Notes gathered from several sources, including a long and very helpful essay by Joel Brouwer

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Notes gathered from several sources, including a long and very helpful essay by Joel Brouwer

Dash "spent 10 years researching the Gullah tradition, poring over papers and books in New York City's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, university libraries and the Smithsonian in Washington" (Smith B35). Yet Daughters of the Dust is not a documentary. Rather, it is lyrical and impressionistic, told, as Dash says, in the manner of a West African griot, or storyteller, "the way an old relative would retell it, not linear but always coming back around. It's all connected, but how you get to the information is different." Dash contrasts her storytelling method with that of "television and formula films where you know what's going to happen in the first five minutes. With 'Daughters of the Dust' you can't apply that formula. You're thrust into the world of the new" (qtd. in Rule C17).

Dash's approach to narrative is consciously defamiliarizing: "I wanted the audience to feel as if it was looking at a foreign film - this was very important to me" (qtd. in Thomas F15). By twisting the audience's kaleidoscope in this manner, Daughters forces us to see a segment of African American history as if for the first time. It serves as a concrete example of the kaleidoscopic perspective on history articulated by Hayden White, who suggests that we

recognize that there is no such thing as a single correct view of any object under study but that there are many correct views, each requiring its own style of representation. This would allow us to entertain seriously those creative distortions offered by minds capable of looking at the past with the same seriousness as ourselves but with different affective and intellectual orientations. Then we should no longer naively expect that statements about a given epoch or complex of events in the past "correspond" to some preexistent body of "raw facts." For we should recognize that what constitutes the facts themselves is the problem that the historian, like the artist, has tried to solve in the choice of the metaphor by which he orders his world, past, present, and future. (47)

The dominant historical perspective on people such as the Gullahs, inhabitants of the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina who are descended from enslaved Africans, has been that they are backward and uncultured, marginal people both figuratively and literally. In his 1949 study Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, Lorenzo Dow Turner quotes some of those denigrating dominant views with respect to Gullah speech patterns, including one by the editor of "several volumes of Gullah folk tales . . . whose interpretation of the dialect has been generally accepted as authoritative," A. E. Gonzales:

Slovenly and careless of speech, these Gullahs seized upon the peasant English used by some of the early settlers and by the white servants of the wealthier colonists, wrapped their clumsy tongues about it as well as they could, and, enriched with certain expressive African words, it issued through their flat noses and thick lips as so workable a form of speech that it was gradually adopted by the other slaves and became in time the accepted Negro speech of the lower districts of South Carolina and Georgia. . . . The words are, of course, not African, for the African brought over or retained only a few words of his jungle-tongue, and even these few are by no means authenticated as part of the original scant baggage of the Negro slaves. (qtd. in Turner 6-7)

While Turner effectively dismantles the distorted perceptions of Gonzales and other "experts" by pointing out "their lack of acquaintance with the languages and cultures of those sections of West Africa from which the Negroes were brought to the United States as slaves" (13), his examples demonstrate the cultural imperialism which is implicit and explicit in the dominant culture's treatment of a marginalized people.

Julie Dash addresses the problem of marginalization masterfully in Daughters of the Dust. She doesn't protest the treatment accorded the Gullahs by the linguists and historians of the dominant culture. She simply points her camera in a different direction. She redefines the center. In Daughters of the Dust, the Gullahs are the dominant culture, and the white world is at the margin.

The Gullah culture which Dash places at the center of her narrative is expressive, rich, and resonant with connection to its African heritage. By reconstructing the Gullah community in a fictional film, Dash contributes to the reconstruction of African American history in the manner noted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:

Ours is an extraordinarily self-reflexive tradition, a tradition exceptionally conscious of its history. . . . Because of the experience of diaspora, the fragments that contain the traces of a coherent system of order must be reassembled. . . . To reassemble fragments, of course, is to engage in an act of speculation, to attempt to weave a fiction of origins and subgeneration. It is to render the implicit as explicit, and at times to imagine the whole from the part. (xxiv)

What Gates describes is a narrative approach to history. Dash's narration reassembles fragments which connect African Americans with their African heritage.

