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Ripping off the scab: Edda Fields-Black on becoming an artist

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Ripping off the scab: Edda Fields-Black on becoming an artist

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This interview with Edda Fields-Black comprises part of The 1701 Project, a venture led by The Yale Historical Review.

Fields-Black, Associate Professor, Carnegie Mellon University in the Department of History, has written numerous scholarly studies on the trans-national history of West African rice farmers, including Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora and Rice: Global Networks and New Histories (co-edited with Francesca Bray, Peter Coclanis, and Dagmar Schaeffer), which was awarded the Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2015. From 2012 to 2016, Fields-Black served as a consultant for the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture’s permanent exhibit “Rice Fields of the Lowcountry.” Fields-Black is also a history consultant for the International
African American Museum (scheduled to open in Charleston in 2020) and advised the “From Slavery to Freedom” permanent exhibit at the Senator John Heinz History Center. Fields-Blacks’ latest book is tentatively titled ‘Combee’: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and the Civil War Transformations among the Gullah Geechee (Oxford University Press trade list, advanced contract) which reveals Harriet Tubman’s Civil War activities, reconstruct the communities which were freed from enslavement on Lowcountry rice plantations in the June 1863 Combahee River Raid, and show the Civil War transformations among freed Blacks in the Lowcountry whose descendants are known today as the Gullah Geechee. She is executive producer and librettist of Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice, the first full symphonic work about enslavement with three-time Emmy Award winning classical music composer, John Wineglass.

This interview with Edda Fields-Black comprises part of The 1701 Project, a venture led by The Yale Historical Review.

Fields-Black, Associate Professor, Carnegie Mellon University in the Department of History, has written numerous scholarly studies on the trans-national history of West African rice farmers, including Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora and Rice: Global Networks and New Histories (co-edited with Francesca Bray, Peter Coclanis, and Dagmar Schaeffer), which was awarded the Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2015. From 2012 to 2016, Fields-Black served as a consultant for the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture’s permanent exhibit “Rice Fields of the Lowcountry.” Fields-Black is also a history consultant for the International
African American Museum (scheduled to open in Charleston in 2020) and advised the “From Slavery to Freedom” permanent exhibit at the Senator John Heinz History Center. Fields-Blacks’ latest book is tentatively titled ‘Combee’: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and the Civil War Transformations among the Gullah Geechee (Oxford University Press trade list, advanced contract) which reveals Harriet Tubman’s Civil War activities, reconstruct the communities which were freed from enslavement on Lowcountry rice plantations in the June 1863 Combahee River Raid, and show the Civil War transformations among freed Blacks in the Lowcountry whose descendants are known today as the Gullah Geechee. She is executive producer and librettist of Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice, the first full symphonic work about enslavement with three-time Emmy Award winning classical music composer, John Wineglass.

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Ripping off the scab: Edda Fields-Black on becoming an artist

