"Body, Voice, and the Claim of Beauty in Julie Dash's Film Daughters of the Dust" :: in progress

"Body, Voice, and the Claim of Beauty in Julie Dash's Film Daughters of the Dust"

by Anthony J. Cascardi
© Anthony J. Cascardi

Ghost:  “Remember me.”
Shakespeare, Hamlet, I. v. 91

In prefacing these remarks about body, voice, and the fate of beauty in Julie Dash’s extraordinary film of 1992, “Daughters of the Dust,” I want to begin by invoking a theme that links this film to a literary tradition that runs from Shakespeare and Ibsen to Henry James and beyond:  ghosts.  What sense can we make of the power that such spectral presences seem to hold over the imagination, and what, moreover, can account for the obligations that such specters seem to place upon us?  Or maybe the question should be:  why is it we are inclined to imagine certain obligations as having a ghost-like form?  Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” probably the most famous ghost-play of all, gives some clues as to one line of response.  The ghost of Hamlet’s father—assuming that it is indeed a ghost, and of his father—makes a demand on Hamlet that plays itself out in full tragic dress over the course of Shakespeare’s play.  The obligation to remember the dead, and above all to remember the dead father, binds Hamlet’s actions to a past from which he seems unable to clear free except by a plot of vengeance that leads to his own demise.  For Hamlet to remember his father means not just to call him to mind or to hold him in memory but to avenge his father’s murder and his mother’s overhasty marriage to his father’s killer.  In accepting the force of what the ghost says (“Adieu, adieu, adieu.  Remember me”) Hamlet bears the injuries done to his father as if they were his own; indeed, the memory of those injuries displaces all other versions of the past he may have known:  

 

…Remember thee?

Yea, from the table of my memory

 

 

I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,

All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past

That youth and observation copied there,

And thy commandment all alone shall live

Within the book and volume of my brain,

Unmix’d with baser matter.  Yea, by heaven!

O most pernicious woman!

O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!

…Now to my word.

It is ‘Adieu, adieu, remember me.’

I have sworn’t.

(Hamlet, I. v. 97-106; 110-112)

But what would it mean to remember the dead, even the injured or the murdered dead, under some dispensation other than that of revenge?  What would it mean to remember and not to seek revenge?  And how, moreover, might we imagine a ghost born from something other than a resentment of the past?  These are among the questions that I want to ask in connection with Julie Dash’s film—because these are among the questions that Julie Dash herself poses in “Daughters of the Dust,” in part through the figure of an extraordinary “future ghost,” the angel-like unborn child who narrates a story that begins, as all life stories inevitably do, at a time before she was born.  Anyone who has seen the film will instantly recognize the utter innocence of the child’s voice at the beginning of her narrative:  “My story begins on the eve of my family’s migration North.  My story begins before I was born.  My great, great grandmother, Nana Peazant, saw her family coming apart.  Her flowers to bloom in a distant frontier.”[1]