Echoes of Africa

Daughters of the Dust takes place during a single day in 1902. The date places it, roughly, at a midpoint between our own time and the time that Africans were brought by ships to America to be enslaved. This suggests that the narrative is a bridge, reconnecting audiences through "a fiction of origins and subgeneration" with fragments of history, both of African capture and enslavement and of subsequent moments in African American history. The film does this by introducing some elderly characters who actually remember the times of the slave ships, but it also accomplishes this purpose of connection symbolically, by showing the marks of African heritage in the Gullah language, daily life, and religious belief.

The Gullah language marks the speakers not simply as a subset of the wider American culture, but rather as a unique group identified initially by their language, a blend of African and English vocabulary and linguistic patterns, as demonstrated by Lorenzo Dow Turner, Molefi Kete Asante, and others. The Gullah tongue, which Dash took great pains to reproduce faithfully, sounds like its African antecedents, making it a literal echo of Africa.

The look of the film is also shaped by many physical vestiges of Africa. Dash's contextualization of Gullah customs connects them with this people's African past.

One such physical vestige is the decorating of graves, a Gullah custom traceable to African origins, as demonstrated by the research of Robert Farris Thompson (132-42). Dash connects the custom with its communal significance by locating an important conversation in the graveyard. As Nana, the clan's grandmother and spiritual leader, sits quietly there, she is approached by Eli, husband of her granddaughter Eula. He knows why she sits next to her dead husband's grave, but she explains anyway: "I visit with him every day. It's up to the living to stay in touch with the dead. . . . The ancestor and the womb, they one, and they with us."

The motifs of ancestor awareness and the continuity of life through birth and death surface repeatedly throughout the film. In this scene, they also lead to the conversation which Nana senses that Eli has come for. Eli knows that his wife has been raped, and fears that the child she carries is a result of that rape. He speaks with Nana because "when we was children we believed in you, that you could strike out evil with your bottle trees, and your other charms." Nana's response contextualizes Eli's problem by connecting it with his community, living and dead: "Call on your ancestors. You need their strength. . . . Never forget who we is. We got recollections inside us. We don't know where they come from. I'm trying to learn you how to touch your own spirit. Something to take with you along with your own dreams. Call on them ancestors. They come to you when you least expect them."

This conversation, like many in Daughters of the Dust, serves a variety of purposes. It connects what is seen, the decorated gravesites, with the spiritual significance of ancestor awareness. It demonstrates the respect Eli shows toward the older Nana, even though he has difficulty accepting what she says. It demonstrates Nana's awareness of birth, life, and death as interconnected elements. All of these awarenesses and sensibilities are vestiges of the Gullahs' African past, which Julie Dash conveys in this scene both visually and verbally.

Other African antecedents of the Gullahs become apparent as the film progresses. Like the decorated gravesites, they may appear "foreign" to some viewers, but they connect the Gullahs of the film with their African roots. One such antecedent is Nana's bottle tree. Another is the fact that almost all the action of the film takes place outdoors. The community acts communally - the women communally prepare food for their feast, and everyone eats together. The dancing, the celebrating, the education of children - all occur communally, and outdoors. These physical elements which Dash chooses to include in her frame are reminders of West African customs, habits, and ways of living. These, as Henry Louis Gates observes, are "retained elements of culture [which] survived. . . . The African, after all, was a traveler, albeit an abrupt, ironic traveler, through space and time; and like every traveler, the African 'read' a new environment within a received framework of meaning and belief" (4).

The "framework of meaning and belief" becomes a significant part of Daughters of the Dust as well. The narrative revolves around the intention of many family members to leave for the mainland, and for the North. As the family's spiritual head, Nana cannot approve. She fears "the old ways" will be lost when the family is fragmented. This brings her to tears, but she recognizes the reality and deals with it. In a climactic moment in the film, the elderly woman conducts a ceremony of connection. Displaying a lock of hair which Nana's mother cut and left with Nana as she was sold away, Nana says, "Now I add in our hair. There must be a bond of connection between those who go north and those who stay here. Between we, and those across the sea. We came in chains. We must survive." For Nana, the mingling of locks of hair creates the connection. For Dash's African American audience in the 1990s, she recreates the connection by depicting Nana and the other "ancestors" of Daughters of the Dust.

