Let’s Talk Julie Dash’s 90’s Indie: Daughters of the Dust, & What It May Mean For Black Identity

 

 

 

"I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters. I am the silence that you can not understand. I am the utterance of my name." Nana Peazant (Daughters of the Dust), via The Thunder, Perfect Mind

It was through this incredible 90s seminar that I was introduced to Julie Dash and Daughters of the Dust. I thought to myself, “this looks like Beyoncé’s video.” In fact, the year that Mrs. Knowles-Carter dropped her historic Lemonade visual album marked the 25th anniversary for Daughters of the Dust, as well as a seemingly pivotal time in defining and accepting black identity; I don’t think it happened coincidentally.

Daughters of the Dust tells a compelling story of a self-preserved Gullah Island family who overtime, has been able to maintain their ancestor’s unique culture.  They are the direct descendants of the slaves who worked the area.  The film is packed with tradition and gives a new meaning to perseverance. However, after many years, much of the Peazant family has decided to move into the “mainland.” This manifestation of assimilation into mainstream and modern culture is a major theme throughout the film. While the matriarch of the family, Nana, would probably never give the mainland the time of day, others are willing to part ways with tradition in hope of easier life. What they don’t realize however, is that mainland life isn’t as glorious as it appears. (As evident in the return of Yellow Mary)

I began to think about black identity, specifically, black American identity. I can’t be the only one who has felt as if black Americans, to Africans, are another rendition of the light-skinned versus dark-skinned beef. Again, it brings me to question what black identity really is, what it isn’t, and who gets to make these decisions?

Maybe we are struggling so much in determining black identity because for once, we are peaking out of the veil and feeling the need to define ourselves, for ourselves. Daughters of the Dust offers a revelation that the antagonist of their black Gullah identity is influence of European culture. (The mainland) This could explain why blacks from Africa often disregard black American’s as their own, due to American influence in our black American culture. This also helps to explain the dark-skinned versus light-skinned beef, as lighter-skin is too often associated with European relation.

So…I paint the question to you; what really is black identity? Sociologist have long said that race, “black” and “white” are merely social constructs but with what identity does that leave the entire black race when we consistently label the assets of our identity with the inclusion of the word “black”?

Could it be possible that identifying black culture begins with embracing, understanding, and breaking down what it means to be African American? Both African. And American.

I believe America’s war on black people makes it difficult for us to want to identify ourselves as pieces of them, but truth be told, we are. Also, and not to be confused with assimilation, maybe we can come to consider ourselves as the evolved versions of our ancestors. Not to get evolution confused as being “advanced,” but rather “a new model fit for its circumstances.”

What Daughters of the Dust offers us is a chance at witnessing a facet of our African American culture.

Let us consider long gowns in modesty, oversized hats, Sunday’s best with ruffles, white lace and a small dose of sheer, capable of bearing imagination. Let us consider traditional names that speak to our being, and a tongue that makes love with the creole. Let us embrace, and not abuse family; “Eli, your wife does not belong to you, she only married you.” And for our women, embrace your independence, “for it fine to want a man to depend on for only if you need to.” Embrace nature around you and the organics things nature give to you. Try fresh gumbo and weaving baskets.

Let your hair be the feelings that you wear; brief or long, twisted or puffed, free or tamed. To be sassy in demeanor is ok, enthralled with the spirits of your ancestors, but always in love and protection. If you shall dance, dance; Practice your footwork, let your arms go and let your body tell its message. Be spiritual; in whole like your hopped jewelry. Love and respect thy elders in a way the master respected thy whip.

Too, the pieces of this very archive, the years surrounding it, the historical black American events, trials and tribulations, further aid in the quest to define our African American identities.

On this 27th anniversary of Daughters of the Dust, I consider preservation, multiculturalism and evolution. From the time I began to learn in depth about black American identity I felt that black Americans must have it the hardest. Because truly, we are African and truly, we are American. One must come to a place of balance, a place of love, two seemingly polarized identities in which you’ve been birth. Without the impact of this social construct of  what”blackness” means to our European counterparts, the African and the America represents the true essence of double consciousness. (As defined by Du Bois)

-Tysheira Scribner


More To Ponder: In defining black and African American identities Daughter’s of the Dust can give us insight on assimilation as a negative occurrence. I think it is important to note that as African Americas, we are not assimilated, yet more so of heterogeneous nature. 

