The Uses of Beauty: On “Daughters of the Dust” and Diasporic Inheritance

In a 1992 interview with Houston A. In light of its revival, we might be tempted to ask: “Is it politically relevant to our contemporary moment?” These questions, narrow-minded as they are, have followed Julie Dash throughout her career. We’d rather imagine that there are natural borders to national identity. Most don’t know these islands exist, just as most don’t know that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. I’ve often thought: how simple, how stupid! Like Eli, Baldwin had taken a bat to his father’s bottle tree. Again, a misunderstanding: “You’re a natural fool, Haagar Peazant. Someone jumping around … four women? Cousin Haagar doesn’t bother with fine words: “My children ain’t gonna be like those old Africans […] I want my daughters to grow up to be decent somebodies […] I don’t even want my girls to hear about all that.” For Nana Peazant, “those old Africans” are the force that will “feed your head with wisdom” and their sweat is libation “here in this soil […] how can you leave?” For Haagar’s daughter Iona, not all that’s past is dominated by the idea of Africa, glorified or disparaged. Much has been made of Julie Dash’s decision to mark the persistence of slavery in the bodies of her characters not with the familiar braille of scars on the back, but with fingers permanently purpled by indigo’s precious dye. Immaterial, she’s the dream of Eula’s unborn child. “All that yellow gone to waste,” the Peazant women whisper, on a “ruint” woman. What would it mean to understand our most basic sensations — a breath, a breeze, a dream — as mothers, fathers, memories, and messages? The past, too, is a cross. ¤
Is Daughters of the Dust “useful”? The sampling disallowed in Dash’s early career returns in Jay-Z’s single. Under conditions of dispossession, she is learning — and teaching — how to touch her own spirit. It has directly inspired two major works of protest art from Beyoncé and Solange Knowles. But he comes to see that the bottles, as symbolic vessels, can’t be broken. We might think of its elitism as a cause, rather than an effect, of its imagined audience. […] Call on those old Africans and they’ll come to you when you least expect them. “What is that you’re wearing?” asks Nana Peazant, like my mother asks, touching my new plaid coat, after all these winters away. It’s a communication between generations and across migrant trajectories that link Cuba to the West Indies to Florida and beyond. Women in Victorian dresses sitting in oak trees. Her lover, Trula, is an extravagantly beautiful light-skinned redhead whose presence is impossible to ignore even as her story remains untold. Generations down the line, life in diaspora still does not come with an instruction manual. Myths are made in this murk. But when artists like Beyoncé tap into this living archive, an opportunity becomes available to articulate a submerged lineage so that others can find and fashion their own links to it. In 1858, the last recorded human cargo to come to the New World docked on Jekyll Island. I even hear Dash in Jay-Z’s sample of Nina’s Simone’s “Four Women” on “The Story of O.J.,” his new album’s most talked-about track. In the past year, the film has been retouched, released on DVD, and rescreened in art houses across the country, including New York City’s Film Forum and Los Angeles’s Laemmle Theaters. HB: Had you thought through the gender issues? H. In his own moment at the crossroads of culture and capital, Arthur Jafa showed his latest project, a collage film called Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death, at galleries including Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in Harlem and The Serpentine in London. The dangers and disorientation of intimacy in diaspora are just as keen, if different, for the characters in Daughters of the Dust as they are for us, the movie-going audience. But the body is the bedrock of survival, and for Nana survival is what matters:
Eli, I’m trying to teach you how to touch your own spirit. On the Sea Islands, there’s a lot that outlasted the official story: the slave trade, for example. There are also black-centered narratives, told and untold, digging deep in the country, between islands, or in urban enclaves less iconic than Compton, “Chiraq,” or pre-barista Bed-Stuy. When he takes a bat to the bottle tree in frustrated disappointment — iconoclasm is always disappointment — Haagar celebrates this destruction as the destruction of the home of the old souls. A semitropical southern landscape mystically empty of white figures. The lives of the body always exceed the body’s dispossession. In a climactic scene of Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, a young woman in the Peazant family declares, “We are the daughters of these old dusty things Nana is carrying in a tin can.” All three of these women regard themselves, in some essential sense, as waste. The family can also share, and shares with us, an appetite for fresh crab, corn, and gumbo — an appetite for sea breeze. It may not eliminate difficulty, but we can hope that it lessens our resistance to it. The key is the capacity to move into sensation when memory is not available, and into memory when sensation is not. They, too, struggle to name where they are in time and space. Who will stay? Two cousins who have already made the journey to the mainland return to Dataw Island to organize the family’s northern expedition. Though fiction, Daughters of the Dust emerges from and returns us to a documentary practice — there’s research conjuring this world. Desire flourishes in the distance between her image and my lack of explanation for it. Jerriod Avant and Safiya Sinclair, of Jesmyn Ward’s body of work on rural Mississippi, of Moonlight’s Miami. In real life, the stain of the indigo plant wouldn’t last on the skin so long. It must be done on the sly in another language in order to survive and develop as a practice. Remembering is not enough. In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin considers his inheritance:
