Sunday, April 10, 2011

A "Homegoing" - Part 4b: Links, lineage and the legacy of "Black Rice"

I left Ibrahim to his sand painting and went to the lobby where I found Gerald and John laughing and talking animatedly with a young woman in uniform.

Reminding me of a younger version of my older sister, she had the same unmade-up smooth, dark skin, almond-shaped eyes, great cheekbones and a beautiful, slightly gapped-toothed grin.  Her name was Mariatou and she was Mandinka.

She reached to shake my hand and holding it with my right hand, I put my other arm around her shoulder, laughing as said, "Sorry - I'm a hugger!"  The ice immediately broken, she was a hugger too (and the exact same age as my youngest)!

Working at the Center not far from her village, the guys had taken a break to pick her up when she got off work and brought her to Banjul to meet me - and they were going back, leaving me to my own devices for the evening.  But first, we all got a little better acquainted over a Guinness for Gerald and me, and Fantas for John and Mariatou.

"She's no bumster!" Gerald assured me, saying he'd known Mariatou ever since he started building the Center years ago.  He trusted her implicitly - and knowing Gerald - so did I.

Having been a former, British colony, the official language taught in schools - is English, so there was no language barrier between the two of us.  She turned to me and said, "If you would like, tomorrow, I will take you to my village so you can see true Gambian culture!"  While the hotel provided a comfortable "familiar" to which I could return each night, I'd certainly not crossed that "distance, deliberately created" to which Mr. Baldwin referred, just to sit in it!  I told her I would very much like.

For some time now, I've been following the bread crumbs that link my South Carolina Gullah heritage, to a lineage and legacy that had been marginalized my entire life.  I knew nothing of Africa save those images of starving Biafran babies with swollen bellies and flies all over them in televised pleas for donations from white folk from UNICEF when I was around 12 (something about which my cousin reminded me when I talked to her on the phone right after I got back.  "Why you wanna go over there? Remember dem babies?!  My explanation was very long-winded.).

The history we learned in Catholic school inculcated our minds with visions of savages on that "Dark Continent over there," where benevolent missionaries risked themselves to spread the civilizing gospel - an oxymoron that always makes me think of this enduring (if not exact), Jomo Kenyatta quote:
When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land.  They taught us to pray with our eyes closed.  When we opened them, we had the Bible in our hand and they had the land.
In addition to visiting her mother's compound and rice farm, she said she'd also take me to visit her father's compound.  The immediate, confused (read - ignorant American) look on my face had everybody cracking up!  Once they got over the bends, they explained that her family was Muslim and it was perfectly acceptable in The Gambia for her father to have a second wife - and he did.  Saying, that as a visitor, I could respect that as a part of the culture however - "Couldn't be me."

By the time we  finished our drinks and said goodbye, I was excited and ready for the next day because I felt an education coming on that I'd never had before!

I went back out near the pool where a local cultural group was performing to smoke a cigarette.  Okay, this is the part where I tell you my non-computer-wonk-ass, recently and accidentally deleted quite a few photos and videos I'd been organizing to post in this series - among them - a video of this cultural group doing a ceremonial circumcision dance.  However, with the help of the recently returned husband, I was able to recover some of them (taking a computer class or two - just as soon as I quit kicking my own ass for that mess!).  I did find a pretty shitty video I'd taken on my new phone that night (still don't know what I'm doing with that damned thing either!) 

Anyway, I know it's hard to see here, but take my word for it - that "temple of my familiar" was doing some kind of serious liberation-dance on my  soul as I watched this group perform!  It immediately reminded me of that, "standin' on the history" nod in this trailer for "Faubourg Tremé: the Untold Story of Black New Orleans":

I went back inside brimming with anticipation.  Like a kid getting ready for the first day of school, I laid some Capri jeans, a top, some clean underwear and a pair of thonged, flip-flop sandals out on the second twin-bed and tried to go to sleep so I'd be well rested (didn't unpack, Gerald had informed me he'd made those "arrangements").  After tossing and turning for about an hour, I decided the only way sleep was coming soon, was "on the wings of Lunesta."  I took one and passed the hell out.

Once again, unaided by the alarm, I got up early and went to breakfast.  I came back and anxiously got ready even though she wasn't coming until sometime around noon.  When she finally called from the lobby, I grabbed my straw, hold-everything bag and headed out.  She explained, "Since we were on our own today, we'll have to take a taxi."  I said okay and we walked out to the street to flag one.

As it turns out, it was three taxis and a multi-passenger sort of mini-bus called a "tonka-tonka!"  I don't remember all of the villages through which we traveled and changed taxis, but I know we traveled south through Serrekunda and down to the "traffic light" in Brikama, a bustling crossroads.  There, we caught a tonka-tonka headed west to her village.  It let us out on the main road at the head of the road leading to her mother's compound.

