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Judith Carney, Geography

  • By Meg Sullivan, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published May 1, 2003 8:00 AM

Growing up during the 1950s as part of a “meat and potatoes” family in Detroit, Judith Carney didn’t eat rice. In fact, she suspects not a grain of rice ever passed her lips until she moved to California at 22.

“The Midwest didn’t eat rice back then,” the geography professor recalls with a laugh. “To us, noodles were exotic.”

It’s an odd background for someone who now has more than 64 journal articles and other publications on rice. Carney is fast emerging as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the simple grain’s surprisingly complicated history. Her 2001 book “Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas” (Harvard University Press) cemented this reputation.

Initially hailed by the New York Times for its “richly detailed analysis” of the crucial role played by enslaved African-Americans in establishing and developing South Carolina’s booming antebellum rice industry, the book continues to attract attention.

Carney received the 2002 Herskovits Award, which recognizes outstanding original scholarly work in African studies and is the field's most prestigious honor. (Carney split the award with a Boston University historian who looks at racism in modern South Africa.)

In March, “Black Rice” became the first recipient of the James M. Blaut Award Innovative Publication Award, an annual award given by the Association of American Geographers for the year’s most outstanding example of scholarship in cultural and political ecology.

Carney’s book “is a gauntlet thrown down for those in the past who minimized the African achievement, and a challenge to those who may still do so,” said Sidney W. Mintz, a Johns Hopkins professor of anthropology.

Of course, no one has ever denied that slave labor was responsible for harvesting the South’s most lucrative cash crop prior to the rise of cotton. And as early as the mid-1970s, historians had begun to recognize a link between African rice cultivation practices and Carolina's economic success. But Carney, who spent 15 months studying rice production in Gambia as a graduate student in the mid-1980s, is credited with giving this connection real specificity.

She argues that slaves brought a complete "knowledge system" -- not just a plant or a seed but an entire complex of techniques, technology and processing skills – with them to the South. Plantation owners then used this information to plant malaria-infested swamplands with what became Colonial America’s largest cash crop.

“So many plantation histories said, ‘How ingenious our European forbearers were to figure out how to grow this crop in a swamp with unskilled labor!”’ Carney says. “It was such an incredible appropriation of knowledge.”

Carney plans next to write a book tracing the lineage of okra, coffee, black-eyed peas and other crops introduced to the Americas by slaves.

“Part of U.S. history is to acknowledge the contributions of all people who came to the Americas, including the indigenous peoples,” she says. “And until the 1800s, the majority of ‘immigrants’ to the Americas were people of African descent. But we don’t think of that, and we haven’t begun to give full credit to their legacy.”