All of my father’s Biblical texts and songs, which I had decided were meaningless, were arranged before me at his death like empty bottles, waiting to hold the meaning which life would give them for me. I was not free to explore the possibilities of filmmaking … as students we would submit ideas of what we would like to do. And yet, they also suggest that what seems like waste may well be essential. “We don’t” always “know where the recollections are” or how to recollect them. But her music box is a migrant’s ritual object. What does it mean to hold steady in minority experience while also charting new waters? Daughters of the Dust is “priceless”: it was the first film directed by a black woman to receive nationwide theatrical release in the United States. It’s difficult to know whether the child speaking in the voice-over comes from the land of the living or the dead. Like Hurston’s “nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail,” it has borne the burden of being a “first.” Daughters of the Dust involves its own characters in the argument over how best to carry this weight — the unbearable weight of diasporic inheritance. I am merely wishing to escape myself. Isolated from the mainland United States, people with intimate ties to Africa incubated a creolized Geechee-Gullah culture that “remembered and recalled” old world words, foodways, religious practices, and aesthetic sensibilities. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, she says: “Films I was seeing at the time weren’t really made for African Americans, they were made to explain our history to others.” I can’t help but think of her nationwide audience as hags busy deciphering the writing on the wall. The rigor of this remembering can stop the breath: in 1997, a Gullah woman named Mary Moran made news when anthropologists linked an old song she sang — passed mouth to mouth through her maternal line — to a Mende funeral hymn in Sierra Leone. JULY 21, 2017

You don’t have to understand it
but you will carry it anyway. JD: I didn’t want to think about it. ¤
For most Americans, the world’s horizon stops short of the Sea Islands where Daughters of the Dust takes place. This is the reason why many of us were disappointed, if not surprised, by the ways Parkwood Entertainment did not foreground some of the artists — Messy Mya, documentarians Chris Black and Abteen Begheri, Yoruba priest Maximiliano Goiz — that inspired “Formation” and Lemonade. They testify to the troubling persistence of forced labor, as well as the persistence of African modes of life through and beyond the plantation era: both survivals undermine the national desperation to narrate a clean break. The poet Joshua Bennett describes blues as “the space between coerced joy and coerced pain.” Dash transfers the (indigo) blues from the ears to the hands: these blues are not heard, but seen. If the tree has magic, it’s the magic of beauty that mesmerizes memory, the marsh light blurring through the browns, greens, and blues: “You appreciate the bottle tree each day, as you appreciate your loved ones.” But Nana Peazant knows well all that is not — cannot be — contained by these technologies. The Sea Islands might seem like a small place. Women praying on the banks of rivers. Beauty opens a door without making a map. I’m fighting for my life and I’m fighting for yours. But every summer, she would visit her father’s family in Charleston: “I’d listen to relatives speaking Gullah dialects, not really understanding what that was. First, the Spanish. The Peazants do not all agree about what can or cannot be used as an object of ritual. Why would you waste the people’s film stock for something like that? To take the world’s horizon as the ultimate horizon of communication? First, to excavate an alternative history is always a radical challenge to official history, to its content and also to its methods. Daughters of the Dust is the daydreaming I do while moving through my grandmother’s photo albums: is that Titi Justicia, or her upstairs neighbor? In beholding these hands, we’re gripped by all that’s made in captivity. W. Despite its draw, the fantasy of a fresh start remains hazy, obscure, and the examples of life elsewhere offered by Viola and Yellow Mary diverge so sharply that they nearly cross each other out, marking the future with the X of the unknown. “What’s past is prologue,” intones Viola, quoting The Tempest: her desire to photograph the occasion of leave-taking is a desire to lock away the restless power of the Sea Islands. We can attribute some of the difficulty people have in recognizing the political significance of a film like Daughters of the Dust to the national emphasis on the so-called inner city. If we take the Knowles-Carters as one barometer of “mainstream” culture, then womanist lyricism, diasporic deities, Caribbean sounds, modern dance, contemporary poetry, the healing arts, and independent films are in. Christopher, patron saint of travelers. I found out on my own.”