The planned migration north is a radical break with "the old ways," a break which in the end Eli, Eula, and Yellow Mary decide not to make. Their decision is an implicit confirmation of "the old ways": the religion of ancestor veneration, the acute awareness of the spirits of the dead and their connection with the living and the not-yet-born, and the valuing of community above the individual. In affirming these "old ways," they are consistent with Gullah beliefs linked by Margaret Washington Creel with African antecedents:

An African world view, an African theory of being, and some African customs were significant in Gullah religious tendencies and communal existence. . . . The African traditional world view was consonant with the idea that in a cohesive and integrated society each member had a place. . . . Emphasis was on total well-being of the community of which an individual was only a part. For the Africans - and this was also true for the Gullahs - religion was a process of total immersion. Spiritual concerns could not be set apart from secular or communal ones. . . . In the traditional world view, spirituality affected one's whole system of being, embracing the consciousness, social interactions and attitudes, fears and dispositions of the community at large. (71-72)

Ironically, those family members who choose to leave do so in pursuit of "progress" and "a better life" on the mainland. Even as they voice these aspirations, Dash's foregrounding of the communal strength of the island clan interrogates the assumptions the northbound travelers make.

Two further ways in which the characters in Daughters of the Dust reveal their African roots are in their connectedness with their African heritage, and their connectedness with the spirit world.

A recurring image in the film is that of a mysterious floating icon, a large, black, carved figure of an African. It floats in the swamp at "Ibo Landing." There, according to legend, a group of enslaved people were put off a ship in chains. As Eli's wife Eula tells him:

It was here they brought 'em. They took 'em out the boats right here where we stand. . . . There was a good few, 'cordin' to my great Gran. She was little, little girl at the time. The ship had just come from the deep water, great big old ship with sails. The minute those Ibo was brought ashore, they just stopped, took a look around, not sayin a word, just studyin' the place real good. They seen things that day that you and I don't have the power to see. They seen just about everything to happen 'round here that day. The slavery time, the war my Gran always talk about. Those Ibo didn't miss a thing. . . . When they got through, sizin' up the place real good, and seein' what was to come, my Gran say they turned, all of 'em, and walked back in the water, every last man, woman, and child. Now you wouldn't think they'd get very far, seein' it was water they was walk' on. Had all that iron on 'em. . . . But chains didn't stop those Ibo none. They just kept walk' like the water was solid ground, and when they got to where the ship was, didn't so much as give it a look. Just walk right past it, 'cause they was goin' home.

The floating figure is a visual reminder of African heritage, and the pride of a legendary group of Africans who refused to be enslaved. Dash visually reinforces Eli's connection with this mythical past: As Eula tells the story, Eli walks out toward the floating figure, on the surface of the water, like the legendary Ibo. Coming to know the spirit of his ancestors, as Nana urged him to, eventually leads him to decide not to leave the island for the mainland. Eli and Eula keep their lives centered in the African tradition as expressed in Gullah culture.

Dash connects her film to the African tradition in a different way with this scene. The intertextual resonances with Paule Marshall's novel Praisesong for the Widow are unmistakable. The same Gullah legend of the Ibo refusal of enslavement is a spiritual touchstone in Praisesong, where Avey, the main character, visits Ibo Landing as a small girl with an old Gullah aunt. Just as Avey's experience helps her define herself through reference to her Gullah and African heritage, so does Eli's.

At a second level of meta-awareness of African/American linkage, Dash's obvious homage to Marshall's work serves to connect Dash herself to the tradition of literature by African American women. At still a third level, Dash is making the connection by Signifyin(g). As Henry Louis Gates explains, "To name our tradition is to rename each of its antecedents, no matter how pale they might seem. To rename is to revise, and to revise is to Signify" (xxiii).

A Signifier, according to Gates, employs a narrative strategy characteristic of the storytelling of Esu-Elegbara, the mythical West African trickster figure who is one of the touchstones of Gates's theory of African American literary criticism. When Dash revises the story of Ibo Landing as previously told by Marshall, she Signifies upon Marshall's work.

Says Gates, "When one text Signifies upon another text, by tropological revision or repetition and difference, the double-voiced utterance allows us to chart discrete formal relationships in Afro-American literary history. Signifyin(g), then, is a metaphor for textual revision" (88).