The 90s Kente Aesthetic

Image from http://www.projectbly.com/destinations/kumasi/meet

The type of cloth we know as “Kente” originated in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. Kente was/is mainly created by the Asante and the Ewe peoples, descending from the ancient empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai from before the 15th century. These empires were located in the general area from the West African coast to as far north as Mali, and as far west as Chad. According to historian Herbert M. Cole, author of Icons: Ideals and Power in African Art (Smithsonian Institution publication), the term Kente may be a corruption of the Fanti word for “basket” – alluding to the hand-weaving process. Cole goes on to explain that only males create the long strips, on an intricate loom. Each design has a distinct name, with proverbs associated with particular patterns – wearing particular colors and shapes sends specific messages you want viewers to understand. Among the Asante and Ewe, kente was often associated with and reserved for chieftains and royal figures – fabric trades with Europeans provided materials for locals to rework into traditional designs. Unlike the 1980s and 90s, kente wasn’t originally sewn into garments for everyday wear (Cole 1990). This historical perspective gives greater context to the recent boom in kente cloth wear, and the newer ideas associated with these designs.

I can’t think of the 1990s without thinking of Kente. I remember being 6-7 years old and going to an independent school called Lotus Academy in Philadelphia. In our yearly closing graduation, students would wear kente sashes, kufis, bow ties and skirts for girls. We would march in the auditorium to Freedom Songs, chants of encouragements originally sung during the Civil Rights Movement. For us, and our parents, the colorful print cloth represented our link to the Motherland, to Africa: ideas of glory, achievement, kings and queens, and societal stability before enslavement/colonization. Wearing kente symbolized that we were continuations of these ideas, the charge that we could reinvent and achieve greatness as our ancestors did. This expression really took hold in popular culture, particularly with the continued rise of several elements:

…hip hop, with recording artists like Queen Latifah, Heavy D & The Boyz, Salt n Pepa (those kente hats!), other artists and fans who sported Cross Colours garb…

…the highlighting and celebration of black college campus culture, with kente prints as iconic motifs for newly-launched Black Studies program materials, “Class of 199_” sashes for African American Studies majors, and the like. With this imagery in academia, Black students tied this tradition to the charge to represent one’s family, community and ancestry – to learn about their past to create new solutions for the modern era.

…African motifs in television and mass media: Michael Jackson dons kente and stands with chiefs in Cote D’Ivoire in 1992. In 1998, President Bill and Hillary Clinton display their kente print during their Ghana visit. Black sitcoms, performances and Kwanzaa specials frequently featured characters who were up on the latest trends, wearing dashikis, kufis, lappas (waistwraps) and headwraps.

…Craft activity books for Black children: With Black history at the fore of many grassroots published workbooks, handouts, coloring books and illustrated stories for children, Kente symbolizes variety and diversity within the Black family and community. This larger theme is evident in a recent Ladybug magazine entry: an arts and crafts project of picture frame decoration. Colors and shapes in Kente are used to prompt young readers to think about the unity in difference amongst their own family members (Kapp 2007). Kente Colors, written by Debbi Chocolate and illustrated by John Ward, introduces small children to their basic colors – matched with poetry and elaborate illustrations of West African life scenes and kente-weaving (Chocolate 1997).

…African inspirations in high fashion and streetwear magazines – where it was often called “ethnic print” or “mustard” cloth. Adidas came out with a brand of kente cloth sneakers – to match the widespread popularity of “conscious” Black History t-shirts and sweaters. For high fashion tastes, prints were incorporated into elaborate dress patterns, tuxedoes, blazers and hats. In a 1990 edition of Black Collegian, Julia Wilson presents a spread featuring hot, new gear on the market. In her section “ Looking Good: Back-To-School with Ethnic Pride”, she notes the following:

“Historians have documented African culture in fashion from the Ashanti to the Zulu peoples. This gives all of us descendants a renewed sense of self in historical terms and inspirational knowledge of where creation began in the first place. From the mustard colored kente cloth being copied today by leading designers to braided and dreadlocked hairstyles, African people have – since the beginning of time – been at the center and forefront of fashion styles – passing along their zest for life through their creations.” (Wilson 1990)