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Dash opens Daughters of the Dust with a gesture that testifies to her own scholarly itinerary, her finding out. Lemonade was directly inspired by Daughters of the Dust. Because you are denied your official history you are forced to excavate your real history even though you can never say that’s what you are doing. Even the cousins who discipline the open sensuality of Yellow Mary and Trula tip their faces back for a kiss of salt, and their bodies seem tense and charged with the energy of their own choices. An example: Yellow Mary could not afford the pink satin music box she saw in the window of a shop for rich women. “There are black people everywhere,” Juan tells Chiron. They’ll hug you and pick you up quick and soft like the warm sweet wind […] let them touch you with the hands of time. The mainland is also the promise of a fresh start, a bid for distance from the ongoing traumas of enslavement: one young woman, Eula, is pregnant not by her husband Eli but by a white landowner who raped her in the woods. I want it to come back. “[Y]ou can never say that’s what you are doing” operates at two levels. That’s how I think about the film: a glimpse of the future, disguised as a ghost of the past. Of course, those far from the halls of power will always carry on avant-garde creative practices that nourish American and global culture, including moviemaking, regardless of institutional recognition. I’m thinking of Daughters of the Dust, of course. The Peazants don’t understand each other and are wounded by their differences. Nobody explained it to me. Dash exhibits a researcher’s patience with everyday life: the long takes that show how history is made through the mundane rapture of repetition, green wheels of okra sliced into a cooking pot. She could not touch it, or turn the little crank that made the music. By the end of the 18th century, the Sea Islands were a network of cotton, rice, and indigo plantations. Women digging for roots. The first frame is not an image, but a text: “At the turn of the century, Sea Island Gullahs, descendants of African captives, remained isolated from the mainland …” When we meet the Peazant family in 1902 on the eve of their migration north — Who will go? Holding the professional title of historian under the tongue slows down the manic, acquisitive, triumphalist pace of “progress” that so often underwrites the narratives of collectivities, especially as they are drafted to serve the nation state. Instead, it’s her Cherokee lover that binds her to the island, imploring, “Consider the memories that we share of growing up together.” And for Yellow Mary, neither the island nor the mainland offer deliverance — “I can’t keep still, got to keep moving” — and the charm she wears around her neck is St. Nana Peazant, the island’s matriarch, is the only one to wear a dress dyed to match her hands: the sign of slavery refashioned as aesthetic distinction. The screenplay is on display as part of the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition on black radical women artists, “We Wanted a Revolution.” And now, at long last, it’s on Netflix. The Sea Islands exist in paradoxical proximities: closer to slavery, closer to freedom. Finally, Solange called upon Arthur Jafa as director of photography for “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair,” two singles from her latest album, A Seat at the Table. ¤
Carina   del Valle Schorske is a poet, essayist, and Spanish language translator at large in New York City. That is what you are doing. But how to determine, under pressure, what is “priceless” and what is “worthless” on the harrowing and ongoing journey that we’ve come to call the African diaspora? The artists collaborating on Beyoncé’s visual album also conjured a world of black women living together in pastoral beauty. In the folklore of the Gullah, lining the walls with newspaper keeps hags and hants at bay: before an evil spirit can harm you, she must read every word. It’s something they can all agree to kiss. Smallwood reminds us:
The African as immigrant was not an inevitable by-product of the traffic in human commodities but rather a creation of his or her own arduous making […] only through the capacity and willingness to invent and experiment — to grow and change the cultural tools carried in memory and create new ones to meet the demands of this new world — could Africans hope to remain recognizable to themselves as human beings. But every point in diaspora is the cutting edge if you have the nerve to touch it. The bottle tree remind us of who was here and who’s gone on. But it’s a charm that remains alive to the dangers of intimacy, the dangers of making black life visible if not legible in a world desperate to seize control of it. With Daughters of the Dust, Dash does not aim to explain. Baker in Transition, she recalls her early days as a filmmaker:
