dangling from trees, for sale in the market.  Women even made stews from mangoes with palm oil, pepper, and fish.  For a Bahamian girl who grew up in Miami climbing the mango tree, picking the fruit, and eating it (while sitting barefoot in the tree!), it was heaven!

10.  What’s your favorite African/African American heritage food?

I have to qualify my response first by saying that I am a vegan who has numerous food allergies (wheat, gluten, oats, etc.) and who no longer eat sugar (white or brown).  So, all of these dishes would be vegan, gluten free, and sugar free: collard greens, corn bread, barbeque tofu, peach cobbler, sweet potato pie, sugar free sweet tea (I said it!  Yes, it can be sweetened with agave).  Then, I HAVE to add my favorite foods from Africa and the Diaspora: FRIED SWEET PLANTAINS (my absolute favorite food of life!), fried boniato potatoes (that’s what we call the dark skinned, white meat sweet potatoes in Miami), pigeon peas and rice, cassava and potato leaves (don’t forget the peanut butter!  Sorry Sierra Leone), ginger beer, sorrel, and black beans.


1 comment on “An Interview With Dr. Edda Fields Black, Author of Deep Roots

  1. I truly enjoyed reading this interview rendered by Dr. Edda Fields-Black! I just LOOOOOOOOVE her work. Even more, I love how she is so cultured and versed in speaking on her experiences. Thank you for sharing this interview.


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