By Signifying upon Praisesong Dash doubles the reference to Marshall's work, since a flesh-and-blood Esu-Elegbara is a guide-figure in that novel. Additionally, she provides a point of reference which connects Nana, Eli, and Eula in Daughters of the Dust with an African world view. The connection becomes clear with Gates's explanation (incorporating quotations from dos Santos and dos Santos) of Esu-Elegbara's powers:

Esu is the sum of the parts, as well as that which connects to parts. He is invoked and sacrificed to first, before any other deity, because of this: alone can set an action in motion and interconnect the parts." This aspect of Esu cannot be emphasized too much. The most fundamental absolute of the Yoruba is that there exist, simultaneously, three stages of existence: the past, the present, and the unborn. Esu represents these stages, and makes their simultaneous existence possible, "without any contradiction," precisely because he is the principle of discourse both as messenger and as the god of communication. Discourse among three parallel phases of existence renders the notion of contradiction null. (37)

One of the strongest motifs of Daughters of the Dust is the motif of connectedness, particularly connectedness of "the past, the present, and the unborn." The film itself connects the past of enslavement with the "present" of the depicted Gullah community circa 1902 and the generations yet-to-be-born "up north," of whom New York-born and Gullah-descended Julie Dash is one. The narrative itself makes constant reference to connectedness, in Nana's exhortations as well as in the person of the other key figure in Daughters, its narrator, Eula's unborn daughter.

The unnamed ghost-narrator introduces her situation in her first words: "My story begins before I was born. Nana saw the family coming apart. Flowers to bloom in distant places. And then there was my ma and daddy's problem." She refers obliquely to both of the story's primary conflicts: the breakup of the family through migration, and Eli's belief that Eula's pregnancy is the result of rape. She also establishes that she's not just the narrator, but a character in this story: an unborn one. From time to time she flits across the screen in the body of a small girl, unseen by other characters in the narrative.

By using a not-yet-born major character/narrator, Dash demonstrates the Gullah/African sense of the connectedness of past, present, and future. She demonstrates her own (Gullah-descended) sense of this connectedness as well. This spirit awareness resonates intertextually with, or Signifies upon, another African American text, Toni Morrison's Beloved, in which the line of demarcation between the living and the dead is configured in ways more resonant of Esu-Elegbara than of Western religion or philosophy.

Finally, this use of a spirit-figure as a major character in the narrative brings us back to my original point, which is that Dash's design for Daughters is to reassemble fragments of African American history by connecting the African and the American in the Gullah community she authentically depicts. In true African form she does it by Signifying, or revising: Her spirit is pre-born, while spirits are more typically thought of as post-fleshly entities. Margaret Washington Creel explains the Africanness of spirit awareness: "Death was a journey into the spirit world, not a break with life or earthly beings. The idea of the perpetuity of life through time, space, and circumstance was common to African religious culture . . ." (81). Dash's pre-born spirit fits comfortably into the African-derived Gullah view of the presence and function of "good spirits." As Creel explains, "Some Gullahs believed that good spirits went straight to heaven, but most seemed to think that even these spirits remained on earth, close to the place of their burial. Unlike those who 'died bad,' good spirits would normally not harm the living; nor would they roam. They appeared only in dreams, giving messages and warnings to the living" (86). Dash's pre-born spirit has exactly this function, to give a message and a warning to her own father, Eli, who takes the duration of the narrative to comprehend it. Through his experience of the ways of the ancestors, encouraged by Nana and mysteriously led by his daughter, and through his moment of realization while walking on the water in the presence of the Ibo icon, Eli comes to understand that he and Eula must not leave the island, the center of their existence. The warning is not uttered, but implicit: To leave is to risk disconnection, decentering, marginalization. To leave the island is to cross the threshold from the margin to the middle of American life, where ironically the Gullah would be not central, but marginal.

The Theoretical Stance of Daughters of the Dust

As Houston Baker reminds us, "We are always embroiled with theory - even when the word itself is absent. It is an illusion to suppose that a non-theoretical subject position is possible" (Workings 1). Julie Dash's film is no exception. Both the form of the film itself and Dash's statements about it demonstrate its theoretical stance.

