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




You don’t have to understand it
but you will carry it anyway. 

— 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. 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.

The Puerto Rican poet Marigloria Palma also turns to the metaphor of a “wet brown box / moaning against the wall” in describing her identity. 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. And yet, they also suggest that what seems like waste may well be essential. 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? What will be left behind, what will be carried, and what will be transformed?

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. Its power as a work of art about the stutter of migration and intergenerational communication both emerges from and exceeds this formidable historical distinction. When it premiered in New York in 1991, it ran for four months straight and sold out weekends. 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. It has directly inspired two major works of protest art from Beyoncé and Solange Knowles. 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. You, too, can become an island in its unlimited stream.

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. Instead, the film survived underground as a kind of ritual object for an eclectic community of marginalized artists. 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. What does it mean to hold steady in minority experience while also charting new waters? To take the world’s horizon as the ultimate horizon of communication?

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For most Americans, the world’s horizon stops short of the Sea Islands where Daughters of the Dust takes place. Most don’t know these islands exist, just as most don’t know that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. We’d rather imagine that there are natural borders to national identity. But earth always crumbles into islands at its edges, and these islands are almost always under some form of imperial siege. First, the Spanish. 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. The English came next. By the end of the 18th century, the Sea Islands were a network of cotton, rice, and indigo plantations.

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. The image suggests that the effects of slavery exceed the pornography of whip and chain. Rather than calling up the scene of punishment, purple hands point us toward what they touch. In beholding these hands, we’re gripped by all that’s made in captivity. To stroke, to braid, to clap, to weed a grave, to clutch a root, to make a sign, to shield the eyes from sun. The lives of the body always exceed the body’s dispossession. 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. What did I do to be so black and blue? 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. In real life, the stain of the indigo plant wouldn’t last on the skin so long. That’s not the point. On the Sea Islands, there’s a lot that outlasted the official story: the slave trade, for example.

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. In 1858, the last recorded human cargo to come to the New World docked on Jekyll Island. The Wanderer was not wandering: like all slave ships, its name offers only irony. 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. Vastly outnumbered, plantation owners immediately fled to the mainland. The Sea Islands exist in paradoxical proximities: closer to slavery, closer to freedom. 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. Myths are made in this murk. 

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. 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. 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. But it wasn’t a funeral song anymore. Here, it became a play song for children. Remembering is not enough. Survival requires learning to play in the cut. In Saltwater Slavery, Stephanie E. 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.

Generations down the line, life in diaspora still does not come with an instruction manual. 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. Julie Dash grew up in the Queensbridge Projects in Long Island City. 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. Nobody explained it to me. 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. 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? Who will stay? — the film has already situated them in a deeper time, a wider space. 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. Though fiction, Daughters of the Dust emerges from and returns us to a documentary practice — there’s research conjuring this world. 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. But as she herself found as a child, history does not come first; nor does understanding. Both are preceded by sensory confusion, adult voices speaking from another world, and the labor it requires to find a language for listening.

“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. Beauty opens a door without making a map. It may not eliminate difficulty, but we can hope that it lessens our resistance to it. 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. It’s difficult to know whether the child speaking in the voice-over comes from the land of the living or the dead. And it’s difficult to decipher a confidential whisper or quick retort in a dialect whose music keeps a different measure. 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? The hat she’s wearing — I want to see it fly off the back of a boat. I want to know where the boat is going. I want it to come back. Desire flourishes in the distance between her image and my lack of explanation for it.

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. With Daughters of the Dust, Dash does not aim to explain. 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. 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. 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.

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. They, too, struggle to name where they are in time and space. Two cousins who have already made the journey to the mainland return to Dataw Island to organize the family’s northern expedition. 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. Her lover, Trula, is an extravagantly beautiful light-skinned redhead whose presence is impossible to ignore even as her story remains untold. “All that yellow gone to waste,” the Peazant women whisper, on a “ruint” woman.

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. 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. 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.

The past, too, is a cross. For Eli and others it’s a cross they no longer wish to bear. “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. 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. 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. Christopher, patron saint of travelers. “What is that you’re wearing?” asks Nana Peazant, like my mother asks, touching my new plaid coat, after all these winters away.