I can only describe that ride as a cross-continental, "back-to-the-future" experience!  Squeezed into my seat by the crush of people and goods on the tonka-tonka, Rev. Deas and his own "multi-passenger bus" (actually at first, it was a big station wagon, then he got a passenger-panel van-looking thing) popped into my head.  He'd leave his church on the island every Saturday morning around 6 a.m. and pick up people who didn't have cars and needed/wanted to go "to town" to shop - for a fee.  Like in Brikama, there was even a sister "traffic light" of sorts (more a blinking light) through which he traveled, where you could get picked up or dropped off.  We called it the "Tin Store light" and it was a little more than halfway between the country and the city.

Mostly, he'd drop everybody off near the Edwards five-and-dime on King St. wherefrom they'd disperse via city bus, taxis or rides from family or friends.  If they weren't staying over, they'd reassemble at the same spot  - with everything they bought (clothes, groceries, you name it!) - at the pre-appointed 6 p.m. for the drive back to the island.  Judging by how far toward the beach you lived, you knew you'd either be getting out soon, or - be squeezed up against a door, or a person, for a little while longer.  But just like on the tonka-tonka, you'd get a little breathing room once passengers were disgorged along the way. 

You could also "Catch Rev. Deas" one-way, from town to the country as Mama would have us do when we wanted to go hang-out with the cousins on Saturday night (my brother and I hung-out with the the uncle and cousins our age - my sister, aunts and older cousins went out partying!).  She'd come pick us up the next day after church.  And no, we didn't miss church.  No matter how late we stayed up - or out, we went to my grandmother's A.M.E. church, or my grandfather's Baptist church services at 11 a.m. -sharp.  Stragglers who'd made my grandmother late to "chuch," were invited to pick their switch from any of the bushes outside in the yard.

From the first taxi ride out of Banjul, to the tonka-tonka, the trip through the countryside flooded my brain with back-in-the-day memories of leaving "the city" of Charleston and heading to my grandmother's house out on the island - "in the country."  The further south you went on Highway 17 in that 45 minutes, paved roads gave way to - Legend Oaks, forming a cool canopy over your journey through a landscape dotted with farms and little homes (some mere shacks) with their doors and window frames painted blue to keep out evil spirits; and "Do-Drop Inns" along the main road, not far from the little family stores, pregnant with a little bit of everything you needed (ours was "Doll's Store, a short walk from my grandmother's house - though a ride was much better if you could get one!); and dirt roads, leading to similar family "compounds," with relatives' houses a mere, hop, skip and a jump away.

Of course, as with countless other areas in this country where Black folk have lived - especially near water -gentrification has reared its ugly head, forever changing the landscape and invisibilizing the Blacks who remain.

As we walked the dirt road to the compound, I kept asking her, "How come my feet are covered with sand and yours aren't??"  We were both wearing the same kind of thonged sandals, yet my feet, below the ankle, were covered in sand while hers were not.  She laughed and said, "Because I'm used to it."  I laughed saying, "Look, I walked dirt roads just like these when I was young - sometimes barefoot, sometimes not - but I never remember being so used to it I didn't get sand between my toes!  Hell, "fly-toe" was always on my mind !" (Don't know the medical term for it - but we got it in the creases of our toes - often.)
Being greeted by, and introduced to, several people along the way, we reached the compound, encircled by a cinder-block fence where she, her mother and her older sister and children lived.  Fussing about how the children had thrown stuff on the ground after she'd just swept around the entrance before she left, I was reminded of how my Mama complained about the very same thing whenever she got off work and I'd not swept the sidewalk clean of all sand and debris in the front of our rented, Reid St. abode downtown.  The old Charleston House had a small yard, but no grass, so one of my after-school chores was to make sure the front was clean and dust-free.  As Mariatou groused, I heard Mama in my head, calling my name in her usual loud, pronouncing-every-syllable way - "Deb-o-r-a-h-h-h!  How come you ain't swept these steps yet!"

Inside the compound, there were chickens, goats and a well where they drew water (Yes, I said "well" and "drew water" - there is no public water service to the village.  We entered the one-level house from a covered porch leading into the living room.  It was a simple, unadorned structure, with swept-clean, concrete floors, two couches and room enough for everybody in the family.  A wall unit faced the door with family photos, accompanied by some large bowls on the top, and a TV in the center.

