Jonathan Green wants to start a conversation. It's a conversation about rice and a conversation about history. And more than anything, it's about a vibrant West African-based culture that flourished for over two centuries in the Lowcountry of South Carolina but is seldom discussed today.
The need for that discussion was the impetus for the Lowcountry Rice Forum, a three-day event that kicks off Thursday evening and brings together scholars, artists, educators, and cooks. The larger goal, as Green articulates it, is to get people together "to have a conversation about the landscape of the South and how it came to be."
It's a legacy that Green, the noted Lowcountry painter who grew up in Gardens Corner near Beaufort, had glimpses of — if fleeting and incomplete — in his childhood.
"I heard about it all of my life, actually," he says. "I knew of my grandparents and their peers as independent rice farmers. They grew rice for themselves and to share with the community."
But as an adult, he realized that the images of this culture were not being shared. "For me, as a visual person, there's been a lot of unclear information about who we are as a people, where we come from, and why no one ever talks about it."
The problem, he is convinced, is the barrier of slavery.
"Children are given two haunting images in school," he explains. "Plantation owners and slaves ... These are the earliest conversations that our children have in grammar school.
"It's always in the tone of plantations, slaves, and ownership but never any discussion of West African culture," he says. "[It's] a disservice to our collective whole as a people in the South."
The forum will offer multiple perspectives on that collective whole. It's being staged by the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project, a nonprofit organization headed by Green, in partnership with Middleton Place, the Culinary Institute of Charleston, and the College of Charleston.
It begins, appropriately, with the eating of rice. On Thursday evening at the Culinary Institute's downtown Palmer Campus, chefs from the Institute will prepare a selection of dishes from the "minds and pantries" of Glenn Roberts, the founder of artisan grain company Anson Mills, and David Shields, a University of South Carolina professor and authority on rice and Southern foodways.
Friday has more of a scholarly focus, with a series of panel discussions at the College of Charleston's Stern Center that will address the economics of the rice business, methods of production, and the lasting impact of that rice economy and culture on today's world.
Finally, on Saturday, the forum moves out to Middleton Place for a more physical and interactive experience. There will be hands-on demonstrations of rice harvesting and explorations of the cultural legacies of the planting culture, featuring African dancers, drummers, and craftspeople. Following a traditional Lowcountry lunch buffet, the symposium wraps with talks on the place of rice in Lowcountry foodways and the current state of research on rice fields today.
"We have old rice fields now that stretch from North Carolina to Florida," Green says. "They form the largest man-made earth sculpture on the planet. And we don't really know how to recognize it and talk about it because we are so caught up in the negativity and the stigma. We can't talk about rice as a culture."
The forum will hopefully begin that new way of talking about rice. It runs from Sept. 12-14, and as of press time tickets were still available. They're $125 for the full event, while Friday-only tickets are available for just $25. You can register and find more information about the schedule of events at the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project website: lowcountryriceculture.org.
Overlapping with the Lowcountry Rice Forum is the Carolina Gold Rice Harvest at Middleton Place. If you participate in the forum, the harvest activities will be part of the Saturday events. But visitors to the historic plantation can also experience the harvest as part of their paid admission Sept. 12-14.
Middleton Place maintains a quarter-acre field along the Ashley River where it grows genuine Carolina Gold Rice, which was prized throughout the world during the height of the South Carolina rice industry. Following methods used by enslaved African Americans in Lowcountry fields, costumed interpreters will cut the raw rice stalks and demonstrate threshing, pounding, and winnowing. In the plantation stable yard, artisans will demonstrate other skilled crafts from the antebellum period such as pottery, thread-spinning, and cooperage.
The rice harvest activities will take place each day from 10 a.m.-noon and from 1-3 p.m. For more information, call (843) 556-6020 or visit middletonplace.org.