Teaching <I>Daughters of the Dust</I> as a Womanist Film and the Black Arts Aesthetic of Filmmaker Julie Dash

by Patricia Williams Lessane (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection XVI, 180 Pages


An anthology of essays devoted to the examination of filmmaker Julie Dash’s ground-breaking film, Daughters of the Dust, this book celebrates the importance and influence of this film and positions it within the discourses of Black Feminism, Womanism, the LA Rebellion, New Black Cinema, Great Migration, The Black Arts tradition, Oral History, African American/Black/African diasporan Studies, and Black film/cinema studies. Employing a transdisciplinary approach to examining the film, the anthology includes chapters which examine unique aspects/themes of the film. At the core of each chapter, however, is a recognition of the influence of Black feminist/Womanist theory and politics and African American history—from enslavement to freedom/Reconstruction, Black political identity and liberation movement(s)—and African/ African diasporan cosmology on Dash’s work and how all work in concert in her masterful narrative of Black family, 20th Black women’s identities, and the tension between modernity/tradition experienced by Gullah-Geechee people at the turn of the 20th century.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction (Patricia Williams Lessane)
  • Part 1—Capturing the Canon: Julie Dash and the Black Arts and Black Feminist Traditions
  • Chapter One: Memory, Meaning, and Gullah Sensibilities: The Black Art Aesthetics of Julie Dash and Jonathan Green (Patricia Williams Lessane)
  • Chapter Two: Inspiration in the Dark Space: Julie Dash’s Re-Visioning of Time and Place in Daughters of the Dust (Ayana I. Karanja)
  • Chapter Three: Overcoming the Trauma of the Gaze in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (Heike Raphael-Hernandez)
  • Part 2—Sensory Ignition and Cultural Memory: Visual Art and Gastronomy in Daughters of the Dust
  • Chapter Four: Coming Home to Good Gumbo: Gullah Foodways and the Sensory in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (Katie M. White)
  • Chapter Five: Decorating the Decorations: Daughters of the Dust and the Aesthetics of the Quilt (Corrie Claiborne)
  • Part 3—The Sacred Emerge: The Witness, the Healed, and Daughters of the Dust
  • Chapter Six: “I Arrived Late to This Book”: Teaching Sociology with Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, the Novel (Karen M. Gagne)
  • Chapter Seven: Conscious Daughters: Psychological Migration, Individuation, and the Declaration of Black Female Identity in Daughters of the Dust (Sharon D. Johnson)
  • Chapter Eight: Reading Nana Peazant’s Palms: Punctuating Readings of Blue (Tiffany Lethabo King)
  • Part 4—The Power of Place in Shaping Identity and Artistic Cultivation
  • Chapter Nine: In Search of Solid Ground: Oral Histories of the Great Migration, from the Carolinas to New England (Marcella “Marcy” De Veaux)
  • Chapter Ten: Motherlands as Gendered Spaces: Cultural Identity, Mythic Memory, and Wholeness in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (Silvia Pilar Castro-Borrego)
  • Chapter Eleven: Making Daughters of the Dust (Revised) (Julie Dash)
  • Epilogue (Farah Jasmine Griffin)
  • Contributors
  • Index

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Thank you to the Avery Research Center staff for making the 2011 conference, “We Carry These Memories Inside of We: Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Daughters of the Dust and the Black Arts Aesthetic of Julie Dash,” the colossal success that it was! Thank you Daron Lee Calhoun II, Valentina Rebaciuc, Deborah Wright, Savannah Frierson, and David Rothsmund for helping me bring this project to fruition. Thank you to all of the contributors to the anthology, your patience and belief in me. Finally, thank you, Julie Dash, for your friendship, sisterhood, and for giving us all such a deep well of creativity and cultural and ancestral pride to draw from!