The Peazants don’t understand each other and are wounded by their differences. 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. 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. Again, a misunderstanding: “You’re a natural fool, Haagar Peazant. Nobody ever said that the old souls were living inside those glass jars. The bottle tree remind us of who was here and who’s gone on. 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. 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. “We don’t” always “know where the recollections are” or how to recollect them. 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? To an audience?

The film offers several possibilities. 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. 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. It’s something they can all agree to kiss. The family can also share, and shares with us, an appetite for fresh crab, corn, and gumbo — an appetite for sea breeze. 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.

It’s a cliché of immigrant experience to say that what we keep is a craving for the food, the feel. That what we keep in our limbs is the tension of travel. I’ve often thought: how simple, how stupid! I am merely wishing to escape myself. 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. I’m fighting for my life and I’m fighting for yours. […] Call on those old Africans and they’ll come to you when you least expect them. 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.

What would it mean to understand our most basic sensations — a breath, a breeze, a dream — as mothers, fathers, memories, and messages? The key is the capacity to move into sensation when memory is not available, and into memory when sensation is not.

An example: Yellow Mary could not afford the pink satin music box she saw in the window of a shop for rich women. She could not touch it, or turn the little crank that made the music. 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. She would not say that she is calling on the old Africans. But her music box is a migrant’s ritual object. Under conditions of dispossession, she is learning — and teaching — how to touch her own spirit.

In his essay on “The Use of an Object and Relating Through Identifications,” the psychoanalyst D. W. 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. The Peazants do not all agree about what can or cannot be used as an object of ritual. We will not all agree, even with ourselves. 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.

Like Eli, Baldwin had taken a bat to his father’s bottle tree. But he comes to see that the bottles, as symbolic vessels, can’t be broken. They can only be used.

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Is Daughters of the Dust “useful”? 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. In a 1992 interview with Houston A. 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.

HB: Had you thought through the gender issues?

JD: I didn’t want to think about it. I felt that I was not free to make the kind of films that I wanted to. I was not free to explore the possibilities of filmmaking … as students we would submit ideas of what we would like to do. 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. 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. “Why would you do that? Why would you waste the people’s film stock for something like that? Someone jumping around … four women? 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’s not just the inner city that’s left behind by upwardly mobile, post-racial narratives. 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. I’m thinking of Daughters of the Dust, of course. I’m also thinking of the poetry of A. H. Jerriod Avant and Safiya Sinclair, of Jesmyn Ward’s body of work on rural Mississippi, of Moonlight’s Miami. “There are black people everywhere,” Juan tells Chiron. It’s a communication between generations and across migrant trajectories that link Cuba to the West Indies to Florida and beyond. The Sea Islands might seem like a small place. But every point in diaspora is the cutting edge if you have the nerve to touch it.

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. 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. 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.

Lemonade was directly inspired by Daughters of the Dust. The artists collaborating on Beyoncé’s visual album also conjured a world of black women living together in pastoral beauty. Women in Victorian dresses sitting in oak trees. Women digging for roots. Women praying on the banks of rivers. A semitropical southern landscape mystically empty of white figures. 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. 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. The sampling disallowed in Dash’s early career returns in Jay-Z’s single. 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. 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.

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. Art cinema doesn’t have to belong to the socioeconomic elite, and it certainly does not always emerge from there. We might think of its elitism as a cause, rather than an effect, of its imagined audience. 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. 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. 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. 

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. 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. 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? 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. 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. It’s all around you. 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. 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. That is what you are doing.

“[Y]ou can never say that’s what you are doing” operates at two levels. First, to excavate an alternative history is always a radical challenge to official history, to its content and also to its methods. It must be done on the sly in another language in order to survive and develop as a practice. Second, you yourself might not recognize your own daily practices as history-making. Though Baldwin calls us to this recognition, he also seems to bless all that we say and do instead. 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. It turns us toward ourselves. “The lyrical mode bridges the distinction between discourse and experience by becoming an experience itself,” writes Pavlić. “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. Immaterial, she’s the dream of Eula’s unborn child. That’s how I think about the film: a glimpse of the future, disguised as a ghost of the past.

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Carina del Valle Schorske is a poet, essayist, and Spanish language translator at large in New York City.


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