The opening metaphor of the film, the kaleidoscope, signals that Daughters is a film about ways of seeing. By definition, a filmmaker is selective when choosing images to present to her audience: through the choice of images photographed, through the choice of what to include in the frame, and through the choice (during the editing process) of images presented. Through her choices, Dash emphasizes that her audience will be forced to view the people in this film through the eyes of another - a photographer. She does this in two ways.

The first way is by example. Dash places a montage of interior shots just prior to the scene of Mr. Snead's demonstration of the wonders of the kaleidoscope. They call attention to themselves as the only interior shots in this otherwise visually open and expansive film. On a narrative level, they establish that it is early morning; some people are in bed, some are waking up, some are beginning to work. But the visual information included in many of the shots is incomplete or distorted. Some are closeups, but not of faces. One is a closeup of feet, another of wallpaper. The subject of another shot is indistinct, viewed through mosquito netting. Another short series within the montage tracks across a room as a young couple playfully engage one another, but our view is obstructed by clothes hung on a line. The montage is also internally disconnected, seemingly jumping from one home and set of characters to another without any particular order. The narration is unconnected to the specific images and framings that we see.

This montage is a visual reminder that not only are our perceptions limited by what the director chooses to show us, but they are also distorted literally and figuratively by the limitations of angles, lenses, and framings. We never see the whole picture. A moving camera, such as the one employed to create the first shot in the sequence (panning across a front porch, "discovering" a chicken), constantly reconstitutes that which we see by excluding some information from the frame and including that which was formerly excluded. Our perception is held captive by the cameraperson (and the editor, who chooses which shot to use and how long to screen it) and our perception constantly changes.

Makers of horror films have long used this property of filmic art to create effects of terror, by using a moving camera to "reveal" a corpse, or a killer. Its use in Daughters has effects more basic and more profound: The sequence is a reminder that we never know everything, and our perceptions are bound by our point of view at any particular moment. This resonates with Giles Deleuze's statement that "all framing determines an out-of-field" (16) which "refers to what is neither seen nor understood, but is nevertheless perfectly present" (16). Dash's montage is a visual reminder that we don't know the out-of-field, and we sometimes misinterpret or can't see clearly that which is in-field. One who understands this will be wary of totalizing statements about what we know or believe we know. What Dash asserts cinematically, Houston Baker makes explicit:

Any single model, or any complementary set of inventive tropes . . . will offer only a selective account of experience - a partial reading, as it were, of the world. While the single account temporarily reduces chaos to ordered plan, all such accounts are eternally troubled by "remainders." Where literary art is concerned, for example, a single, ordering, investigative model or trope will necessarily exclude phenomena that an alternative model or trope privileges as a definitive artistic instance. (Blues 9-10)

Baker's "remainders" correspond to Deleuze's "out-of-field." There are always other stories to tell, stories which the storyteller ignores while privileging the stories she tells. Dash recognizes this, and does two things about it: She both chooses to tell one of the stories never before told in a feature film, and refuses to claim that it is definitive, with the montage as a technique-sign of her refusal.

Dash's technique is the first marker of her message that this is a film about ways of seeing. The second marker lies within her narrative, both in its construction and in its characters.

The construction of the narrative, as noted earlier, consciously subverts the typical film audience's expectations. David Mills reports, "Dash realizes that this is a 'demanding' film. Although it's visually lush and passionately acted, 'Daughters of the Dust' is not a plot-driven picture, not a straightforward narrative. . . . 'Nonlinear' is the word she keeps using" (C3). The effect of this narrative method, that of the griot, is to open up the possibility of varying interpretations. Though Dash's flaming and editing limit access to information, the openness of the narrative invites viewers to create the meaning for ourselves. Based on fact, yet narratively and visually suggestive and symbolic, Daughters of the Dust is a way of seeing a moment in African American history, but not the way to see it. As such, it meets Hayden White's criteria for historical explanation:

. . . an explanation need not be assigned unilaterally to the category of the literally truthful on the one hand or the purely imaginary on the other, but can be judged solely in terms of the richness of the metaphors which govern its sequence of articulation. Thus envisaged, the governing metaphor of an historical account could be treated as a heuristic rule which self-consciously eliminates certain kinds of data from consideration as evidence. The historian operating under such a conception could thus be viewed as one who, like the modern artist and scientist, seeks to exploit a certain perspective on the world that does not pretend to exhaust description or analysis of all of the data in the entire phenomenal field but rather offers itself as one way among many of disclosing certain aspects of the field. (46)

Through her filmic technique and the structure of her narrative, Dash tacitly admits that she has self-consciously eliminated data, the "out-of-field." By White's criteria, then, the richness of the metaphors she uses are the measure of the "truthfulness" of her tale.