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At the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Black feminist filmmaker Julie Dash announced she will direct the upcoming Lionsgate biopic of Black feminist freedom fighter, Angela Davis. Dash, whose seminal work is Daughters of the Dust, has directed other films since the 1991 debut of this feature film, including Funny Valentine and The Rosa Parks Story starring Angela Bassett, as well as recent episodes of Ava Duvernay’s OWN series Queen Sugar. However, her latest dramatic narrative, and current documentary project Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl (about the life of Gullah Geechee writer, journalist, and chef Vertamae Grosvenor and for which she was recently awarded a $500,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to produce), signal a new chapter in her life: a new beginning and a renewed recognition of her talent and creativity as writer and director. That she is directing a film about Davis, a Black woman whose revolutionary life and life’s work have had such a colossal impact on the way we as Black people see ourselves and envision liberation, is appropriate as Dash’s debut dramatic narrative film, The Rosa Parks Story, situates Black women squarely within the longue durée of Black struggles for freedom, agency, and self-determination—from slavery, through the turn of the 20th century, and then again during the turbulent civil rights era of the mid-20th century.

Dash and Davis occupy unique roles in African American history and Black feminist thinking, both as truth-tellers and high priestesses of Black consciousness. Davis, with intellectual brilliance and defiant spirit, became a rallying figure for Black youth and freedom fighters across the world when she was indicted and ←1 | 2→then acquitted by an all-white jury of charges that included conspiracy, murder, and kidnapping in connection to a courtroom shooting that left a federal judge and two prison inmates dead.

Davis’s courage and brilliant testimony in which she, instead, indicted the United Sates of horrendous crimes against Black people not only proved her innocence, but also exposed a flawed legal system designed to ensnare and enslave freedom-seeking Black Americans. Her triumphant victory signaled to America that it could not go about business as usual in its oppression of Black and Brown people.

Similarly, with Daughters of the Dust, Dash rejects the American cinematic tradition of obscuring/distorting/menstrilizing/marginalizing Black people, and looks to African American filmmaking pioneers and other Third World and European filmmakers who bucked the cinematic parameters set during the 19th and 20th centuries. And while Daughters of the Dust broke barriers as the first film by an African American woman to debut with a national release, the film occupied a place on the margins of mainstream American cinema for years in both reception and acclaim.

In an early review of the film, writer Valerie Boyd acknowledged the beauty and relevance of the film and aptly predicted what would ultimately be the celebrated destiny of the film:

Daughters is too exquisite a film to not be seen. And African Americans should not depend solely on marketing executives to get the word out. Daughters will likely build its audience through Black America’s oldest marketing strategy—word-of-mouth. Imagine that: buppies discussing it in water-cooler conversations at their offices; Black nationalists analyzing it in fireside chats at bookstores; sisters in beauty shops paraphrasing some of the film’s sauciest lines. Historically significant and visually sublime, Daughters of the Dust is like a sacred secret whispered in your ear. Pass it on. (Boyd 1991)

A keen observer of developing technological trends and emerging cultural shifts, Dash embraced the margins of the cinematic frame, imagining and constructing a cinematic space in which her characters present and embody counter-narratives to those depicted in American media and the dominant culture. Then and now, Dash, like Nana Peazant, looks inward to the past and forward to the future for inspiration and vocational guidance in her developing narratives about Black people and Black spaces, and in her executing cinematic technique. Film scholar Manthia Diawara (2000) contends, “Black films use spatial narration as a way of revealing and linking Black spaces that have been separated and suppressed by White times, and as a means of validating Black culture” (245). The Peazant Family, their extended kin, Mr. Snead, and St. Julian Last Child are Dash’s people; Ibo’s Landing is Dash’s world. Both are, separate and apart from the dominant white gaze.

