Meaning and History of Work is Topic of RIT’s Conable Lecture Series Dec. 5

Walter Hawthorne shares his thoughts on the ‘black rice thesis’

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Walter Hawthorne

Rochester Institute of Technology’s Conable Distinguished Lecture Series in International Studies, which welcomes scholars to campus to shed light on topics affecting communities and citizens from around the globe, continues with a talk by Walter Hawthorne, professor of African history at Michigan State University. Hawthorne presents “Black Rice Debate Reconsidered: The Cultural Meaning of Work in African Communities on Both Sides of the Atlantic in the 18th Century,” 4 p.m. Dec. 5, in Golisano Hall auditorium.

Hawthorne is known for supporting the “black rice thesis,” which states that skilled rice farmers from Africa’s Upper Guinea coast introduced the technology that became important for the establishment and expansion of 18th-century rice-based plantation systems in lowland South Carolina and Georgia. In his talk, Hawthorne will reframe the debate by considering the cultural meaning that work had for Africans.

Hawthorne believes that in their homeland, Upper Guineans never performed hard work for “hard work’s sake” and adds that they labored long hours because society rewarded those who did so and punished those who did not. According to Hawthorne, the American plantation system stripped away social rewards, making rice labor for white masters little more than drudgery. In making these arguments, he opens up questions about why skilled African agriculturalists would have applied knowledge they held to rice production in the Americas.

Hawthorne’s areas of research include Upper Guinea, the Atlantic and Brazil, as well as the history of slavery and the slave trade. Much of his research has focused on African agricultural practices, religious beliefs and family structures in the Old and New Worlds.

His first book, Planting Rice and Harvesting Slaves: Transformations along the Guinea-Bissau Coast, 1400–1900, explores the impact of interactions with the Atlantic, and particularly slave trading, on small-scale, decentralized societies. His most recent book, From Africa to Brazil: Culture, Identity, and an Atlantic Slave Trade 1600-1830, examines the slave trade from Upper Guinea to Amazonia Brazil. His work has also been published in the Journal of African History, Luso-Brazilian Review, Slavery and Abolition, Africa, Journal of Global History and American Historical Review.

All talks in this series are free and open to the community.

The Conable Distinguished Lecture Series is presented by RIT’s Office of the Provost, international studies program and the College of Liberal Arts. The Barber B. Conable Jr. Endowed Chair in International Studies was made possible by a starting gift from the Starr Foundation.

For more information about the lecture series, contact Benjamin Lawrance, Conable Chair in International Studies, at