Dash demonstrates that this is a film about seeing, finally, in the way she presents a character who functions as her double in the narrative, the photographer Mr. Snead. He has been hired by Viola to record this moment in the family's history, the day the family begins its migration north. While dutifully recording various family groupings with his bulky equipment, Snead exhibits great curiosity about the family: their stories, their history, their beliefs. Snead "sees" the family in a restricted way through the lens of his camera, just as we "see" the family in a restricted way through the lens of Dash's camera, yet the questions Snead asks and the answers they elicit create a richer, fuller portrait than anything he could possibly capture on film. Through his example as well as through his profession, Snead delivers Dash's message that many truths exist, and when seen differently by different people in different contexts, they are no less true. Appropriately, Snead is the owner of the kaleidoscope. Like Dash, Snead lives in the tradition of Esu, whose encoding "as the god of indeterminacy attests that the notion of closure . . . is alien" (Gates 41).

Production and Reception: At the Margin or in the Center?

Within the Hollywood system, closure is not alien. It is virtually absolute. The system is almost impossible to "open up," and even though Daughters of the Dust has earned a profit and has earned Julie Dash a good deal of attention as a filmmaker, a work of this sort is not understood or appreciated within the U.S. commercial film production system. According to Kevin Thomas, "Dash was told time and again by the major studios and the mini-majors that there was no audience for her film . . ." (F16). This is not surprising, considering her priorities. Says Dash: "We made an active decision to subordinate market forces to spiritual forces as determining criteria for Daughters" (Tate 90). Hollywood does not smile upon such decisions. Dash tried to sell the idea through conventional channels, but without success. As she told Patricia Smith,

I was told that since it had never been done before, it wouldn't work. It wasn't "Sounder" or "The Color Purple" or "Shaft," so it was too risky. I was told no one would understand my film. But I have a lot more respect for the general audience than the people who distribute films. . . . Americans are not ignorant. They can decipher things. The distributors think they know what's best, but they're very paternalistic, very colonial gatekeepers. (B33, B35)

Despite these obstacles, Dash persevered in researching and planning the film. She first raised $30,000 to finance a ten-minute short film shot on location on the Sea Islands. By "shopping it around," she received $650,000 from American Playhouse and $150,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to shoot Daughters of the Dust. In return, American Playhouse received rights to broadcast Daughters on PBS after its theatrical release. After shooting the film, Dash sold distribution rights in Europe and Japan to a West German company for $200,000, enabling her to complete postproduction (Mills C3). A total budget of $1 million for a theater-release film is extremely low, but in real dollars it's still a lot of cash. Dash called the financing process "a horrendous experience. All of my income, royalties from other films, all went into this project. Everyone was working for pennies for many, many years" (qtd. in Mills C3).

With Daughters completed by the summer of 1991, Dash entered it in the Toronto Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival. To the credit of the film's cinematographer, Arthur Jafa, it won the Best Cinematography award at Sundance. But despite the exposure and the award, Dash was still without a means of distributing the film. According to Lorraine O'Grady, Daughters was also "previewed at private screenings in Hollywood in August [1991]. The biggies who were invited did not attend, and Dash came away [again] without a Hollywood agent or distributor" (24).

Film distribution companies are the link between filmmakers and theater screens. As late as October 6, 1991, the Atlanta Journal/Constitution reported that "the film has no distributor" (Dollar N1). But Dash finally connected with "a tiny distribution company, New York's Kino International," which usually distributes foreign films. Appropriately, Kino marketed Daughters as "a foreign film made in America" (Smith B35). The film opened in New York for a two-week engagement at Film Forum 1 on January 15, 1992. Favorable response there led Kino to move it to the City Cinemas Village East for an indefinite run after it closed at Film Forum. Kino also began booking Daughters into twenty other cities (Rule C15).