The historical and geographical context of “Daughters” is, of course, quite far from Shakespeare’s England, and farther still from what Shakespeare, circa 1600, imagined Hamlet’s Denmark and the castle of Elsinore to be.  Without wishing to deny the fact that “Hamlet” and “Daughters” confront some related questions on the psychological plane, it’s also quite clear that the shift in historical and geographical contexts, not to mention the social/political and racial ones, makes a profound difference.  Set not on the shores of the Oresund but on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia just after the turn of the 20th Century, “Daughters” is supremely aware of a cultural inheritance that reaches back to a time when “saltwater” Africans were exported and enslaved to work in the production and dyeing of cotton in the Southern United States.  The hands that are stained with indigo dye, seen first in the film as belonging to the young Nana Peazant, are hands that wear the scars of slavery like a pair of indelible gloves.  These are hands that have been forever tinged by the work they were forced to do, officially up until the Civil War, and unofficially for generations thereafter.  Nana:  “this was the worst place to have been born during slavery.  Our hands, scarred blue with the poisonous indigo dye that built up all those plantations from swampland” (p. 105).  But to say that the film is aware of the inheritance of slavery and that these hands represent the embodied memory of it, is to say far too little.  Rather, “Daughters of the Dust” takes the migration of Africans and African-Americans, forced and free, and the history of slavery in this particular location, as generating problems to be solved, as the members of an extended family attempt to make their peace with the present and the past, looking to find their way up North, or toward the future, wherever that may be.  The questions the film confronts are all at once historical, political, moral and, not least, aesthetic.  Some of those questions are raised explicitly:  whether to cross over to the mainland and migrate North or not; whether to leave the island where the Ibo first arrived as slaves, in the hope of embracing “progress,” “education,” “science,” “technology,” “true religion,” and the like, or to stay behind, along with the family matriarch Nana Peazant, as a way of honoring tradition, ancestors, the old ways, and the memory of the past.  Some of these questions can be evaluated as part of an assessment of the promises that a culture rooted in enlightened modernity makes to those who look upon it as a life-ring and who hope to find in it a way of overcoming the past.  False promises some of them, perhaps, but no less false (or true) than the promises made by fetish objects, amulets, “charms” and “magic spells.”  I will come back to this point in connection with Eli Peazant’s profound disillusionment with tradition.  But what most distinguishes “Daughters” from less sophisticated understandings of such questions is, first, a recognition of the equal vulnerability of both these sets of belief and, second, a commitment to the imagining of possibilities that have not yet been seen, or born; the film thereby seeks to chart a way beyond the problems that history seems to have been unable to resolve.  Remarkably, this is also the fundamental aesthetic commitment of the film.  To the list of questions that his film takes explicitly as problems for itself I would thus add one that coincides with my own interest in the enlargement of aesthetics beyond the domain of fine art:  what can aesthetics, in theory or in practice, contribute to our engagement with questions that come loaded with the moral and political weight of oppression and exploitation in the past?  Nana’s indigo-stained hands are an unforgettable reminder of the labor invested in any thing of beauty; they are an unavoidable trace of the material substrate of all embodied experience, aesthetic or otherwise.  If aesthetic experience begins in the body, then where does it end if the body bears the inheritance of suffering?[2]  What response might beauty make to ancestors like Hamlet’s father, who asks that future generations bear the burden of and avenge their injuries, if this is indeed what the ghost in Shakespeare’s play means when he asks the prince to “remember him”?

There is a ghost in Julie Dash’s film, but unlike so many other ghosts this one does not come from the past in any usual way.  She is not dead but yet to be born.  She comes from a place that can best be called the future.  She appears and disappears in the film garbed in the purest and lightest white, speaking in the voice of a child, as if somehow to suggest the possibility of a future that might be innocent of the past while not ignorant of it.  Very much unlike what Hamlet makes of his father’s ghost’s request for remembrance, the unborn child presents the possibility of a relationship to the past that is predicated on something other than resentment or revenge.  Recall the fact that the unborn child is being carried by Eli’s wife, Eula, who has been raped by someone whose identity remains unknown.  As Nana Peazant sees it, Eli’s challenge is not just to remember a past filled with violence, or to forget it--if by forgetting one means suppressing or repressing it--but to accept a child he would rather disown as if it were a gift to him.  Nana is explicit in telling him that the child carried in the womb comes from—descends from--the ancestors.  Standing in such sharp contrast to Eli’s piled-up resentment, the child appears like a transparent gift sent from the future, like the breezes that blow across the beaches in the film, or like Nana’s characterization of the ancestors themselves:  “Call on those old Africans, Eli,” she says.  “They’ll come to you when you least expect them.  They’ll hug you up quick and soft like the warm sweet wind” (p. 97).  

