African American innovators who revolutionized US agriculture, food
Many agricultural practices, innovations and foods that enslaved people from West Africa brought to America, or were developed by their descendants, remain unrecognized, despite having revolutionized the way people in the US and other nations eat, farm and garden, The Associated Press said in a report.
Among the medicinal and food staples introduced by the African diaspora were sorghum, millet, African rice, yams, black-eyed peas, watermelon, eggplant, okra, sesame and kola nut, whose extract was a main ingredient in the original Coca-Cola recipe.
Whether captives smuggled seeds and plants from aboard slave ships or captains purchased them in Africa for planting in America, key components of the West African diet also journeyed along the Middle Passage across the Atlantic.
After long days spent working on the plantation’s fields, many enslaved people grew their own gardens to supplement their meager rations.
“The plantation owners could then force them to show them how to grow those foods,” said Judith Carney, a professor of geography at UCLA and co-author of “In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World” (University of California Press, 2011).
“Those crops would then become commodities,” said Carney, who spent a decade tracing such food origins by reconciling oral history with written documents.
It’s no coincidence, then, that “many of the agricultural practices seen in Africa were also happening in the South [of the US],” said Michael W. Twitty, culinary historian and James Beard-winning author of “The Cooking Gene”.
Multicropping (growing different types of plants in one plot), permaculture (emulating natural ecosystems) and planting on mounds (arguably the precursor of berms) can be traced to African agricultural practices, said Twitty, who has helped establish the Sankofa Heritage Garden, a living replica of the type of garden grown by enslaved people during that era.
History did not record many inventions of enslaved Africans, in no small part because slaveowners often claimed credit. Some, however, were recognized, as were the accomplishments of many who came after them.