Program Summary by Christine Dzujna

Scott Alves Barton was mesmerized the first time he watched a braider in South America bury rice seeds deep in the thick weaves of a black woman’s hair. He’d read about enslaved women carrying  grains from their homelands atop their heads in this manner to keep them safe and well preserved, but that didn’t prepare him for the moving reality of the reenactment by a member of the Maroon community in Surinam, descendants from Africans that fled Dutch plantations. Barton, a chef of 25-years who earned a PhD in Food studies at NYU and is a leading African American Diaspora expert, was so taken with the braiding demonstration that he invited a hair-braider and her model to take part in the performance piece, Juba: Sanctuary, he developed while in residency in Milwaukee during breaks between teaching at NYU, the New School, Queens College, and Montclair State University. Juba was constructed as a “jubilee,” meaning a release or a season of rejoice and celebration, through which Barton paid homage to the first slaves that arrived in Jamestown 400 years ago last August. The production was also a celebration of African rice culture and, more specifically, a recognition of the cultivation, cooking and various other skills and techniques black women brought to this country.

Artist Fo Wilson created the installation at the Lynden Sculpture Garden called Eliza’s Peculiar Cabinet of Curiosities where Barton’s work was performed to exalt the imagination of black slave women that allowed them to survive their ordeal. The small cabin-like structure she conceived displayed shelves of artifacts (e.g. candles, table napkins, hand mirrors) exemplifying the kinds of keepsakes that may have inspired, and been cherished by, female slaves in America. Eliza’s “curiosities” are also reminiscent of the European practice of collecting oddities and trophies while travelling the world. As those collections embodied the view of the world held predominantly by white males, Eliza’s treasures exemplify the slave woman’s perspective of her predicament and her universe.  Barton’s work was intended to correspond and collaborate with Wilson’s creation and his collection of performers – including the hair braider, a woman stringing okra to dry, and another woman making rice bread –  were meant to illustrate the knowledge and technology, the nurturing nature, and the entrepreneurial spirit that African women brought with them from cultures in which their skills had been developed over hundreds of years. His goal was to illustrate that they were so much more accomplished than what has been depicted in Aunt Jemima and similar American caricatures.

In Black Rice, Judith Carney explores how rice culture in America began with African slaves, some of whom were conscripted specifically for their expertise in rice cultivation. Carney acknowledges the transportation across continents of rice seeds in women’s hair. Similarly, anthropologist Richard Price in his book, Farming While Black, believes this practice continued when slave women escaped the plantations for freedom, bringing their rice with them as they established new lives in the Low Country. Barton noted how these legends run counter to the narrative that attributes rice’s history in America to European agency and argues that black women have had a key role in distributing rice culture throughout the African diaspora. Barton’s work in the U.S. and Brazil seeks, in part, to examine how African ingredients made their way across the globe and were woven into the cuisines of distant lands, and he takes issue with the scholarly gaps, for example, in Alfred Crosby’s study of the impacts of the Columbian Exchange, that fail to properly acknowledge the influences of transported African food (and that of other non-Europeans) on the Americas. 

During Barton’s presentation, the audience was treated to a sampling of recipes that he formulated from various sources to evoke the spread of African food traditions throughout the Americas. We tasted hoppin’ john made with rice and black-eyed peas, though traditionally made with pigeon or field peas that are difficult to source in New York. A hearty and satisfying rice, okra and shrimp dish known as Limpin’ Susan was also offered along with a Cajun influenced maque choux with corn, tomatoes, and okra. Wafer-like benne cookies made from sesame followed as did bissap, a beverage of rum steeped with hibiscus flowers, watermelon juice, and sugar. Barton recalled bissap from his own childhood when it was enjoyed at family celebrations.

These dishes are highly representative of the African slave experience and many of the  ingredients – rice, black-eyed peas, okra – were intricately woven into their lives, not only as foods to be eaten, but as material that encapsulated for them their spiritually, their livelihoods, their whole ethos. The foods they carried from Sierra Leone, Senegal and elsewhere helped them maintain their heritage and even their own identity. Their success is evident in the Low Country traditions that continue today and are replete with African dialect, food, and folkways. The Low Country, which spreads from the coastal northern tip of Florida to the southern tip of North Carolina, is a prominent location in African American history. Many slaves were able to self-determine their own freedom by moving in and out of Low Country islands, which could be easily accessed on foot in low tide. Their traditions eventually made their way to northern states via the Black Migration of the 1900s, some of which Barton experienced while in Milwaukee the past two summers. He recorded oral histories of elderly blacks whose families came from Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and stood at their sides as they taught him to cook 19th Low Country recipes that had also migrated north.

Barton understood that rice would have been important to Eliza and African women like her, so he planted in her victory garden beside Wilson’s cabin rice from Trinidad believed to be a strain that originated in Africa. To his surprise, the crop took. It was a fitting tribute to the women they were there to honor, to their skills as rice cultivators, cooks, and bearers of their African heritage, and to their spirit and imagination that allowed them to persevere and survive in a land they did not choose for themselves. As Barton proclaimed in Juba, “if we do not know the story of black women in these united states, we do not know the story of the United States.” Fortunately, people like Barton and Fo Wilson are committed to making the story of female African slaves and their contributions known to us all.