  1. 1. INTERVIEW RIPPING OFF THE SCAB Edda Fields-Black on becoming an Artist Interview by Henry Jacob Transcribed by Margaret HedemanJuly 24, 2020 I will start with a simple request: please describe yourself in two sentences, one personal, one profes- sional. I am a historian of transnational African his- tory, specializing in the transnational history of West African rice farmers, West African peasants in the pre-colonial period, Upper Guinea Coast, and Blacks who were enslaved on rice plantations in coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Personally, I am a wife and mo- ther and cancer survivor and dragon boater and salsa dancer. I’ll start with the professional and move to the per- sonal. Transnational is a key word for you. Please expand upon your path to becoming a transnational historian. From the start of graduate school I was inte- rested in the Atlantic world and the African Diaspora. In particular, I studied pre-colonial West Africa and the cultures that developed in the New World among people of African descent. In particular, I study the relationship between the Upper Guinea Coast of West African and the coast of South Carolina and Georgia during the antebellum period. I use rice as a prism to connect these areas. In Deep Roots, your first book, you employ rice as a prism with great success to link West Africa and the American South. In it, you put in conversation the ingenious technologies that pre-colonial societies on the Rice Coast developed and the techniques that enslaved Africans used on 18th century plantations. Notably, you focus on rice as an artist and as an academic. How have you married your passions for scholarship and music? I ran out of space because I should have described myself professionally also as an r. Edda Fields-Black, a specialist on the trans-national history of West African rice farmers and a History professor at Carnegie Mellon,sat down with Henry Jacob this summer to discuss her studies,her art,and their intersection.Her latest works include the forthcoming book 'Combee', as well as the symphony Unburied,Unmourned,Unmarked:RequiemforRice,whichsheproduced and composed with Emmy-Award winning composer John Wineglass. D 1YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW 1701 Project
  2. 2. Edda Fields-Black is an Associate Professor in Carnegie Mellon University's Department of History. Photo courtesy of the Carnegie Mellon University Department of History artist! My project Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice is the first symphonic work about slavery. For a couple of years, I've collaborated with John Wineglass, a three-time Emmy award-winner. This project gives me an opportunity to sit at the feet of some amazing artists like John. I wrote the libretto based on primary sources I have already explored as a scholar. Here, I interpret them through an artistic perspective and try to bring voice to the experiences and lives of enslaved people on rice plantations. This project has changed the way I look at history. It’s changed my audience. It's changed my approach. Now I place much more emphasis on storytelling. I did not learn this in graduate school! You mentioned that you did not learn this as a doc- toral candidate. How did you transition to see pri- mary sources as an artist? I had to go back to school. And I don't mean school school. I got a little pot of funding from Carnegie Mellon and local Pittsburgh foundations. Because Carnegie Mellon has a very prestigious college of fine arts, I found many instiga- tors in the heads of the school of music and the school of drama to help me with my little crazy idea. Through the CMU Center for Arts in Society I took the next step to making a production. After that, I went to the Creative Nonfiction Confe- rence in Pittsburgh and the Hurston Wright Foun- dation at Howard University. I attended a couple of conferences on creative writing. Journalists, poets, and others who write for a living gave me great critical feedback. This helped me understand that it's okay to write from the I perspective, from the first person as opposed to third person. You nurtured your creative talent by interacting with other artists. But you seem to have already re- cognized the importance of storytelling itself. Do any experiences — perhaps from your childhood — linger in your head? I really don't know that I did. My dissertation centered around my methodology and the sources I collected. My dissertation had no narra- tive flow. From the bones of that skeleton I wrote Deep Roots. This is the reality for Africanists. It's almost like being a hunter versus being what we are today. We go to Whole Foods and we buy stuff and it's already cooked and packaged. You don’t have to go out and kill it. When you're an Africanist, particularly for the pre-colonial period, you literally have to go out and kill it. I had to find dying, non-written languages, “kill” the data be- fore I could analyze and interpret it. The emphasis lies on the original source material, not on telling a story. After publishing Deep Roots, I really wanted to write a story. At that point, I didn't know how to get where I wanted to be. We discussed the value of the writing workshops. I know you have also collaborated with colleagues in museums in recent years. What have you learned from these curators? How have they helped you reshape your craft to a wider audience? In 2014, I had a fellowship at the Smithsonian, which marked the beginning of long-standing relationship with Dr. Paul Gardullo, the Director of the Smithsonian Natio- nal African-American Museum’s Center for the Study of Global Slavery. Paul asked me to be the advisor for NMAAHC’s permanent rice exhibit, which allowed me to see how he tells a story to millions of people who walk through the museum in a year. As a cura- tor you have a limited amount of space to tell a story, “This is the reality for Africanists.It's almost like being a hunter versus being what we are today.” ON THE NEXT PAGE 2 EDDA FIELDS-BLACK
  3. 3. evoke emotion, and teach history to viewers. On the whole, this was a great opportunity to sit at Paul’s feet and learn. When it came to the Requiem for Rice, I actually wanted to be the artist and tell the story. Working with the Smithsonian and other museums served as a pre- cursor to the Requiem for Rice and got me thinking about storytelling in a different way. You have used the phrase “sit at someone’s feet” a few times when discussing your evolution as a crea- tor. How does it feel now to be the creator and to execute your vision from start to finish? It’s a good feeling, but sometimes quite scary and a little exhaus- ting. I have never, ever done anything like this before. We all stay in our lanes. I wrote the libretto and eve- rything is based on the libretto. I raised the money, I wrote up the grant proposals, and I'm the spokesper- son for the work. The composer’s area is the musical, the film maker’s area is the visual. I don't try to tell others how to compose or film. That being said, it is interesting to see things through each other's eyes. As a historian, the emphasis remains on the sources. You're in the archives, you’re interviewing people, rea- ding newspapers, finding the different kinds of prima- ry sources we use. With artists, the emphasis is about the experiential. I developed a scab so that I can stand in front of my students and teach this material about slavery