Critics say the history of slavery in the U.S. is poorly understood. Even less well known is the complex story of the rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia.
Those “low-country” plantations were a big source of wealth in early America. And according to Edda L. Fields-Black, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University, the farming technology that grew the crops was largely developed in West Africa -- and then imported to the American South by captive Africans.
Thus was not only the labor but also the know-how of those enslaved Africans stolen. And it was exploited on plantations that Fields-Black says were the deadliest living environments for enslaved laborers in the South.
“There were on these rice plantations the highest mortality rates in the U.S. South, and second only to sugar plantations in the New World,” she says.
Fields-Black’s way to both honor those laborers and to teach their legacy is through music. The historian is executive producer and librettist of “Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice,” a symphonic piece that receives a work-in-progress performance Wednesday courtesy of Carnegie Mellon.
“It is my desire to take history off the shelf and put it on stage,” she says.
Fields-Blacks’s scholarly writing includes the 2008 book “Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora.” She co-authored 2015’s “Rice: Global Networks and New Histories.”
Her libretto exploring the lives of the enslaved Africans is inspired by primary sources, she says.
“I have attempted to recover the voices and experiences of the enslaved and to put the farming system into a broader context, if you will, and to personalize it at the same time and really talk about particular people’s experiences,” she says.
Fields-Black adds the performance also commemorates the 400th anniversary of when captive Africans were first brought to North America, in Jamestown, Va.
Along with text by Fields-Black -- to be read by actors Michele Williams and Kyle Haden -- “Unburied, Unmourned” as performed Wednesday features music by Emmy-winning composer John Wineglass. Remaining to be completed are choral movements, and also video projections by famed filmmaker Julie Dash. The orchestral debut will be performed by The Colour of Music Orchestra, musicians of African descent based in Charleston, S.C.
The show is at Carnegie Music Hall, in Oakland. The program also includes thematically apt works by John Williams (from the soundtrack to the film “Lincoln”), Puccini and Mahler; contemporary African-American composer Mary Watkins’ “Soul of Remembrance”; and Aaron Copland’s famous “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
Titles of Wineglass’s pieces from “Unburied, Unmourned” includes “The Middle Passage: Uprooted,” “Tones of the Rice Fields,” and “Lament for Lost Souls.”