What happened next is unexplainable according to the conventional wisdom of film production and distribution. By March 30, New York magazine reported that Daughters was still going strong. They quote the theater manager: "'It's been a big surprise. It's primarily a middle-class black female audience. We sell out weekend performances, and during the week, we get busloads of church groups, high schools and senior-citizen groups coming in for matinees' "(Hoban 27). Apparently, the film's resounding success even surprised the distributor. Patricia Smith quotes Donald Krim, President of Kino International: "'. . . its appeal is wider than we thought. It's going to do over a million at the box office, which puts it in an elite category. Maybe a dozen art films a year reach that goal. . . . It will hit more than a hundred markets before we're finished'" (Smith B35).

Like Daughters itself, this narrative of the dissemination of the film is about ways of seeing. The hegemonic forces which control film distribution are overwhelmingly white and male, and when Dash attempted to engage them in her project, even their language was an admission of their blindness, their inability to twist the kaleidoscope or see things from a different perspective. Dash reports that, when she sought pre-production financing from Hollywood producers,

. . . people kept saying, "Well, what is it like?" . . . They kept saying, "We can't see it. Black people at the turn of the century? What do they look like?" Because in Hollywood they don't like to make a film that has not been made before. They kept saying that they couldn't see, they just couldn't see it. (qtd. in Mills C1)

What the Hollywood power structure could not see was a tale told from the perspective of an African American woman filmmaker. Despite the recent attention paid to young male African American filmmakers such as Spike Lee, John Singleton, Matty Rich, and Ernest Dickerson, the women have been left out of the picture. Dash observes that media stories also reflect hegemonic blindness:

The media have helped create the whole aura of invisibility around black women film makers. Sometimes they would interview us along with the black men film makers but wouldn't include us in the final piece. Black women have been out working and making films for many, many years. I know at least 25 of them. In my film, I'm asking the audience to sit down for two hours and listen to what black women are talking about. When have we been asked that before, from a female point of view? (qtd. in Rule C15)

The story of Dash's struggle for recognition despite being invisible through the eyes of the hegemonic Hollywood system can be read in economic, political, or social terms. It can also be read theoretically. In "Rethinking Modernism: Minority vs. Majority Theories," Nancy Hartsock's analysis and call for action provide a framework for "reading" Dash's struggle. Hartsock's inquiry begins with a term from Richard Rorty which, for Rorty, describes discourses such as Daughters of the Dust. Hartsock explains that Rorty refers to Thomas Kuhn's distinction between "normal" and "revolutionary" science to propose an analogous distinction "between normal and 'abnormal' discourse. . . . abnormal discourse," says Rorty, "is what happens when someone joins the conversation who is ignorant of its 'normal' conventions - or who chooses to set them aside. What results could be nonsense, or it could be intellectual revolution" (Hartsock 198).

Determining whether Daughters is nonsense or intellectual revolution is a task for which Hollywood (and the hegemonic generally) by definition is unsuited, since Hollywood's conventions are the ones which have been set aside. By Hollywood's standards Dash's discourse is "abnormal." But Hartsock criticizes Rorty for framing the concept in this terminology:

Rorty proposes the idea of abnormal discourse as a modification of Kuhn's normal vs. revolutionary science. While he intends this to counter the hegemonic, normal discourse of the supra-historical subject, the substitution of "abnormal" for "revolutionary" is not innocent. Revolutionary science, or the more precise parallel, revolutionary discourse, would not remain peripheral but rather would transform normal discourse. This, in fact, is a much more appropriate formulation of our task. We should undertake the construction of revolutionary discourses which would not remain "abnormal" or peripheral but would have the effect of transforming "normal" discourse. (201)

Seen through the hegemonic eyes of Hollywood, Daughters of the Dust is an aberration, the product of an intruding Other. But by Hartsock's standards it is an example of revolutionary discourse, forcing its way into the system and making demands which the system must, at least for a short time, accommodate: to recognize a different form of filmmaking, a different style of narrative, and the existence of a heretofore "invisible" subject and a heretofore "invisible" audience.