But to say that the innocent vision of the unborn child, like the warm but invisible wind, is bound up with the marvel of seeing a body that is not or not yet here, or that speaks in a voice that emanates from a place that the present has yet to reach, raises questions about the power of aesthetic perception and presentation to shape an alternative to a history that seems attached to resentment and revenge as responses to the past.  These are especially difficult questions because while the film draws on aesthetic resources, the very notion of “beauty” has in recent decades been seen as a mask for the conditions in which oppressed groups have been deprived of the fundamental resources for self-realization and expression, conditions in which they are deprived of body and voice.  Lest the matter of aesthetic theory seem an intrusion at this point, I would point out that Western aesthetics is more or less explicitly at stake in this film from relatively early on, when the too-sophisticated and very smug Philadelphia photographer, Mr. Snead, presents a brief dissertation on the etymology of the word “kaleidoscope” along with a technical explanation of how a kaleidoscope works.  The word, he explains, comes from kalos, meaning beautiful, and eidos, meaning form, and scopein, which means to look. Thus:  an apparatus through which we look at beautiful forms.  Mr. Snead further explains this “science of the beautiful”:  “If an object is placed between two mirrors, inclined at right angles, an image is formed in each mirror.  Then, these mirror images are in turn reflected in the other mirrors, forming the appearance of four symmetrically shaped objects.  Oh, I think it’s just a wonderful invention.  It’s beauty, simplicity, and science, all rolled into one small tube” (pp. 82-3).  We might well write this off as a bit of pedantry were it not for the fact that Julie Dash’s film is itself so taken by things of beauty and seems so genuinely invested in its ability to have us gaze upon beautiful forms.  Indeed, the film is itself drawn to kaleidoscope images:  in the multicolored quilt that waves in the breeze on the beach, in the sheaf of colored fabrics, in the clothes hanging on the line, in the cotton dresses that the women wear, in the umbrella that turns in the wind.  And yet there may be a difference between Mr. Snead the photographer’s version of aesthetics and what Julie Dash herself makes of it.  For one thing, the film marks photography as technological while Julie Dash is hardly convinced that beauty can be contained within the bounds of any mechanical form.  Mr. Snead comes to the swamps of Ibo Landing dressed in downtown business attire, looking utterly incongruous in a place whose beauty manifests itself, without apparent technological assistance, in the form of trees and beaches and the thick vegetation of the swamps.  Having himself become an adoptive child of progress, Mr. Snead’s hands are gloved; his skin appears so light as to suggest the erasure of his African roots over the course of years spent in the city.  That photography is linked to the larger process of technological modernization is clear from a note in the filmscript in which Dash makes a special note about the apparatus Snead is supposed to be carrying as well as through the sepia-toned images of urban progress that we see through the lens of a stereoscopic viewing apparatus—the cars crossing at city street-corners, the light rail vehicles, and the bustle of business people and of modern urban life.  The unborn child captions the images that pass through the stereoscopic viewer:  “It was an age of beginnings, a time of promises.  The newspaper said it was a time for everyone, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless” (p. 106).

To be sure, we ought not to overlook the fact that photography is also one of the ways in which the Peazant family is attempting to remember itself, albeit not one of the “traditional” ways.  Its presence in the film raises the question of the differences between the old ways of remembering and the new ones.  Mr. Snead has been hired by Viola to make a portrait of the group on the eve of their departure from Ibo Landing.  There is something nearly triumphant in Mr. Snead’s exhortation late in the film to the assembled Peazant family:  “Look, .. look up, …and remember …Ibo …Landing” (p. 149).  But why entrust the task of memory to Mr. Snead, as Viola has done?  Is it that the differences between the old ways and the new ones are rather less than more essential, or is it that Viola imagines the portrait as doing something other than remembering the past, such as marking the family’s passage through the gateway to the future?  This is hardly a story about the power of technological forms of remembering, in part because the film is only in part about the past.  “Daughters” is equally about the perception of things that have yet to be seen, and for that something other than remembering is required. 

