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Food and Survival in Her Books and Her Life

Food and Survival in Her Books and Her Life

Peek into Judith Carney’s background and you can understand her interests. "In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa's Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World," co-written with her husband, is one of two winners of the most recent Douglass prize, awarded to the best book written in English on slavery or abolition.

By Wendy Soderburg for UCLA Today

When Judith Carney recently accepted the Frederick Douglass Book Prize for her work, “In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World” (UC Press, 2009), she aptly quoted the American social reformer and former slave for whom the prize is named.

“I have often been so pinched with hunger as to dispute with old ‘Nep,’ the dog, for the crumbs which fell from the kitchen table. Many times have I followed with eager step the waiting-girl when she shook the tablecloth, to get the crumbs and small bones flung out for the dogs and cats,” Douglass had said about his years in bondage.

In the Shadow of Slavery

Hunger was Douglass’ “constant companion, as it was for many people of African descent enslaved in the Americas,” said Carney, a UCLA professor of geography. “In its popular imagery, Africa has always been a hungry continent, one that has long failed to feed its own. But this was not always so.”  

Carney’s book, “In the Shadow of Slavery,” describes in compelling detail how, in ancient times, Africa domesticated many important food crops that today grace tables all over the world: sorghum, millet, a species of rice, yams, black-eyed peas, tamarind, okra, coffee and kola, the second ingredient of the world’s most popular soft drink.  

What was fascinating, Carney said, was how this all happened. During the 350 years of the transatlantic slave trade, some 35,000 voyages transported more than 12 million Africans to the Americas. There was no way the captives would have survived without sufficient food for the long Atlantic crossing, so the ship’s captains purchased food that would keep their prisoners alive.  

The book describes how Africa’s domesticated plants and animals — loaded onto the ships for the voyages — proved remarkably well-suited to the New World’s tropical environment. When some ships arrived with excess provisions, the first generations of New World Africans used these opportunities to plant familiar grains and root crops.  

“These humble plots became, in effect, the botanical gardens of the Atlantic world’s dispossessed,” Carney said. “It was here that plantation owners and European naturalists discovered African crops with which they had no previous familiarity.” Before long, Carney added, enslaved female cooks were stealthily introducing African foods to the planters’ tables.  

“In the Shadow of Slavery,” written by Carney and her husband, Richard Rosomoff, is a co-winner of the $25,000 Douglass prize, along with a book written by Siddharth Kara, Harvard University's fellow on human trafficking. Presented by Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition and by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the Douglass award is the most generous history prize in the field and is given for the best book written in English on slavery or abolition.  

It’s somehow fitting that Carney — whose previous book was “Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas” (Harvard University Press, 2001) — would win a prize for a book on food.  

“I always had an interest in agronomy, or food systems. That was my original interest in graduate school, and it remains my principal interest — how people in very different environments and in different cultures across the world have met their subsistence needs for food,” she said. “I also had a real interest in understanding the issue of hunger and why it is that some parts of the world are hungry.”  

Peek into Carney’s background and you can easily understand her interest. Her father died of a heart attack at age 39, leaving her immigrant mother with five children under the age of 6. The family got by on welfare and Carney’s father’s social security checks, but there were times when they didn’t have enough to eat.

As the oldest child, Carney recalled wanting to deliver her family from poverty. She studied hard at school and was thrilled to receive a scholarship to Michigan State University. But just a month later, she received devastating news — her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Three months later, her mother died.  

Carney, just 18 at the time, was ready to abandon her education to fight for custody of her brothers, who had been placed in an orphanage. (Her sister had already been placed with a family.) But the judge refused her request.  

“I remember him saying to me, ‘It’s a wonderful thing you want to do, but this is an opportunity that very few people get — a scholarship to college. And I want you to take advantage of it,’ ” Carney recalled. “It seemed so mean at the time, and I thought society was so harsh, but now I wish I could write him and thank him. He did me a favor.”

Carney graduated with a B.A. from Michigan State University and went on to receive master’s and Ph.D. degrees in geography from UC Berkeley. In 1988, she joined UCLA’s Department of Geography as an assistant professor, where she’s remained ever since. She’s currently researching 17th- and 18th-century plants in Central Baja that were cultivated by Jesuit missionaries to produce the wine they used during the celebration of Mass.  

“I started from a very naive perspective, but the quest and the questions took me in so many interesting directions and into so many different parts of the world,” Carney said. “I’ve been privileged to have experienced so many poor, but dignified, people in my life, and that has just moved me profoundly, to the degree that I can tell a story that merits broader understanding.  

“It’s a story of peace and reconciliation and hope for us all that we can talk about things that have been so wrong and painful in the past.”

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