On Rice

Amethyst Ganaway

"On Rice" was featured in Active Cultures Digest, Issue 07, November 2020.

Images: Flooding Rice Fields, South Carolina, photographic print of flooded rice fields on a curved stereo card, with accompanying text describing this process, 9 x 18 cm. Collection of the Boston Public Library, Courtesy of Digital Commonwealth.

Map of South Carolina from "Arbuckles' Illustrated Atlas of the United States of America," produced by the Arbuckle Brothers Coffee Company, 1889. The map is surrounded by scenes from the state, and originally appeared on a page with the maps of Wisconsin, Maine, and Michigan. Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images.


Amethyst Ganaway is a North Charleston native who began her career in restaurants. Currently, her work consists of food writing, recipe development, and catering. Her writing has been published in several food publications including Eater, Food and Wine, The Post and Courier and Plate Magazine. In 2020, Amethyst was awarded the Les Dames d'Escoffier International Culinary Award and has been selected for a forthcoming internship with America's Test Kitchen.

I eat rice almost every day. I can eat it for any meal at any time and sometimes, I even have two different rice dishes on the table. I grew up in a community of folk who ate rice as often as I did, and it wasn't until later in life that I realized that the average person didn't consume it in the same quantity that we did. As I grew older, I realized that I grew up not only in a community of rice eaters, but among people whose families had grown the grain in the salt water marshes along the coast many generations ago. As I began to intertwine my passion for cooking and my curiosity into why things are the way they are, and my quest for knowledge on all things rice, I came to a realization that the rice that was a main component of my diet had a history deeper than what was told to us. The plantations that are heralded as top wedding destinations, known for their unmatchable beauty, had once been violent institutions where thousands of people were abused and even died to put rice on tables around the world. Not all of the enslaved who grew the grain had died out and much of the culture was still alive, but the people who ate and once grew the crop seemed to disappear, and I wanted to know their story and what would become of them and the rice that had fed a nation. I was especially interested in learning whether there was a possibility for them both, the people and the rice, to emerge once again as major agricultural and economic contenders.

Most of the rice consumed by the world today comes from one strain, Oryza Sativa, or Asian rice, one of only two strains of wild rice domesticated by humans centuries ago. The other, Oryza Glaberrima, hails from Africa, originating when what is now known as the Sahara Desert was a lush, wet landscape full of enormous paleolakes. A natural product of the floodplains of the Niger River, the grain caused West and Central African cultures and even civilizations on the eastern coast of the continent to flourish. For many years the people along the Senegambian coastline and beyond would grow their own rice, providing one of the staple foods of their diets and becoming a part of their cultural customs and a vital commodity for commerce. Farming of all kinds, and especially farming rice, have always been a means of not only self sustenance, but a tangible act of liberation and freedom. It is a distinct grain with a distinct way of growing, unique to the West and Central Africans and their descendants. Growing and consuming it became a revolutionary act not only in the way it changed the world's diets and aided in the formation of wealthy colonies, but in the sense that it was an edifying practice that could not be attributed to any other outside conquerors. It built Black dynasties and added to the erased history of Black people before and during their enslavement, in the Americas and in Africa.

By the late 1500s, Portuguese traders and explorers would encounter the people from the rice growing regions of West Africa, and eventually enslave over a million inhabitants through the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The people from the "Rice Coast" tribes would be taken to the Caribbean, Brazil, and the Americas to work the sugar, indigo, coffee, and other plantations in the tropical lands. It wasn't long before the people were being stolen and then imported into these new lands specifically to grow rice. The captives themselves, in an act of their own agency, or their captors—or perhaps both—took the grains on their voyage across the sea, bringing in two new sources of income (the enslaved and the grain itself) and a new labor force once the indigenous peoples had been decimated by disease and violence.

