Lowcountry rice fields became fetid swamps during the flooding part of the cultivation cycle, a hot stew populated by alligators, overwhelmed by malaria-carrying mosquitoes and infested with bacteria and other pathogens.
Nearly two out of three enslaved children on these rice plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries never reached their 16th birthday. More than one-third of black newborns died in their first year. On average, rice workers who survived childhood lived only another 20 years, according to the University of Houston's Digital History project.
So the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project, the locally staged Colour of Music Festival and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh are presenting “Requiem for Rice” this fall to honor the innumerable dead.
The requiem’s composer is Trevor Weston, a professor of music at Drew University in New Jersey who once taught at the College of Charleston. Edda Fields-Black, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, is writing the libretto.
The requiem is the brainchild of artist Jonathan Green, who has devoted many years to the study and the portrayal of Lowcountry rice culture. After hearing a performance of the Verdi Requiem three years ago at the Colour of Music Festival, Green told festival organizer Lee Pringle that a new requiem was needed, a different sort of requiem, to honor the enslaved Africans who, thanks to their skills, labor, sacrifice and endurance, created and sustained a regional economy that enriched white landowners and helped build up the Southeast.
They did this without entirely relinquishing their identity, language and heritage, despite harsh conditions and explicit efforts on the part of their white overlords to suppress these traits.
For Green, it’s the arts that can open minds and educate people about this history.
“This work is important for understanding how we came to be,” he said. “This requiem is going to help ease a lot of stresses, (for) we are living in a community and culture where so many people are underappreciated. ... With all the problems and issues right now, this is where we have to be steadfast (about) our own history and culture.”
Who the requiem honors
It is difficult for historians to determine the total number of deaths. About 40 percent of enslaved African died before they reached the shores of the Americas; 2 million perished during the Middle Passage alone. Millions more died of disease, overwork and accident. Women often delivered stillborn babies, or died in childbirth.
“Because of the crowded and wet environment, slaves toiling on rice plantations experienced far greater mortality than did their counterparts on cotton fields across the South,” wrote Jeffrey Young in “Ideology and Death on a Savannah River Rice Plantation, 1833-1867: Paternalism amidst ‘a Good Supply of Disease and Pain,’” which appeared in the November 1993 issue of The Journal of Southern History.
At Gowrie plantation in South Carolina, slaves died in appallingly high numbers of yellow fever, dysentery, pneumonia and cholera, pleurisy and malaria.
“The average crude mortality rate of 97.6 per 1,000 was two-and-one-half times greater than the average annual fertility rate of 37.4 per 1,000; it was also three times greater than the crude mortality rate for North American slaves in the 19th century. When cholera decimated two-fifths of the Gowrie slave population in 1834, the plantation's mortality rate approached the level experienced in Europe during the Black Death of the mid-14th century.”
Over the centuries, the dead were dutifully buried, many in unmarked graves, many more in makeshift cemeteries and burial grounds that have been swallowed by natural growth or urban development.
The requiem’s subtitle, therefore, is “Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked,” the result of a brainstorming session between Fields-Black and Pringle.
The concert, scheduled for Oct. 22 at the Gaillard Center, will be part of the Colour of Music Festival and will feature two works, Pringle said. Robert Nathaniel Dett’s “The Chariot Jubilee,” featuring tenor, chorus and orchestra, will be performed in the first half, followed by the requiem.
Dett was a prominent, conservatory-trained African-American pianist, conductor and composer active during the first part of the 20th century. Weston is an experienced chorister and composer familiar with liturgical music and proficient in marrying African and African-American musical elements with the classical style.
Voice of the enslaved
Fields-Black said this project is like no other she’s embarked on.
“It’s the kind of thing where you jump into the water without knowing how deep it is,” she said. “If you knew how deep it was you’d think about approaching the water in a different way. As a historian, I have told stories in particular way. This is something totally different.”
Her work began in the usual way, with research. She consulted many primary sources, such as Works Progress Administration narratives and traveler accounts, plantation records, journals and correspondence, newspaper articles, military reports and more. She read about Harriet Tubman and the 1863 Combahee River Raid and the 750 slaves she helped rescue. She learned about the men who repaired the rice field embankments, men who doubled as alligator hunters. She was forced to contemplate the terrible toll of slavery. She learned a lot about the rice economy.
“The first thing I wanted to do (in the libretto) is, wherever I possibly could, privilege the voice of the enslaved,” she said. “It’s a hard thing to do. Enslaved people didn’t keep diaries. I also try to give the audience a very distinct sense of what was it like to be forced to grow rice, literally: what labor did the slaves do, under what conditions, and with what occupational hazards.”
The first draft of the libretto is structured according to the rice growing cycle, she said. Clearing, ditching, planting, weeding, flooding, harvesting, milling. Interspersed are non-linear episodes about Africa, the Middle Passage, loss, Reconstruction, gender roles and even the satisfaction associated with productive labor.
“There is also pride in the work that enslaved people do on the plantation,” Fields-Black said.
Past, present, future
Weston said he’s conceptualizing the piece and getting ready to set pencil to staff paper. The requiem likely will feature a modest orchestra, full chorus and soprano and baritone soloists, “which feels ‘Elijah’-like,” he said, referring to Felix Mendelssohn’s great oratorio.
Weston has worked with Green before. In 2008, the composer premiered his piece “Messages,” based on Green’s painting called “Seeking.” The two works explored Gullah ritual and tradition. Weston’s growing catalog of works includes a few other pieces inspired by the African-American experience, including “The People Could Fly” and “Griot Legacies.”
For the requiem, he hopes to convey a plethora of information concisely, he said. The music is going to have to help tell the story.
“I’m thinking the instrumentation is going to be basic,” he said. “And something that a regional orchestra could do. And something that kind of exists in three different places: the past, present and future — something informed by Gullah and African and African-American music.”
Possibly, he’ll borrow a few lines from a traditional requiem’s Latin text.
Some requiems are meant to commemorate an individual. Others are meant as showpieces for a concert audience. Others offer a musical expression of general mourning, or a means to share philosophical ideas or a way to protest injustice.
Brahms was among the first to shun the liturgical text and use contemporary poetry instead. Benjamin Britten, distraught by the traumas of World War I, wrote his glorious “War Requiem” in which he uses both the Latin text and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in the Great War.
“The idea of this piece is to mourn and recognize those who were ignored, and to connect it to a kind of ritual mourning and acknowledgement,” Weston said of the Requiem for Rice. “We’re at a point where we really need to explain what happened. Most of us have a misunderstanding about the whole thing.”
For a long time Green has asserted that it’s impossible to fully appreciate the history of Charleston — indeed, the entire marshy Southeast coast — without acknowledging fully the contributions of the black rice growers.
“I would like during the presentation of the requiem for every church bell to ring,” he said.
After all, society must remember who built the churches, who maintained the structures and their surroundings, who forged the iron gates and laid the cobblestones, Green said. That now-historic steeples shot into the sky thanks to the wealth generated by the rice economy, an economy made possible by black people "unburied, unmourned, unmarked."