JD: … on the East Coast it was mostly documentary that was going on among black folks. Julie Dash grew up in the Queensbridge Projects in Long Island City. It’s a charm that doesn’t bar the threshold: we can feel the breeze stir the curtains, make the glass of water shiver, watch a woman sleep. And one of mine was of the four women that I drew from Nina Simone’s Ballad, and which I eventually did as a dance piece. But as she herself found as a child, history does not come first; nor does understanding. It’s all around you. “Well, everyone said it’s a beautiful movie … but they don’t understand it”: that’s what Julie Dash heard over and over after Sundance in 1991. In the wake of Lemonade and, weeks later, Kendrick Lamar’s showstopping Grammy performance of “Alright,” several critics were quick to note how immediately the rapper’s performance was celebrated as protest in line with the Movement for Black Lives, while Lemonade had been reduced in popular discourse to the story of a woman scorned. Vastly outnumbered, plantation owners immediately fled to the mainland. I want to know where the boat is going. Rather than calling up the scene of punishment, purple hands point us toward what they touch. Art cinema doesn’t have to belong to the socioeconomic elite, and it certainly does not always emerge from there. The English came next. Second, you yourself might not recognize your own daily practices as history-making. They can only be used. It’s in the music, it’s in the way you talk, it’s in the way you cry, it’s in the way you make love. It’s difficult to sort out who is the cousin and who is the sister and who is married and who is missing among names like Iona and Myown, Pete and Re-Pete, the sweep of sandy hemlines weaving in and out of a line of dancers. Here, it became a play song for children. The history I’ve elaborated here hovers behind the film itself, behind its procession of white dresses, bluish beaches, scraps of song, and veils of Spanish moss. You study on the colors and shapes.” Nana Peazant, here, claims to be less interested in mysticism than in the practical technologies of remembering that work for her. “Why would you do that? As in pockets of Brazil and beyond, the relative isolation of the Sea Islands made them a key site for smugglers who continued to buy and sell stolen people long after the abolition of the international slave trade in 1807. Instead, the film survived underground as a kind of ritual object for an eclectic community of marginalized artists. And it’s difficult to decipher a confidential whisper or quick retort in a dialect whose music keeps a different measure. But he says he’s done with that: “[I]t’s going to be in a tent that is roving around, mostly in working class neighborhoods.”
Poet and scholar Ed Pavlić titled his recent book on James Baldwin’s relationship to black music, Who Can Afford to Improvise? You, too, can become an island in its unlimited stream. “The lyrical mode bridges the distinction between discourse and experience by becoming an experience itself,” writes Pavlić. The Wanderer was not wandering: like all slave ships, its name offers only irony. It turns us toward ourselves. What did I do to be so black and blue? But it’s not just the inner city that’s left behind by upwardly mobile, post-racial narratives. But Audre Lorde famously insisted that “poetry is not a luxury.” I hear her alongside Baldwin, who said, in a 1973 interview with The Black Scholar:
History was someone you touched, you know, on Sunday mornings or in the barbershop. I felt that I was not free to make the kind of films that I wanted to. When it premiered in New York in 1991, it ran for four months straight and sold out weekends. Even when it’s taught — this is how we did it in the old country — you must always map your own place in its shifting archipelago. The mainstream must develop an honest relationship with the margins from which it draws its life force, and to which it might always return: even Beyoncé didn’t get her Grammy. As history would have it, the Sea Islands were also the first place in the United States that slaves were emancipated when federal troops seized the territory in 1861, at the start of the Civil War. It’s a great song, but, sister, you need to get out there and do something.”
