‘My whole heart was singing with them’—Performance honors African Slaves who built the rice industry in the South

GUEST SOLOIST INDRA THOMAS, soprano, performs during “Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice,” at the Carnegie Music Hall, Feb. 13. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

It was all theirs. The West African farmers had the ability, the skill, the knowledge to produce one of the world’s greatest loves—rice.
They knew how to plant it, harvest it, and process it. From Senegal down to Sierra Leone and Liberia, rice was “their” crop.
“The sound of the pounding of rice in Africa was the sound of domesticity,” spoke Daniel C. Littlefield, a longtime history professor at the University of South Carolina. He made the aforementioned statement on ETV, South Carolina’s public broadcasting network, during a documentary some 20 years ago.
What he said next was also profound: “But the sound of the pounding of rice in South Carolina was the sound of exploitation.”
As many historians, including Carnegie Mellon University professor Edda L. Fields-Black, are well aware, the Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia areas had enormous numbers of rice plantations, as many West Africans were taken from their homeland and brought to this country, enslaved for 200-plus years, producing the rice, and making the slave masters rich.

Dr. Fields-Black has written extensively about the trans-national history of West African rice farmers, her two books entitled, “Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and The African Diaspora” and “Rice: Global Networks and New Histories.” She said the floods fertilizing the inland and tidal rice fields created the deadliest living environments for enslaved laborers in the South.
Dr. Fields-Black said the rice plantations had the most African slaves in the country during those times. They also had the highest mortality rates in the U.S. South during those times.
Thus, she felt there had to be a way to take “history off the shelf” and put it “on the stage.”
Enter “Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice,” a musical composition that was performed by the Colour of Music Festival on Feb. 13 at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. Dr. Fields-Black called it a classical symphonic work that served as a tribute to slaves exploited and brutalized on those rice plantations who also remain unburied, unmourned and unmarked.
As the executive producer and librettist of the project, she wanted to make sure that those who attended would be able to truly “feel” something from the performance. In September 2018, she was introduced to John Wineglass, who’s made a career in Hollywood by composing for shows like “American Idol” and “The Brady Bunch.” He has won Emmy Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction and Composition in a Drama Series, and Wineglass made it clear to Dr. Fields-Black that “drama” is his middle name.
“He told me that, ‘I’m an entertainer and I do drama, and you have to know that if you work with me, I’m going to bring the dramatic elements,’” Dr. Fields-Black told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview, Feb. 13. “And I felt like that’s exactly what we needed to tell this story so that people can feel and try to empathize with what being enslaved (was like). And that’s not (with) words on a page. You have to dramatize it and I thought (the performance) was phenomenal.”
The Carnegie Music Hall, on this February evening, filled with a primarily-Black audience, watching and listening to an African American-based orchestra, complete with an array of winds, strings, brass chords—everything you’d want from an orchestral performance.
“I loved the performance tonight, my whole heart was singing along with them,” said Pittsburgh-area resident Diane Baldwin, who attended the event with husband, Darrell. “And the visual of the stage, seeing the group playing the music, and the music itself was the icing on the cake.”
“The spiritual connection of the journey from Africa to the U.S., it spoke very loud and proud,” Darrell Baldwin added.
Rick Robinson, of Detroit, who played the double bass in the orchestra, said the score struck “right to the heart of the matter. It’s important to reflect our history, even the dark, troubled past.”
He credited Wineglass with setting the piece up “so beautifully, and with the words (that were orated during the score) it expressed something that our ancestors went through and information that we’re not generally aware of. It’s incredibly powerful to have more and more expressions of this dark past.”
Titles for Wineglass’ pieces were “The Middle Passage: Uprooted,” “Tones of the Rice Fields,” and “Lament for Lost Souls.”
Dr. Fields-Black said there are three additional pieces to be finished, which would complete the entire six-piece production.
“I’m satisfied with what we’ve accomplished so far,” Dr. Fields-Black said. “I want to finish the piece, and that’s when I will be completely satisfied, but I feel as if we’re finally on the right track.”
In addition to Wineglass, other artists involved with the production included internationally-renowned director/filmmaker Julia Sash, whose “Daughters of the Dust” was the first film by an African American woman to have a major studio release; and cinematographer David Claessen. The Colour of Music Festival orchestra is based in Charleston, South Carolina.
Dr. Paul Gardullo, director of the Global Slavery Center and Curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, gave his approval of the work. He called it an “incredibly powerful demonstration of the role of art and music in bringing back into memory the lives of those people enslaved on rice plantations who should have never been forgotten.”
 
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