I met one of her older sisters who also spoke English, along with a friend of hers who was visiting with her one and half year-old son.  As soon as that boy saw me, he started to cry loudly, yelling, "Tubaab!  Tubaab!" (the Gambian word for foreigner - usually white) in between breaths.  When I reached for him, he cowered in his mother's arms, just shaking his head and crying uncontrollably.  I'd never met a little one I couldn't cajole into my arms, but this little guy, so keenly aware of my different-ness even though I was Black too, wasn't havin' any of it.  Everybody laughed as I backed away saying, "No problem, Man!  I ain't tryin' to make you cry!"  He finally settled down, but continued to watched me cautiously.
Mariatou took me down a short hall to show me her room, and the large bed, covered with a mosquito net that her father had had made for her.  Back in the front-room, she told me the large bowls atop the wall unit were serving bowls from which everyone in the family ate - together.  She proudly took down a picture of her eldest sister who's been living in Sweden for the past 13 years or so.  She'd been married to a Gambian man, but had divorced him and left the country, not having returned since then.

Her mother was out at the farm which was a short distance away, so we decided to visit her Dad's compound first.   His second wife was sitting outside the front door with some kids playing around her.  She was a young, light-skinned woman (she'd been two years behind Mariatou in school) with two little ones under 4 years old.  Here's a short video of them that I was able to restore.  The two little ones on his left are his, and the other little girl is a playmate.

Afterward, we went inside and he asked his wife to make us some chai tea.  We sat for awhile, discussing a little politics (to include the Changeling); a little religion (Muslim/Christian); a little about his country and how proud he was of Mariatou.  She beamed.  We had another cup of tea and then she said, if we were going to the farm, we'd better get going.  I thanked her father for the tea and conversation, said goodbye to the children and his wife and we left.

On the walk back to the main road where we'd get a taxi to the rice farm, she talked about how much she loved her father and I told her I could see it.  She said she knew it was hard for me to understand, but - I interrupted her saying,  "I came here to observe and learn, not to judge.  Like I said before - as a visitor, I respect that it's a part of your culture and I've not come here to change it, however - Couldn't be me.  And anyway, all that really matters is that you love him and understand it, right?" 

As she smiled and held my hand as we walked back to the main road - me flip-flopping sand everywhere - I had yet another déjà vu moment, remembering the countless times my cousin, Myra and I had walked, hand-in-hand, from our grandmother's house to her house around the bend.  It made me smile as we got into the taxi ride and went to her Mum's rice farm.

"Black Rice"

"African growers and pounders of rice, enslaved in the Americas, desired to consume their dietary staple in the lands of their bondage.  In South Carolina they found and environment eminently suitable for the cultivation of rice.  The wetlands where they experimented with rice growing in fact showed planters the way to use an African indigenous knowledge system for their own mercantile objectives.  Slaves with expertise in rice farming used that knowledge to negotiate a system of labor demands similar to that known to them with indigenous African slavery.  Planters, on the other hand, saw the means to control this black expertise for the their own ends.  During the charter generations of slavery in South Carolina, this African and gendered knowledge system did result in a mitigated form of labor over that known in other slave societies of the Americas...
... African knowledge of rice farming established, then, the basis for the Carolina economy.  But by the mid-eighteenth century rice plantations had increasingly come to resemble those of sugar, imposing brutal demands on labor.  Slaves with knowledge of growing rice had to submit to the ultimate irony of seeing their traditional agriculture emerge as the first food commodity traded across oceans on a large scale by capitalists who then took complete credit for discovering such an "ingenious" crop for the Carolina and Georgia floodplains.  For this reason, the words "black rice" fittingly describe their struggle to endure slavery amid the enormity of the travail they faced to survive." (emphasis mine)

The taxi deposited us again, at the head of the road leading to the rice farm. As we reached an opening in what I thought was merely tall grass (turns out it was rice growing, as far as the eye could see!), Mariatou held my hand, guiding me through a path over low, marshy ground to a clearing where we came upon a group of women (flip-flops were not what I should have been wearing!). They were Mandinka, one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa; Wolof and, Jola (Diola - French transliteration) - all coming together, co-op like, to help her mother get all the rice cut.

She greeted them respectfully, asking where her mother was.  A woman, later introduced to me as her aunt, Fatou (name given to the eldest girl in the family) pointed across the field and called out her name, "Kaddy!  Kaddy!"  She looked up and waved and started making her way toward us.  While we waited, Mariatou introduced me to each of the women, translating my return greetings in each of the women's languages.  Watching as they quickly worked the already cut mound of rice into neat little bundles on the ground, I was at once, humbled and empowered by this gathering of strong women working together.