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At the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, Julie Dash was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and Arthur Jafa won for his cinematography, but it was not until 2016 that Dash was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle Award for the 25th Anniversary Restoration of Daughters of the Dust, confirming the enduring impact and legacy of both the film and the filmmaker. In that same year, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter released Lemonade a Black feminist, multigenre visual album replete with images reminiscent of characters and scenes from Dash’s debut full-feature narrative. Like Dash, Knowles-Carter tackles issues germane to the 21st century Black woman’s experiences—rejection, subjugation, familial obligations and ancestral connections, colorism, abuse, motherhood, and the struggle for liberation and personhood. Accordingly, Davis (2017, 9) asserts “Daughters of the Dust and Lemonade, represent Black feminist approaches to filmmaking that lovingly elevate the particularity of the Black female experiences in the United States on both systematic and interpersonal levels, crossing sexual, class, and even skin color lines.” In this manner, both Dash and Knowles-Carter “break the mold” in which Black women have been traditionally portrayed (Bogle 2001, 349).

I first saw Daughters of the Dust on a sunny day in August 1992 in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. My cousin Shelley and friend Miles agreed to accompany me to see a film I had been raving about for weeks. I had not even seen a trailer for the film, but friends in Chicago and Washington, D.C., had told me about it and said it was one I just had to see. Shelley and Miles knew of my obsession with film, but also of my burgeoning identity as a Black feminist, or Womanist as I had begun to embrace. They also knew I was a veracious reader, having studied English Literature at Fisk University where I excelled in Negro Literature, Harlem Renaissance Literature, and inhaled any and everything written by Black women. Seeing Dash’s film was a cinematic convergence of African American literature, poetry, art, and history on the big screen, live and in technicolor. My friends assumed, and rightly so, that I would be moved beyond words when I saw the movie for the first time. What they did not know—nor did I—was that Daughters of the Dust would shape my writing and pedagogy in ways I could not have imagined as a young, twenty-two-year-old Black woman learning to see myself and my people with new eyes. I was awakening, and Julie Dash’s film further inspired my appreciation of Black film and literature, as well as my future approach to scholarship that had sparked in me while I was in college.

I had found bits and pieces of myself in the pages of books written by 19th and 20th century African Americans while at Fisk. Yet, it was in Daughters of the Dust that I first saw myself wholly, although I did not have the words for this feeling back then—unapologetically Black and beautiful. For me, Julie Dash had channeled the anthropologic spirits of Zora Neale Hurston and Katherine Dunham, as well as the literary genius of every Black woman writer I had read up to that point. At the same time, I saw in her 19th century Black women the ←3 | 4→same 20th century struggles I was experiencing, along with just about every other Black woman I knew. And although the film follows the experiences of a cloistered Sea Island Gullah family contemplating migration, assimilation, and transitioning from their traditional agrarian way of life to the bustling modernity awaiting them on the mainland, their hopes, dreams, challenges, and wishes are ones my mother held for my siblings and me. The Peazant women wrested self-determination and agency with the hand they had been dealt and held tightly onto them so they might propel their family and them forward.

Dash positions Black women’s agency and liberation as the central focus of the film, thus anchoring the secondary and tertiary storylines in the experiences of three generations of Peazant women. In this manner, Daughters of the Dust is a Womanist film, that centralizes 19th century Black women’s experiences while documenting and contextualizing, and Black peoples’ struggles at the turn of the 20th century. Coming out of the Black Arts Movement and the L.A. Rebellion, global Black struggles for liberation and self-determination punctuate Dash’s film aesthetic, thus making it revolutionary and groundbreaking at the same time. Like other Black feminist writers (Collins, Higginbotham, hooks, Guy-Sheftall, Harris, Crenshaw, Smith, Perry, Cooper), Dash employs film as the narrative tableau for uncovering—literally bringing to light and to life—Black women’s stories, situating their experiences within the nascent, burgeoning, and expanding African diaspora, contested American history, and Black people’s global struggles for liberation and self-determination. This is most evident in the film’s progression. The family’s impending migration parallels the great discovery of photography and the explosive innovation of the Industrial Revolution, as well as the developing metro poles and the shifting Northern landscapes as urban centers. Dash acknowledges the profound importance of the Great Migration to American history; and like Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning opus, The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), Dash’s characters embody Black peoples’ quests for freedom, mobility, and self-determination, thus immortalizing their experiences.