Since at least the publication of Terry Eagleton’s influential study The Ideology of the Aesthetic in 1990, the prevailing assumption has been that, whether in spite of or through its utopian inclinations, aesthetics masks power and politics, either through the production of a theory of universality designed to underpin judgments of taste that are themselves at heart ideological, or in the suppression of everything that is culturally, historically, and personally specific—including the body—in an effort to shore up certain master conceptions of beauty and art.  If these are some of the moves that have been associated with Kant’s Critique of Judgment, behind Kant stands an anthropological tradition in which race and aesthetics are linked according to essentializing principles drawn from the writings of figures like Petrus Camper, the Dutch anthropologist whom Kant cites, though in a dismissive way, in the “Analytic of the Sublime.”  It would be easy enough to catalogue the ways in which “Daughters of the Dust” challenges essentialist views of beauty just as it works against stereotypical images of African-Americans.  The two are hardly disconnected.  In an interview with Bell Hooks, for instance, Julie Dash commented on the importance of hairstyles in the film, which some audiences might well overlook, and about which aesthetic theory has, to my knowledge at least, had relatively little to say.  Hairstyles exist at the level of what Kant would dismissively call the “culture of taste”; they are culturally embedded and historically specific and would certainly have been ruled out of bounds of Kantian aesthetics.  But they can’t be dismissed if we want to make any sense of this particular film or, more generally, if we want to understand how style plays a role in making a meaningful world: “The hairstyles we’re wearing now are based upon ancient hairstyles,” Dash says to Bell Hooks.  “They mean things.  In any West African country, you know, if you are a pre-teen you have a certain hairstyle.  Menopausal, another hairstyle.  Married, single, whatever.  All of this means something.  There is so much meaning to our heritage that just gets overlooked.  …there was a scene, the scene … with Nana’s mother cutting off the hair and her weeping the milk tears:  her mother’s face was covered with tattoos.  We researched that.  Another scene where the African—it’s a flashback scene where I have some of the earliest members of the Peazant family dancing, we see the scarification on their arms and faces.  Another scene that we did not get a chance to shoot was the family hairbraider braiding the map of their journey north, in the hair design, on a woman’s head” (p. 53).  It is not simply a question of redeeming the aesthetic value of something as seemingly “trivial” as hairstyle but also of transforming deeply entrenched, stereotypical views of particular style-markers, with their racial and gender associations, so that the imagination can conjure new ways of figuring the inheritance of the past.  And that in turn means transforming the representation of bodies in the present, as they appear in this film.  As Julie Dash goes on to say in the course of that same interview, “It’s not only in relation to questions of black female beauty that [‘Daughters’] is unique.  It breaks new ground in its portrayal of darker-skinned people.  We have absolutely no cinematic tradition in which the darker-skinned black male or female body is seen as beautiful…. There is none of that traditional focus on violence” (p. 54).  There is a character in the film who is designated in the script as the Newlywed Man, who plays against the Newlywed Woman.  “Theirs is a visual subplot; all you see of them is their making love, embracing one another, caressing whispering sweet nothings….as a black woman I needed to see a relationship between a black man and a black woman that was not just about lust, was not just about sex or violence or some kind of platonic, mother/grandfather type of situation.  I want to see loving relationships” (p. 55).  When the Newlywed Man meets Eli on the path and the two end up in a tussle there is a mysterious communication between them that works by hand signs and body language instead of by the voice.  It is but one instance in the film of an attempt to show things that cannot be said, or to allow the body to say things that cannot be spoken in ordinary words.  Indeed, the scene is meant as the recollection of an African form of martial art and has something of the quality of a pantomime.  In Julie Dash’s own account, there is a tenderness about this encounter that is of a kind seldom seen on the screen when it comes to the representation of black males.  It’s certainly nothing like what one finds in, say “Boyz’n the Hood.” “And,” she goes on to say about the young women, “we’re [also] hearing things said in a new way, in the Geechee dialect” (p. 55).

But beyond what the film does to shift impressions about the sound and the look of African Americans is what it does to find a place for beauty that departs both from strict ideological/materalist conceptions of it and also from what the idealist Western tradition that Mr. Snead references has made of it.  Both of these are too limiting and indeed Eagleton himself recognizes aesthetics as a fundamentally contradictory field:  it is at once the “secret prototype of human subjectivity in early capitalist society” and also a “vision of human energies as ends in themselves which is the implacable enemy of all dominative or instrumentalist thought.  It signifies a creative turn to the sensuous body as well as an inscribing of that body within a subtly oppressive law; it represents on the one hand a liberatory concern with concrete particularity, and on the other hand a specious form of universalism.  It offers a generous utopian image of reconciliation between men and women at present divided from one another [and] it also blocks and mystifies the real political movement towards such historical community.”[3]  What the choice between instrumentalism and utopianism, or between materialism and idealism, does not explain is how aesthetics can take a role in responding with hope to experience that is itself deeply historical and embodied and laden with suffering; likewise these choices are of little help in dealing with a past that, like Hamlet’s father, seems to call simply for resentment or revenge.  Both deny the ways in which the aesthetic (“beauty”) in fact incorporates contradictions to any rendering of it as either ideological/materialist or idealistic, and neither one is very well equipped to make sense of its role in imagining an alternative response to the kind of history of which “Daughters” makes us so aware.  

