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LuEsther T. Mertz Library
Plant & Research Guides

Black Botany: The Nature of Black Experience (2020): The Rice Plant and Black Knowledge

Black Botany: The Nature of Black Experience seeks to acknowledge the complex relationship between enslaved Black people, nature and the colonial environment and reconsider the conscious omission of Black knowledge of the natural world.

The Rice Plant and Black Knowledge

Historically, rice (Oryza sativa) has a long association with originating in Asia, but another species of rice (Oryza glaberrima) became a significant crop produced in colonial South Carolina and the Greater Caribbean. In West Africa, people knew how to grow rice by the “dry land” method, without using the irrigation systems method used in Asia.

In the late 17th century, when Europeans settled South Carolina, demand for labor with rice-growing techniques increased. While physical ability was a main factor for plantation owners and managers in selecting African people for enslavement, Black women and men were also chosen because of their specialist knowledge. Women were especially valuable for their role in rice production. Using their own knowledge of the environment, men and women who escaped enslavement survived by growing rice as a staple part of their diet in Suriname and Jamaica.

The circulation of West African knowledge of rice in the Americas highlights how Black knowledge was transferred, and how communities of Black people developed new cultural and social values as a consequence of surviving in an exploitative slave complex.


“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.”

The Myth of the Negro Past (1958)

 Melville Herskovits


 [Herbarium specimen]

Oryza sativa L.

NYBG William and Lynda Steere Herbarium.



Oryza sativa

Vietz, Ferdinand Bernhard, (1772-1815)

Icones plantarum medico-oeconomico-technologicarum

Vienna: Schrämbl, 1820.