It has been over 25 years since I first viewed Daughters of the Dust. Over the years, I have watched the film countless times, using it in my courses Black Bodies in Television and Film, African American Society and Culture, and The Untold Story of the Great Migration. Most recently in 2016, I introduced the film to students studying North American Literature at University of Malàga in Malàga, Spain. Yet it was fifteen years after seeing Daughters of the Dust for the first time that I had the opportunity to actually speak with Julie Dash, inviting her to give a keynote address at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. To say I had a “fangirl” moment is an understatement. Meeting Dash and discussing what was on the horizon for American cinema, and Black film specifically, was life-changing. While I had conducted extensive research on Daughters of the Dust and had learned of the familial and cultural impetus for her undertaking the project, listening to ←4 | 5→Dash recount her research endeavors, the challenges to securing financing for the film, surviving the oppressive Lowcountry heat, and weathering temperamental storm systems and mercurial talent and crew, made the film that more meaningful for me. It seemed the ancestors old Nana Peazant speaks of—Julie’s ancestors—would not let her dream die. The film, then, is a testament not only to Dash’s creative vision and film aesthetic, but also to her connection to and reverence for her African past and rich Gullah Geechee roots.

Similarly, this book pays homage to Dash’s Black arts aesthetic, one imbued with Black pride; recognition and celebration of West African cultural, linguistic, religious, culinary, ontological, and familial and kinship retentions in Gullah Geechee culture; and the dialectical pull between Western concepts of religion and sacred texts, gender, and individualism, and West African cultural traditions rooted in the collective and communal experiences, which are marked by ancestral reverence and passed down via oral traditions. More importantly, however, this anthology positions Dash’s film within the canon of Black feminist scholarship evidenced by the ways in which her film acknowledges, builds upon, and works in concert with the writing of early Black women scholars such as Anna Julia Cooper, Maria Stewart, and Alice Dunbar and 20th century Black feminist writers such as bell hooks, Trudier Harris, Audre Lorde, Frances Beal, Deborah King, Toni Cade Bambara, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, and others.

The idea for this anthology was born during “We Carry These Memories Inside of We: A Symposium Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Daughters of the Dust and the Black Art Aesthetic of Filmmaker Julie Dash.” The symposium, held at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture in Charleston, South Carolina, convened artists, students, and scholars from the humanities and social sciences, as well as cinemaphiles and devotees of the film for three days of intellectual, artistic, and spiritual exchange centered on Dash’s iconic film. The papers assembled in this anthology collectively provide multiple entry points for examining and teaching Daughters of the Dust as a Womanist film, building upon investigations of the film by scholars including Pacharee Sudhinaraset, Katherine Silva, Michael T. Martin, Laura Gaither, Joel Coats, Donald Bogle, Daniel Garrett, Foluke Ogunleye, Catherine Cucinella and Renée R. Curry, Ed Guerrero, Judylyn S. Ryan, Anissa Janine Wardi, and Elizabeth J. West.


XVI, 180
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (August)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XVI, 180 pp., 4 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Patricia Williams Lessane (Volume editor)

Patricia Williams Lessane is Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Morgan State University. She is a cultural anthropologist who has examined the impact of race, class, and gender in her work at cultural institutions including the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, Museum of Science and Industry, and The Field Museum in Chicago. She is a Fulbright Specialist and holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from University of Illinois at Chicago, a Master of Arts Liberal Studies from Dartmouth College, and a BA in English from Fisk


Title: Teaching <I>Daughters of the Dust</I> as a Womanist Film and the Black Arts Aesthetic of Filmmaker Julie Dash
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198 pages