The idealist version of aesthetics that we might call “Sneadean” offers no better a solution than what a strict materialism can provide.  Indeed, it sometimes seems surprising to find that idealism ever succeeded as an aesthetics at all, thus hardly surprising that so many thinkers, from Marx to Foucault, have worked so assiduously to re-cover the body from the aesthetic suppression of it.  But the truth is that a theory which began as offering a science of sensuous experience rapidly lost its connection to the material substrate of that experience.  Not a generation after Alexander Baumgarten first began the “modern” tradition in aesthetics, Kant ended up producing an ideal of pleasure that Adorno could with some reason describe as a “castrated hedonism.”[4]  Already in Kant experience was displaced by a form of judgment that knew little of the specific varieties of aesthetic pleasure and that chose instead to limit itself to claims about two overarching categories:  the beautiful and the sublime.  It is not surprising then to find that the tradition of critical thought that reaches from Marx through Nietzsche to Freud and Foucault sought reclaim the body as the ground of aesthetic experience, and that Marx did so in such a way as to recognize the body’s entanglement in the history of a world that simultaneously involved its own reproduction.  That the senses have a history and are themselves produced as part of this productive process is one of the most important ideas that Marx could have contributed to aesthetic theory—I say “could have” because it was hardly ever taken up in any systematic way by theorists of art.  But an even greater and potentially more useful insight was his vision of the world as itself a form of the human being’s body, or perhaps more accurately, as a material projection of the body, accomplished by means of tools and work  “The system of economic production is for Marx a kind of materialized metaphor of the human body, as when he speaks in the Grundrisse of agriculture as the capitalist’s surrogate body, providing him with a vicarious form of sentience; and if the ghostly essence of objects is exchange-value, then it is their material use-value, as Marx again comments in the Grundrisse, which endows them with corporeal existence” (Eagleton, p. 198).  The difficulty with this process of materialization arises from the fact that, under the conditions of capitalism, the projection of human sentience onto the world leads to the dis-embodiment of the body, i.e., to the body’s being transformed into a phantom-like thing, ultimately into nothing.  “For Marx, of course, the greatest ghost is capital itself.  It is a kind of phantasmal body, a monstrous Doppelgaenger which stalks abroad while its master sleeps, mechanically consuming the pleasures he austerely foregoes” (Eagleton, p. 200).

The phantasmatization of the body and of sentient experience as it is projected into the world through capital is part of a critique of capitalism that reads equally well as a critique of technological modernity.  Recall how often it is in Capital that Marx describes the world of factory work, in which the transformation of “raw” materials into useful artifacts is mediated by, among other things, an elaborate technological/mechanical apparatus—machines for spinning, for weaving, and for sewing, mechanisms for transporting and delivering, and so forth, all of which begin as extensions of or substitutes for the worker’s body but which contribute to the displacement and erasure of the worker’s physical being.  These mechanisms and machines are both forms of mediation that go between the worker and the world but are also surrogates for the imagination and the skills that make it possible for there to be such a thing as work, or any other form of praxis, at all.  But the reality is that under the conditions of technological modernity, which for Marx means capitalism, such mechanisms have themselves become inert forms of imaginative and practical energy; they produce sedimented forms of sentient experience, in roughly the same way that Mr. Snead’s camera is an apparatus designed for the mechanical recording and preservation of the past.  One can of course see the camera as a magical thing—and Julie Dash does her part in recreating a sense of the fascination with the technological apparatus of photography in the early 20th century—but one can also see it as representing a historically incongruous intrusion of the “present” and its alien form of memory among a family whose connections to the past have always been made through things like locks of hair and sacred books, through “the newsprint on the walls, [trees] of glass jars and bottles, the rice you carried in your pocket” (p. 95).  As far as Eli is concerned, these things have lost their power.  They are no longer efficacious, serving neither as ways to remember the past nor as protections against its injuries.  But they cease to work not so much because they have been displaced by new technologies for remembering as because they have been unable to relieve him the burden of the past or to protect him from its wounds.  Those are things no tangible object may be able to accomplish for him.  In his utter despair, Eli says to Nana “We believed in the frizzle-haired chickens… the coins, the roots and the flowers. We believed they would protect us and every little thing we owned or loved.  I wasn’t scared of anything, because I knew … I knew my great-grandmother had it all in her pocket, could work it up….  What are we supposed to remember?  How, at one time, we were able to protect those we loved?  How, in Africa world, we were kings and queens and built great cities?” (pp. 95-6).  

