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Black Botany: The Nature of Black Experience (2020): The Cotton Plant and Enslaved Labor

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 Cotton Plant and Enslaved Labor

Cotton (Gossypium) stood at the center of the most exploitative production complex in human history: slavery. The physical anatomy of the plant defined how people laboring to harvest it experienced the task. Tightly planted cotton required people of smaller stature that could move through the rows with minimum damage to the bolls. Because the bolls ripen for harvesting from the lower to the upper stems, enslavers managing plantations thought Black women and children offered the best means to maximize harvesting output.

The pericarp or wall of the fluffy cotton boll becomes hard and sharp as it dries. The bolls’ softness hides the reality of Black experience of handpicking cotton. Men, women and children bent over for up to 18 hours a day, harvesting cotton under extreme duress with the everyday physical threat of violence as the unforgiving pericarp cut and scratched their bare skin.


Gossypium hirsutum 

Le specie dei cotoni.

Parlatore, Filippo, (1816-1877).  

Florence: Stamperia Reale, 1866.


A Cotton Ball

Rice’s Seeds advertising

trade card

Jerome B. Rice & Co.: Cambridge, NY, ca. 1880.


This seed trade card is an example of the anti-black visual representations that both reflected and shaped attitudes towards people of color in post-slavery America. Racial distortions and the blurring of nature with Black people is a continuity of racial hierarchies suggesting that Black people are inferior to white people. The derogatory imagery enables people to absorb stereotypes, which in turn allows them to ignore and condone racism, injustice, and discrimination.





[Black women and men laboring on a cotton plantation]

Plowing through; the story of the Negro in agriculture.

Hullinger, Edwin. New York: Morrow, 1940.


[Herbarium specimen]

Gossypium hirsutum

NYBG William & Lynda Steere Herbarium.