At BLACK PEARL, we believe that Cultural Sustainability provides an opportunity for immense education. In the case of storytelling, it can reposition the stories we think we know and the history we believe we understand, alongside the holders of knowledge we can recognise. In the context of a braided style, now considered fashionable, it unveils scientific knowledge, a form of communication, and an ingenious knowledge transfer that has benefited generations globally through the provision of food, all thanks to the ingenuity of West African women.
The film “Common Ground” explores how regenerative agriculture can help heal the soil, our health and the planet. In it, there is a section exploring the practice of African women braiding crop seeds into their hair before the harrowing sea voyage as slaves is a poignant testament to their resilience and resourcefulness.
Food, Culture & Sustenance
While specific details may vary, historical accounts suggest that African women often braided seeds such as okra, cowpeas, yams, and rice into their hair during the transatlantic slave trade. These seeds held significant cultural and nutritional value, and their introduction to new lands played a crucial role in diversifying agricultural practices. The act of bringing these seeds served as a form of resilience and cultural preservation, leaving a lasting impact on the agricultural landscape of the regions where they were planted.
This remarkable act served as a silent but powerful form of resistance, preserving not only seeds but also cultural heritage. Once in the new land, these seeds became a symbol of hope and a link to their roots, contributing to the agricultural diversity and sustenance of the communities they were forced into.
Credit: The History Of Black Women’s Hair, Crowned Ladies
This historical anecdote underscores the profound ways in which individuals, even in the face of extreme adversity, find ways to assert their identity and contribute to the shaping of their destinies. Many African women braided rice or seeds into their hair so they’d at least have a small amount of food for sustenance in captivity or if attempting to escape.
These seeds were securely transported to the New World, emerging as a primary method for cultivating the rice crop across the Americas, from Brazil to South Carolina. Research indicates that the success of rice farming can be predominantly attributed to West African women. Their expertise and practices extended beyond seed transportation to encompass the cultivation of the plant, playing a pivotal role in supporting a lucrative yet exploitative plantation economy founded on slavery.
The early colonists in South Carolina lacked knowledge of rice farming. While conventional Western historical accounts often credit the colonists with a stroke of genius for their ability to mass-produce rice, UCLA researcher Judith A. Carney reveals that it was the enslaved West Africans, with generations of rice farming expertise, who shared their knowledge. This transfer of knowledge played a crucial role in the development of the plantation economy in the U.S.
Historians, until the 20th century, widely accepted the belief that rice was introduced to West Africa by the Portuguese, who brought it from Asia. Despite mounting evidence indicating African cultivation of rice predating European colonial presence, the prevailing narrative insisted on Asia as the origin, attributing the introduction to merchants from the Middle East in their travels across Africa.
Nevertheless, the 2008 African rice genome study and additional linguistic evidence challenge this perspective. Research now demonstrates that West African rice farmers, particularly women, had honed the practice for generations before external influences. This redresses a narrative about holders of scientific knowledge from the Global South, pushes for the realisation of a different, more sophisticated pre-slavery perception of West Africans, and exemplifies why a lens on cultural sustainability is crucial.
“The entertainment industry, through films, documentaries, and more, which better reflect facts, provides us with the chance to set the record straight by properly documenting the world-altering contributions of culturally representative groups throughout human history.” – Samata Pattinson
Style, Culture & Sustainable Development
Today, the art of braiding, specifically flat braids or flat cornrows used to conceal grains, remains a chic and uncomplicated style embraced by black women across the globe. Exploring cultural significance often unveils insights into the history and contributions that have shaped life as we know it. In this instance, it forms a unique connection between style, identity, survival and agricultural development.
Credit: Yang Visuals