Daughters of the Dust and the Place of the Gullah/Geechee

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I was first introduced to Julie Dash’s exquisite film in 2000, about nine years after its release. One of my dear friends at the time, underground hip hop legend Percee P, was an avid collector of black cinema and was providing me with a rich education in the genre. We started with Haile Gerima’s Sankofa, and after discussing my Gullah/Geechee background, immediately moved on to Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991). I was in my early twenties and had recently begun to examine my family’s culture through informal textual and ethnographic methods (reading books by mostly white scholars and probing my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles whenever I got the chance). To see a filmic depiction of my ancestors, and to see the region I’ve come to know as “home” so beautifully captured, was transformative to say the least. But, as I was reminded during The Art Theater’s recent screening of the re-mastered film, it’s the particular tale Dash told that always puts my heart in my throat.

The film centers around the Peazant family as they grapple with the threat and promise of change as some of the younger generation decide to leave their remote barrier island for the mainland (and northern industrial cities, specifically). The land, and the Peazants’ relationship with it, are primary characters in the film. The majestic live oaks draped in Spanish moss or decorated with multicolored bottles, the white sandy shores, and the brackish marshes are not a backdrop to the events of the film but are very much parts of the story. Across the South Carolina and Georgia sea islands and coast, communities struggle to hold onto family land bought and obtained immediately following emancipation, as real estate developers continue to seize land via unethical practices. Many islands have been completely annexed by middle-class and wealthy white Americans and turned into high-income residential areas and/or recreational areas. The vast majority of the golfer’s paradise called Hilton Head was once owned by slave-descendent Gullah/Geechee, for example, as was Fripp Island, a now-gated resort community on which virtually no Gullah/Geechee people live. Land loss also means less access to the waterfront and maritime practices that are crucial for many Gullah/Geechee people’s livelihoods (fishing, crabbing, oyster farming, and gathering wetland grasses and other fibers for making sweetgrass baskets for tourists). Meanwhile, in the lowcountry’s increasingly gentrifying cities like Savannah and Charleston, young Gullah/Geechee people are being barred from city resources and from a sense of safety and well-being as they are increasingly criminalized. When one is familiar with the economic impetuses (then, slavery and other global trades, and now late capitalism), along with the related migration patterns and modes of labor that have conditioned the lives of Gullah/Geechee families like the Peazants, then the significance of place in this story becomes painfully clear.

The Gullah/Geechee are a kind of subset of African American people from the coastal and insular southeastern United States (from southern North Carolina to northeastern Florida), a region referred to as “the lowcountry.” The community is heterogeneous and its practices are in constant flux, but can be identified by some unique phenomena—certain foodways, language practices, spiritual practices, and handicrafts, for example. One of the most significant foodways was/is the cultivation and consumption of rice. After the mid-18th century, when the rice trade became one of the more lucrative in the global market, coastal landowners began to specifically seek out Africans from the Windward Coast of western Africa (from Senegambia to Liberia, approximately), where rice cultivation had been in existence for centuries, as scholars like Judith Carney and Edda Fields-Black have documented. Some historians have also noted that many of these landowners and their enslaved laborers came by way of the Caribbean (Barbados, specifically) and were familiar with the tropical climate and its most suitable crops (sugar, rice, and indigo). It’s not surprising then, that, like for many Liberians, for more traditional Gullah/Geechee folk, an afternoon or evening meal isn’t really a meal without a heaping bowl of rice on the table.

Most Americans are familiar with our cultural offerings like shrimp n’grits or the song “Kumbaya,” but few know where they come from or much else about the community’s history or present. For example, we speak a language variety called Gullah (or Geechee), which was first documented by the African American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner in the 1930s, and that exists on a continuum ranging from a distinct language (a “creole” according to most linguists), to dialect (a variety that has distinctive pronunciation and vocabulary but is mutually intelligible with the dominant or “standard” variety), to accent (distinct pronunciation).

Given my informal and formal study of Gullah/Geechee over the past few years, I expected to find a few inaccuracies in the film—namely, that most of the accents don’t resemble any of the varieties of the Gullah/Geechee continuum. But, many aspects of Dash’s film would and continue to resonate with my understandings of my community (especially the significance of women as stewards of family and culture). Enough of its historical content matches up with some of the many scholarly accounts in circulation, and the core sentiments it conveys about belonging, change, and loss reflect some of my own family’s experiences. Much like my appreciation for Sankofa, I’m grateful for Daughters as a project of spiritual restoration through art, rather than as an educational text. It manages to speak the unspeakable, primarily through image and sound, and by re-creating memory, helps bridge a gaping hole in the African American historical imagination and contemporary self-conceptualization. That is to say, it helps to suture some of the wounds of slavery by fashioning a history that perceptibly connects African Americans to the African continent, but that also attends to the very intense way we belong to this land—even though it has never belonged to us. With the love affair between young Iona and the Native American character St. Julien Lastchild, Dash also hints at the ways America’s origin story is very much about the simultaneous creation/annihilation of the indigenous and the creation/objectification of the “negro”: projects that often overlapped. In many ways, Daughters’ insurgent romanticism is a mode of survival that has animated Afrocentricity, and everyday blackness around the world, since the 1960s and continues to be a valuable tool for surviving an antiblack world.

Daughters also clearly depicts how and why it is that numerous African languages and other cultural practices are often conflated by some members of the African Diaspora (those in the Americas, in particular). These individuals are not confused or misinformed, nor are they appropriating a past and present that is not theirs. Instead, Daughters urges us to remember the disorder of slavery and the meaning that Africans in the Americas made of this, and the film compels us to (re)consider any and all self-making labor among the descendants of the enslaved as resistance to the forced erasure of our history carried out by Atlantic slavery. These are the ways that we compose black humanity—that is to say, this is how we attempt to create a way to be both black (as we were made through slavery) and human at the same time.



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