Given this level of despair it’s not surprising to see that someone like Viola, the missionary who has retuned to Ibo Landing with Mr. Snead, has embraced photography as a new, more modern way of remembering, equal to her new-found religion.  But it is also her way of marking the passage into the future by freezing the past, making it all but a “prologue” to her vision of the future.  In that vision religion and technology are as much new ends as they are the means to other ends.  Progress becomes an end in itself, a question-begging telos that can be evaluated, if at all, only through the invocation of terms that are already deemed to be essential to it.  “I’ve commissioned Mr. Snead to document our family’s crossing over to the mainland.  ‘What’s past is prologue.’  I see this day as their first steps toward progress, an engraved invitation, you might say, to the culture, education and wealth of the mainland.  Yellow Mary … wouldn’t you agree?” (p. 79 ).  There is something extremely pointed in the fact that these words are addressed to Yellow Mary, for of all the characters in the film she best knows the very thing that Viola seems blithely to ignore:  viz., that things are no better off the islands, in the land of “progress, culture, education, and wealth,” than they are on Ibo Landing.  She knows this from years spent on a plantation in Cuba where she was more or less reduced to the role of a body-machine, forced to take on all the functions of pleasuring and feeding, though without any role in the procreative process.  Little wonder that her version of the aesthetic, as a form of self-interest and enjoyment that is vaguely represented in her relationship with her female traveling companion,[5] is entwined with a cynical vision of history itself.  She believes that what lies “up North” is at best a form of organized and legalized exploitation, and she is determined to get the best she can from it.  

But Eli’s situation is perhaps more challenging still, if only because he is so profoundly disappointed in the ways of tradition that modernity itself throws up as the sources of a possible antidote to the conditions of alienation that it has brought about.  Call this a disappointment not just in the past, but in the promise of a certain kind of romanticism to revive the values of the past.  But one of the places where “Daughters of the Dust” is most complex is in the distance it takes from a romanticized critique of technological modernity, or perhaps more accurately, in the critical justice with which it regards all forms of fetishism, old and new.  “We’ve taken old gods and given then new names” says Nana at one point (p. 159).  In Eli’s version of history, belief in the power of talismans and charms is bound to be an occasion for disappointment because there is no charm that can do what he asks it to.  Viola’s starry-eyed conviction in Christianity is hardly an alternative.  Indeed, there seems to be a blithe ignorance built into her faith (“The lord will carry us through, Nana.  Trust in Jesus!  Nana, we don’t need any charms of dried roots and flowers,” p. 150), in part because it is accompanied by its own remarkable sense of false disillusionment:  “When I left these islands, I was a sinner and I didn’t even know I” (p. 115).  But to return to the fetish-objects that figure in the film, one might say that any faith in the power of charms that requires the displacement of beliefs onto material artifacts may invite the emptying out of those beliefs, and that modern religion can be equally susceptible to this.  The issue is not, strictly speaking, a historical one at all.  The St. Christopher’s medal that Yellow Mary wears around her neck—St. Christopher being the patron saint of travelers—is but an updated kind of talisman that seems hardly discontinuous with a fetishistic attachment to relics and charms.  There is a handwritten notation in the shooting script beside this passage that reads:  “syncretism of religion:  the Yoruba God ‘Bacoso,’ founder of destiny, has been replaced by St. Christopher” (p. 116)