Ultimately, the theoretical question which Dash so masterfully addresses in Daughters of the Dust is the same one raised by the problematic nature of the film's place in opposition to the hegemonic Hollywood distribution system: What is marginal, and what is central? As Hartsock asserts,

. . to the extent that we have been constituted as Other, it is important to insist as well on a vision of the world in which we are at the center rather than at the periphery. The "center" will obviously look different when occupied by women and men of color and white women than it does now, when occupied by white men of a certain class background. Indeed, given our diversity, it may cease to look like a center at all. But, as for being peripheral, we've done that for far too long. Let those who have put themselves at the center practice moving to the margins now. (201)

Such theorizing connects with the work of the historian/artist Julie Dash when the theoretical revolution - reconstituting the center - is carried out in practice. Dash's work is a vital response to Hartsock's call to "recognize that we can be the makers of history and not just the objects of those who have made history until now. . . . we need to . . . build an account of the world as seen from the margins, an account which can transform these margins into centers. The point is to develop an account of the world which treats our perspectives not as subjugated knowledges, but as primary" (204-05).

With Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash has claimed a new center, historically, artistically, and economically. Historically, she has reconfigured the history of a marginalized people, Americans of African descent, by foregrounding the experiences of the Gullah, a group marginalized within the African American community. Artistically, she has employed an African narrative technique to break down the expectation that a story must be told with a single voice, opening the possibility for new ways of seeing whenever one twists the kaleidoscope. In the production and distribution of her film, she has confounded the normal expectations of the hegemonic Hollywood system and forced the system to recognize (albeit grudgingly and temporarily) the legitimacy of her subject and her artistic method, and the existence of her audience. Hartsock calls it "revolutionary discourse." Hollywood calls it "beating the odds." Dash's audiences simply recognize Daughters of the Dust as a powerful experience of repositioning margin and center.

Works Cited

Asante, Molefi Kete. "African Elements in African-American English." Holloway 19-33.

Baker, Houston A. Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

-----. Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Creel, Margaret Washington. "Gullah Attitudes Toward Life and Death." Holloway 69-97.

Deleuze, Giles. Cinema 1: The Movement Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Dollar, Steve. "'Daughters of the Dust' Dances with the Dialect of Women's Tales." Atlanta Journal/Construction 6 Oct. 1991: N1.

dos Santos, Juana Elbein, and Deoscoredes M. dos Santos. Esu Bara Laroye: A Comparative Study. Ibadan: Institute of African Studies, 1971.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: a Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Hartsock, Nancy. "Rethinking Modernism: Minority vs. Majority Theories." Cultural Critique 7 (Fall 1987): 187-206.

Hoban, Phoebe. "A Building Dust Storm." New York 30 Mar. 1992: 27.

Holloway, Joseph E., ed. Africanisms in American Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Marshall, Paule. Praisesong for the Widow. New York: Putnam, 1983.

Mills, David. "A Dash of Difference: The Filmmaker's New Take on Tradition." Washington Post 28 Feb. 1992: C1, C3.

Morrison, Toni, Beloved, New York: Knopf, 1987.

O'Grady, Lorraine. "The Cave: On Black Women Directors," Artforum Jan. 1992: 22-24.

Rule, Sheila. "Director Defies Odds with First Feature, 'Daughters of the Dust.'" New York Times 12 Feb. 1992: C15, C17.

Smith, Patricia. "A Daughter's Tale: Julie Dash Finally Gets to Tell Her Story of Gullah Life." Boston Globe 15 Mar. 1992: B33, B35.

Tate, Greg. "La Venus Negre." Artforum Jan. 1992: 90.

Thomas, Kevin. 'Filmmaker's Unique View of the Black Experience." Los Angeles Times 20 Mar. 1992: F15-F16.

Turner, Lorenzo Dow. Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1949.

White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.


Daughters of the Dust. Dir. Julie Dash. Kino International, 1992.

Joel R. Brouwer is a doctoral candidate in English at Michigan State University, working in the areas of film theory, popular culture, and twentieth-centunry American literature. He wishes to thank Dr. Linda Susan Beard and Dr. Larry Landrum for introducing him to modes of inquiry which were instrumental in writing this essay.
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