By 1700, the slave trade was booming. The often uninhabitable coastal regions of the Carolinas (where I'm from), Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and similarly low lying areas became the perfect locations to grow rice as a cash crop in the United States. Using their knowledge of the moon and tides alongside their ingenious growing methods, enslaved Africans were able to successfully produce rice in mosquito-infested marshes the same way they did in their homelands. The enslaved workers were naturally resistant to many of the wetland diseases, and a task system rather than a gang system allowed for a more efficient labor force, causing the number of rice plantations to grow. Plantation owners became vastly wealthy, while enslaved planters with the cultural experience necessary to grow the plants would almost be wiped out by disease and devious atrocities. Throughout their difficult lives, however, the people were often able to grow and catch their own food, maintaining their sense of self and carrying on traditional practices that would ensure their survival and continue for generations despite the hardships they faced.

For almost two hundred years, the white populations from the lowland areas of the US would become grossly rich from the skill and intellectual labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants. It was only relatively recently that it would be confirmed, however, that the cultivar of rice that made the American South a buzzing and wealthy area, Carolina Gold, was actually a relative of the African Oryza Glaberrima and not its more popular Asian close relative. Despite having a worldwide reputation of being extremely flavorful and growing reliably in harsh conditions, the rice faded into obscurity when chattel slavery was ended in the Americas—and it even declined in most of the areas where it originated in Africa, after the higher yielding Asian rice began to dominate the rice trade. And then, it became completely stripped from the growers and their descendants as a source of survival in the land they had cultivated and made wealthy through Jim Crow and other discriminatory laws and practices.

It wasn't until the 2000s that the topic of lost American crops came back into popular conversation. There was a resurgence of interest in finding and reproducing the once well-liked plants of the antebellum Americas, spurring a movement to examine the role of African rice and its predecessors and progeny. While the historic rice found a following among celebrity chefs and distinguished food historians once it was put back into production, others were left with questions about the infamous rice and its inaccessibility. Not only was the rice no longer being produced on a wide scale in the South, much of the knowledge needed to cultivate it had begun to be lost over the years—not only in the US, but in the Caribbean, Central and South Americas, and even on the Rice Coast and in Sub-Saharan Africa, where it had originated. Over 80% of the rice consumed in the US is grown in the US—very little of it by the descendants of the original rice farmers, almost none of it grown in the coastal areas of the Deep South. Most of it is grown in California, Arkansas, and Texas and by white farmers. With the exception of a small number of farmers who grow heirloom varieties, all of the rice produced, imported, and eaten here is of the Asian variety. None of the rice imported into America is African rice. Even now, what is known as the "Rice Belt" of America only includes one or two of the original states (Louisiana and Mississippi) that practiced rice farming in antebellum America.

Generations of Black farmers found and still find themselves struggling not only to balance their cultural identities with those of assimilation and integration, but also to contend with racist tropes that stem from being Black in America and the historical entanglements of slavery and farming. Add to that the lack of resources for farming, land being taken away from families through heirs laws, and the fact that land is often worth more for tourism than it is for a farm, and it is no wonder that there are so few Black farmers cultivating rice in America. One hundred years ago in the US, there were more than one million Black farmers. Now, there are less than 50,000, none of whom grow rice on a large scale.

Across the Atlantic, Africa spends over $3.5 billion every year to import rice from Asia, and many of the countries in Africa's rice-growing regions are top buyers. With soaring food prices around the world, one has to wonder why more countries have not picked back up on the cultural practice that not only once created an obscene amount of wealth but nourishment as well. Nigeria alone spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year to bring in rice, but could grow their own more naturally disease and drought resistant variety just as well.

Colonialism, imperialism, racism, and more have oppressed Black people around the world for hundreds of years, but is it possible that reclaiming and growing the grain on a wide consumer basis could contribute to our liberation in America and beyond? There is no lack of labor or land (although there is certainly a lack of access to it), and for sure there is a sense of pride that surrounds cooking, eating, and growing rice. Given the recent popularity of heirloom versions of all sorts of food, and the unique flavor, shape, and versatility of African rice varieties, it's unclear why African rice has not yet seen a true revival. The pillaging of Africa's resources and the oppression of Black people in America (and everywhere) go hand in hand, but expansive and progressive nations were once fed—indeed built off of—African rice long before it became a product of forced labor and, centuries later, a victim of forgotten practices. African rice could sustain Black people once again.

Active Cultures is a cultural organization that explores the convergence of food and art in contemporary life.