Building on this quote, further interesting positions on this topic are presented by Cole, who posits that:

“..African Americans are now designing cloths, creating outfits, and marketing fashions that owe much to Africa, yet are not, in fact, African. The sensibilities in the Kente adaptations are modern and American-African-American. Surely it is appropriate for Americans whose ancestors lived in Africa, some in Ghana and Togo, to modify and celebrate a powerful African artistic tradition.” (Cole 1990)

Reflections on the popularity of kente raise a need for further analysis. A few questions surface with regards to this phenomenon in the 1990s. What can we learn about instances of cultural and symbolic appropriation with regards to African Americans adoption and revitalization of kente’s use? Is appropriation a valid term to even apply, given a broader question of identity – what is African culture? Who can access it? Can there even be a sole authentic African culture, or correct, authentic cultural elements? I couldn’t possibly answer these questions with this entry. However, I hope this discussion continues with folks to add their insight from both history and personal experience. Kweku Vassall

 

Works Cited

Chocolate, D. (1996). Kente Colors. New York, NY: Walker and Company.

Cole, Herbert. M. (1990). Kente: A Meaningful Tradition in Cloth. American Visions, 5(5).

Kapp, Jody. (2007). Kente Cloth Frame. Ladybug (Magazine), 17(7), 37.

Wilson, Julia. A. (1990). Looking Good: Back-To-School With Ethnic Pride. Black Collegian, 21(1), 24.

love jones: Showcasing Black Love

While the early 1990s offered iconic hood films such as Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Menace II Society (1993), love jones (1997) offered something rarely seen in mainstream film—black love. The film is not a comedy. Not infused with hip hop. Love is examined, revered, and resented—but it is not minimalized. Furthermore, it offers unapologetic black sexuality shown with beauty and whit.

love jones movie poster

Roger Ebert’s opening to his film review highlights the unfortunate rarity of a film showcasing educated, middle class blacks. He explains, the film is “a love story set in the world of Chicago’s middle-class black artists and professionals–which is to say, it shows a world more unfamiliar to moviegoers than the far side of the moon.”[i] Although American television watchers received a glimpse of the black middle class with The Cosby Show (1984-1992), it was a comedy.

Furthermore, Cosby could offer the loving image of the Huxtable marriage, but the limits of the medium of television and family sitcom model prevent it from exploring black sexuality. There are limits to a love story that cannot show sex. Sex is a natural part of love. The film offers tasteful love scenes. It presents images of black sexuality that not only appear normal—but beautiful.

still from love jones

While most hood films centered on stark realism and nihilism, love jones offered symbolism and romance. Writer and director Theodore Witcher did this purposefully. He wanted to give the feel of “a modern Chicago version of the Harlem Renaissance.”[ii] He even distributed books about Renaissance artists such as Romare Bearden to the cast and crew.[iii]

It’s not difficult to see the influence of romanticized visions of 1920s salons with writers and artists debating esoteric topics. But how else do you create a platform to simply discuss love? Throughout the film, characters talk about the meaning of love. It is how we are introduced to Tate’s character Darius as he sits around with his friends in the Sanctuary (a spoken word venue) debating the meaning of love; Darius paints a metaphor of hope and possibility. Soon after he offers a sensual version of love in the spoken word piece “A Blues for Nina.” We also watch Darius and his only married friend Savon discuss the struggle to stay in love.

Ironically both Nia Long and Larenz Tate had major roles in the two iconic hood films mentioned earlier. Nia Long played Brandi, the love interest of the main character in Boyz n the Hood. Moreover, Tate played the infamous killer O-Dog in Menace II Society. Tate’s performance was so convincing that Witcher had to meet Tate in person to see the difference between the gangsta character and the actor.

And love jones continues to have an impact. Tate explains, “‘I get stopped at the airport by young folks telling me how much they love the movie and the actors and the music…It’s a one-of-a-kind film. And it’s still relevant. It’s about falling in love, and we’ve all done that…It’s not about people getting killed, just about people. Love is a universal story, Black or White.”[iv]  Ebony Gibson

[i] Ebert, Roger. “Love Jones.” Rogerebert.com. March 14 1997.

[ii] Ebert

[iii] Poulson-Bryant, Scott. “Jonesing for Love Jones.” Ebony (October 2010): 100.

[iv] Poulson-Bryant, page 99.