The Studio Museum was an essential resource for Julie Dash; their free film program was where she first got her hands on a camera: “All this equipment, and I was allowed to touch it, play with it, and be confused by it […] I was hungry.” But touch, play, confusion, and hunger were disciplined — are still disciplined — by a Moynihan Report perspective that equates black life with the “inner city” (cue Trump), and views the inner city first and foremost as a sociological problem. But it is compounded, as Julie Dash suggests in her Transition interview, by a gendered suspicion of lyricism, or perhaps a suspicion of lyricism mostly when it’s gendered female. Its strategies are syncretic, as when Nana Peazant persuades all but Haagar to receive, as a blessing, an improvised amulet she calls a “hand” tied tightly around the Christian Bible. — the film has already situated them in a deeper time, a wider space. I’m also thinking of the poetry of A. The colonizers of the Caribbean extended their network of haciendas and missions to the barrier islands lacing the southeastern coast of North America, subjecting the indigenous Cherokee to conversion and field labor. It’s a cliché of immigrant experience to say that what we keep is a craving for the food, the feel. One reason that works of art like Daughters of the Dust fall out of the public eye, or never get there in the first place, is that (mostly white) gatekeepers decide in advance that art cinema will not appeal or be relevant to large audiences, and certainly not large audiences of working people. But earth always crumbles into islands at its edges, and these islands are almost always under some form of imperial siege. What will be left behind, what will be carried, and what will be transformed? In his essay on “The Use of an Object and Relating Through Identifications,” the psychoanalyst D. For Eli and others it’s a cross they no longer wish to bear. To stroke, to braid, to clap, to weed a grave, to clutch a root, to make a sign, to shield the eyes from sun. To an audience? In Saltwater Slavery, Stephanie E. For those who have yet to migrate, the mainland is an overwhelming catalog of other lives, telephones, teddy bears, and petticoats in the “wishbook” Viola displays to the crowd of children. At the end of her essay “How It Feels To Be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston describes her blackness as:
[A] brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall [containing] a jumble of small things priceless and worthless […] a first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knife-blade, old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two still fragrant. But in her mind she put all her “memories in that case and locked them there.” So she “could take them out, look at them,” when she felt like it, “and figure it out.” This is the story she passes on to the young cousins gathered around the creamy come-hither of her city-dwelling skirts, eager for news from the mainland. Viola Peazant is now a devout Baptist, coming from Philadelphia with a Bible and photographer hired to commemorate the family’s “crossing.” Yellow Mary has worked as a prostitute and wet nurse in Savannah and Cuba, and comes home with a stranger on her arm. But for decades, Daughters of the Dust languished as if “worthless.” Though Julie Dash and the brilliant cinematographer Arthur Jafa continued working, the film’s success did not result in further feature film deals; nor did it usher in a golden age of resources for experimental black moviemaking. As a child, Eli was sure that Nana’s “tree of glass bottles, the rice in [her] pockets, the coins the roots and the flowers” would protect him from all harm, and he blames Eula’s rape on the failure of African ways. But it wasn’t a funeral song anymore. Its power as a work of art about the stutter of migration and intergenerational communication both emerges from and exceeds this formidable historical distinction. Survival requires learning to play in the cut. “A lyrical entity isn’t an object in linear time; experiencing the lyrical dimension […] stirs the impulse to listen again.” In Daughters of the Dust, we sometimes see a blur of a girl running right through trees and people. We might ask, “Who can afford lyricism?” Anxieties about the costs of non-instrumental creativity under racial capitalism often attend even the most widely celebrated work by marginalized artists. We can see her working the little weave of flowers, roots, and locks of hair over the course of the day, designing a compromise under the pressure of failed communion and the deadline of departure. I wanted to do that as early as ’69, and at the Studio Museum of Harlem and at City College I was discouraged because it was considered fluff. The hat she’s wearing — I want to see it fly off the back of a boat. Both are preceded by sensory confusion, adult voices speaking from another world, and the labor it requires to find a language for listening. The film offers several possibilities. If we cannot rely on these technologies, or on each other to understand their purposes, then what is there to transmit to the next generation? The Puerto Rican poet Marigloria Palma also turns to the metaphor of a “wet brown box / moaning against the wall” in describing her identity. Nobody ever said that the old souls were living inside those glass jars. Winnicott argues that “an essential feature of transitional […] objects” is not, in fact, an essential feature, but “a quality in our attitude when we observe them.” This is just as true for the creator of the object as it is for the ones watching, reaching, or refusing to touch it. That’s not the point. — Rick Barot, Chord
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IT IS NOT ALWAYS easy to see — or to help others see — the value of one’s inheritance. She would not say that she is calling on the old Africans. Though Baldwin calls us to this recognition, he also seems to bless all that we say and do instead. That what we keep in our limbs is the tension of travel. If one criterion for usefulness is broad availability, then Julie Dash’s vision has proved useful to and through the most dominant figure in popular music today. The image suggests that the effects of slavery exceed the pornography of whip and chain. Just shy of word for word, the song had survived five generations and two hundred years in the new world: the longest known text in an African language sustained by a black family in the United States. We will not all agree, even with ourselves.