This syncretism could well be regarded as the source of a cynical vision of history and as part of a rather bleak commentary on the present as the mere repetition of the superstitions of the past under some new ideological guise.  But in large measure because of what Nana Peazant says to Eli in their crucial encounter in the graveyard, and because of the beguiling figure of the unborn child, it would be wrong to take this skeptical view of religion as leading to a kind of materialism in which “spirit” is relegated to a merely ideological place.  At stake in the film is not only a sense of the body and its material projection in the world through work but also the question of the materialization of things that are not yet embodied, hence the presence in the visible world of something barely tangible, which I would associate with the voice.  In what Nana says to Eli, the past has a physical presence not just in the here and now but in the future.  It has a presence and achieves continuity because of its location in the body.  But it is not for that reason limited to the body or to any other purely material form.  What we make of the past depends largely on our ability to imagine and recognize the possibility of a hopeful (read:  non-resentful) projection beyond it, into the future; and in this film that requires attunement to the qualities of a voice that may not be fully present, or present in ways that are unlike the ones we are used to.  I think not only of the unborn child’s voice but also of how often the film lingers over the nearly musical cadences of the Gullah dialect and of how it turns its attention to the rhythmical patterns of children’s rhymes, all is if to suggest forms of speech rooted in song or seeking to become song once again.  But this kind of attunement depends as well on clearing the space in which to hear, and that poses the most challenging task of all given the fact that so much of the space of “hearing” for a character like Eli is filled with a resentment that comes from his attachment to a physical wrong.  His resentment derives from a psychology that combines shame and possessiveness in ways that are every bit as damaging as any physical form of injury that he himself might have suffered.  When Julie Dash says to Bell Hooks that she has sought to present a new, more tender image of African masculinity, this still leaves ample room for the physical expression of Eli’s resentment in what is the most violent scene of the film, the one that begins with him hammering away at the anvil and that ends with the destruction of the glass jars and bottles on the tree outside his shanty.  In wise and passionate contrast to the violence of the resentment that underpins his relationship to the past, Nana pleads with him to remember his ancestors and to respect his elders in an altogether different way.  Nana:

“Eli, Eli, there’s a thought, a recollection, something somebody remembers.  We carry these memories inside a we.  Do you believe that hundreds and hundreds of Africans brought here on this other side would forget everything they once knew?  We don’t know where the recollections come from.  Sometimes we dream them.  But we carry these memories inside a we…  Eli, I’m trying to teach ya to touch your own spirit.  I’m fighting for my life Eli, and I’m fighting for yours…  Call on those old Africans, Eli.  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 those old souls come into your heart, Eli.  Let them touch you with the hands of time.  Let them feed your head with wisdom that ain’t from this day and time.  Because when you leave this island, Eli Peazant, you ain’t goin’ t no land of milk and honey.  Eli, I’m puttin’ my faith in you to keep the family together up North.  That’s the challenge facing all you free Negroes” (pp.  96-97).  