every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday for an entire semester, two semesters a year, for many years. I snatched that scab off by becoming an artist. I had to experience those emotions again and then translate them into words. For me, the creative process is about being willing to be vulnerable and to go to places emotionally. in order to take the audience to certain places, I had to go to those places. It’s not always fun and not always safe, but it’s important. I'm principal investigator for a team of scientists and so sometimes the scientist, the artist, and I, the historian, go out to the rice fields together. This environment has become second nature to me. It has become over the years of my career, but not something that I paid at- tention to in this way. I have been to the rice fields so many times in West Africa and South Carolina, but I never paid attention to the sounds of the birds and texture of the trees, leaves, soils, and grasses as I do when I am in the rice fields with artists and scientists. I thank my collaborators for opening my senses. Sometimes it's frustrating because artists, historians, and scientists can think very differently. We don’t always get along and I, as executive producer, have to solve this problem quickly so we can get back to work and get this thing done. On some days I threatened that I was going to go back to the archives and sit by myself because that's what historians do. There would be days when I thought I would find comfort in sitting alone in my carrel, but I haven't done it yet. This discussion of your new sensory awareness of your surroundings fascinates me. Do you remember any revelatory moment as you peeled off the scab and revisited the rice fields? Last August, John Wine- glass and I went to rice fields in South Carolina with one of my scientist colleagues down there, Dr. Travis Folk of Folk Land Management, Inc[ELF1] . Travis always tries to open my eyes and get me to see my sur- roundings, but I rarely understand what he's saying. John Wineglass wanted to be in the rice fields at the mosquitoyist time of the year. When we went to the rice fields I started to recognize the trees for the first time. I told them, “Oh my goodness, those are Cypress trees and that's Tupelo and that's this and that's that” – I could totally see it! Now I'm working on a few chapters about Harriet Tubman before the Combahee River Raid. This re- minds me of another oh my goodness moment. Last December, I was on the Combahee in South Caroli- na. Some friends got me access to the plantations that were raided. I was on the Combahee River and oh my 4 EDDA FIELDS-BLACK “As a historian,the emphasis remains on the sources...With artists,the emphasis is about the experiential.”
  4. 4. gosh there was nothing like it. I could literally imagine the gunboats coming up that River. Of course, you can read about it. But being there and seeing it and expe- riencing it was just amazing -- there is nothing like seeing it for yourself. You see landscape as a necessary part of your pro- cess as a historian and artist. Of course, you can only work from home now. How are you adapting your writing plans to our quarantine reality? You need to create an ambience to tell history and unfor- tunately, I have not been able to travel to the Maryland Eastern Shore or any of the sites Tubman visited on the Underground Railroad . My husband and I have two school-age children, and they have been out of school for months. This has been tough on my writing schedule. I could see the effects of quarantine on my writing schedule approaching like a 18-wheel truck. To side step it, I just get up before my children. I'm awake at 6:15 and write until 1:15. I block those hours off so I can focus. In February, I planned to write three and a half new chapters about Harriet Tubman over the summer. I'm not where I projected, but I'm still making progress and that's about all you can ask for at this point. The Carnegie Mellon library has really been wonderful. Thankfully I'm writing about the 19th century Afri- can-American history and a lot of sources are digi- tized. Thank God for Amazon, that's all I'll say. The CMU Library has been able to get what I need and get it delivered to my inbox or to my door. Also, I had a glut of pension files that I hadn't transcribed. Neither my Research Assistant nor I have been able to travel. I tasked him with transcribing these sources and we have made some amazing finds. We’ve found the names of the Tubman spies, scouts, and pilots who Tubman recruited and actually conducted the raid — that's a silver lining to covid-19. You have to look for them. But it has been unex- pectedly fruitful in many ways for me. I agree, and I think that sometimes the things that you don't expect can be the most rewarding. Even though we would not have chosen this under any circumstances. No, definitely not. Do you look forward to any aca- demic, artistic, or personal events in the next few months? Do you have hope for November or the school year? Do I see hope? I haven't been in a very hopeful place as of late. The killing of George Floyd was the final straw, but there has been a shift. Shifts of this magnitude are never going to be comfortable. In fact, they can be quite painful. COVID-19 has been particularly painful for communities of color. But I am hopeful that we're going to come out on the other side of this adversity and recalibrate toward equality. Full equality for everyone. That’s my hope. If not, we would have gone through all of this for nothing. I have one more question, and this is on a different, lighter note. Of course, recalibration for equality of opportunity is of utmost importance, but I must circle back to one thing you mentioned in the be- ginning: dragon boating. My dad has been very into dragon boating for a few years. There are very few people he can connect with about dragon boating, so I needed to bring this up before letting you go. I got into dragon boating because I'm a breast cancer survivor. The paddling is very good exercise to help strengthen the muscles after women and men have had cancer surgery on the breast and lymph nodes. I also wanted a community, and I now have a floating support group. I enjoy physical activity and the out- doors so it brought all of that together for me. Unfor- tunately, my team has not been able to get out in the boat this summer due to COVID-19. Has your dad been out this season at all? Dragon boating is not in the cards, because you can- not practice social distancing in the boat. He is, by the way, a fan of paddle boarding. That’s great, well I'm going to look into that. Our season has been vir- tually canceled. I'm on a team in Charleston also and their season goes until late November. There’s a slim chance and they also get back in the water sooner as you can imagine because of the weather. I might paddle in Charleston before November. It’s a very slim chance because people down there are not wearing their masks but if I hope that by March the Charleston dragon boat team will be back in the water. I miss it this summer, I really do. On that note of having communities beyond the work world, it’s been a joy to connect with you and discuss your brilliance as a historian, artist, and dragon boater. Thank you very much, and I’ll add ar- tist to my first sentence with another borrowed semi- colon! 5YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW

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