As she explained to them that I'd never seen rice in its natural state before,one of the women, Bintou (name given to the youngest girl in the family), gave me her knife, grabbed my hand smiling and showed me how to cut and bundle the rice with Mariatou translating her instructions. We all laughed out loud when I made one, exactly like the ones on the ground. Mariatou explained that once all the rice was cut and bundled, they would carry it back to the compound and pound it, removing the husks - and from that pounding, comes the white grains we see in grocery stores! The rice would later be bagged and stored - some to eat, some to sell (And no rest for the weary! In a recent conversation with Mariatou, she advised Kaddy'd already planted, among other vegetables, some tomatoes, ground nuts (peanuts) - a popular export, ground eggs (eggplants) and sweet potatoes!)

Her mother finally made her way across the field to where we were standing. With a big smile, she greeted me first, with a firm handshake - and then a hug. She'd never gone to school, so she spoke no English. Mariatou translated for us as we talked about me, America, her daughter, my grandmother - and rice.

They still had plenty work to do, so she walked us back through the field to the main road. Walking ahead of us, I kept hearing this clicking sound - like the one you make trying to "scratch" whatever's irritating that space in your nasal cavity.  I asked Mariatou what it was and she said it was her mother, scaring away any snakes that might be up ahead. All bug-eyed and nervous now, I said, "Snakes! I think we need to walk a little bit faster!" It hadn't even occurred to me that there had to have been snakes in the marshy field!

This outing had definitely been déjà vu all over again! By the time we came along, "the African and gendered knowledge system of rice growing" was mirrored in my grandmother's fields. And it WAS "woman's wuck." From season to season, she was out there from "dayclean" to sundown - hoeing, planting and harvesting vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers; yellow, zuchini and acorn squash; peanuts; watermelon; corn; okra and sweet potatoes.

Those of us (mostly female) big enough to go and "pick" on the white man's farms, did - earning money based on how many bushel baskets were picked. At day's end, half went to my grandmother and we got to keep the other half. After the first few times out, she kept me home to run her roadside stand, selling her home-grown vegetables to the white folk headed to the beach saying, "Debbie, you pick too slo', hunnah can' mek no money like dat!" Fine with me, I hated the way okra ate up my hands and arms anyway.

The European marginalization, followed by their usual appropriation of yet another important part of our culture was, and continues to be, despicable. But most importantly, it was soul-crushing. In reviewing Carney's book, Drew Gilpin Faust of The New York Times said it most succinctly:

"Between the end of the 17th century and the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of people of African descent toiled in swamps, ditches and fields cultivating rice, a crop that by the time of the American Revolution had created a planter aristocracy wealthier than any other group in the British colonies. The high concentrations of slaves in rice-growing areas produced as well a black culture that remained closer to its African roots than that of any other North American slave society. Yet even in South Carolina, where they were a majority of the population, blacks have remained underrepresented in the historical record, partly because they were unable to leave the rich written legacy that immortalized their owners, partly because historians have failed to look closely enough at the evidence that has survived. In "Black Rice," Judith A. Carney, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, finds new "ways to give voice to the historical silences of slavery." Exploring crops, landscapes and agricultural practices in Africa and America, she demonstrates the critical role Africans played in the creation of the system of rice production that provided the foundation of Carolina's wealth." (emphasis mine)

Imagine if, instead of having been made to feel ashamed of our language and this legacy all of our lives, Black folk - especially women - had grown up knowing and learning about, and being proud of, the major contributions we'd made to these United States!!

I'd lay money on the fact that it would have made a huge difference - not only in how we now see our soul-crushed selves in this country and the world, but also in how we see our brothers and sisters in the diaspora. I doubt any of us would then, be lining up behind the Changeling (second-generation African that he is) and his white handlers as they wage war on an African country whose only imminent threat to this country is the rejection of neo-colonialist hegemony through self-determination.

If you are Black and from South Carolina in general, or the Sea Islands in particular - I recommend a thorough reading of Carney's book, along with those of Peter H. Wood ("Black Majority"),Wilbur Cross ("Gullah Culture in America"), Lorenzo Dow Turner ("Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect"), J.H. Easterby ("The South Carolina Rice Plantation") and Prof. Daniel C. Littlefield.

I promise, you will not only come away with a much better understanding of what our people brought to America's table (no pun intended), but also, and most importantly - with a feeling of immense pride and connectedness based on what's expressed here, in the introduction to Carney's book:
The millions of Africans who were dragged to the New World were not blank slates upon which European civilizations would write at will.  They were peoples with complex social, political, and religious systems of their own.  By forced transportation and incessant violence slavery was able to interdict the transfer of those systems as systems; none could be carried intact across the sea.  But it could not crush the intellects, habits of mind, and spirits of its victims.  They survived in spite of everything, their children survived and in them survived Africa. (all emphasis mine)

-Sidney W. Mintz, introduction to the 1990 edition of
The Myth of the Negro Past by Melville Herskovitz 

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