Very much the emotional heart of the film, this is the speech that immediately precedes the shot of the frizzled-haired chickens, of Nana’s conjure bags, and of Eli’s shattering of the tree with the glass jars.  Clearly, there seems to be some mode of remembering and carrying forward that Eli has yet to embrace.  While Eli seems unable to overcome the fact of his wife’s physical violation, Julie Dash also holds open the possibility that he might, through a child he did not father, be able to come to terms with a past he wants desperately to disown.  But if that is the problem, then the underlying issue is one that has to do with Eli’s possessiveness over his wife Eula.  In her interview with bell Hooks Dash says  that “It’s Nana Peazant who has to come in and remind [Eli] that he does not have to attach himself to this patriarchal fantasy of ownership” (p. 50).  As Nana speaks it to Eli:  “you’re worried that baby Eula’s carrying ain’t yours… because she got forced.  Eli, you won’t ever have a baby that wasn’t sent to you.  The ancestors and the womb, they’re one, they’re the same” (p. 94).  But Eli insists:  “This happened to my wife.  My wife!,  I don’t feel like she;s mine anymore.  When I look at her, I feel I don’t want her any more” (p. 95).  To which Nana replies:  “You can’t give back what you never owned.  Eula never belonged to yon.  She married you.”  The only defense of Eli’s possessiveness—and it is really just an explanation, not a defense—is that possessiveness seems inbred in a world where so many, even in their names, are defined as chattel:  Iona, Myown, and of course “Eula” herself.  In one of the final shots of the film Hagar tries desperately to claim Iona as her own, crying after her as Iona rides off with her native American lover, the last of the Cherokees to inhabit the island, St. Julian Last Child:  “Iona, Iona, I own her.”  As Viola says, “it’s fifty years since slavery … but here we still give our children names like “My own,” “I Own Her,” “You Need Her,” “I Adore Her,” “You Adore Her”….  We even have a Pete and a Re-Pete” (p. 138).  But while Eli listens to what Nana says about dispossessing Eula, he seems unable to hear her in any real sense of the word.  Little wonder that the voice of the unborn child is beyond his ken.  “Why didn’t you protect us, Nana?” he asks, lapsing back into a posture of demand and despair.  “Did someone put the fix on me?  Was it the conjure?  Or bad luck?  Or were the old souls too deep in their graves to give a damn….  When we were children we really believed you could work the good out of evil” (p. 95). It is in the end easier to blame religion than to come to terms with the resentment that one bears toward the past.  And in this Eli is hardly alone.  Eula knows full well what she must overcome:  “We’re the daughters of those old dusty things Nana carries in her tin can.  We carry too many scars from the past.  Our past owns us.  We wear our scars like armor, for protection.  Our mother’s scars, our sister’s scars, our daughter’s scars.  Thick, hard, ugly scars that no one can pass through to ever hurt us again.  Let’s live our lives without living in the fold of old wounds” (p. 157).

I spoke above about the promises and disappointments of a romantic attachment to the past as an antidote to technological modernity.  That is an especially difficult view to embrace when the past is seen as the source of wounds so deep that they lead to shame. Of all the moral emotions, shame is the one that attaches most directly to the body; it derives its power from the potential of the body to be exposed, and it wears the experience of that exposure as a psychological defense and as a scar.  This may be why the shame attached to a past of slavery can’t simply be overcome by the representation of anything wholly embodied, even if the role of the body in all this cannot be deined.  And this explains the connection between Yellow Mary, who has been “ruint,” and Eula, who has been raped.  Other than the unborn child, Yellow Mary is the only character in the film to appear as a voice and not just a body.  At the very opening of the film we hear her speak before she ever appears.  Her words sound as if in the “universal voice” of accumulated wisdom and experience, speaking in mysteriously powerful cadences about the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, the first and the last:  “I A am de firs an de las.  A am de honored one an de scorn.  A am de whore an de holy one.  A am the wife an de virgin.  A am de barren one[,] and many are my dahtas.  A am de silence that you cannot understan.  A am de utterance of my name” (p. 167).  Eula understands her own connection to Yellow Mary to be rooted in the fact that the two share a legacy of shame:  “If you’re so ashamed of Yellow Mary ‘cause she got ruint, well, what do you say about me?  Am I ruined, too” (p. 155).  Dash’s direction indicates that Eula then clutches at her womb and that the women around her freeze in mid-motion, their mouths open, gaping.  The direction then editorializes:  “Sexual abuse, a legacy of slavery, is part of their unspoken history.  Hearing Eula’s words, the women are ‘shamed’ for Eli and respectfully turn their faces away from him” (p. 155).  Following this direction Eula goes on to say:  “As far as this place is concerned, we never enjoyed our womanhood…  Deep inside, we believed that they ruined our mothers, and their mothers before them.  And we live our lives always expecting the worst because we feel we don’t deserve any better.  Deep inside we believe that even God can’t heal the wounds of our past or protect us from the world that puts shackles on our feet” (p. 156).

And yet, what I have been calling the “romantic” response to the questions posed by this film may seem alluring in spite of all this.  Just think of the figure of St. Julian Last Child, who appears as the nearly sublime savior in the guise of the Native American man, brimming with sexual energy and promising Iona an escape to yet another history, with its own sets of myths.  No doubt Iona regards him as presenting the opportunity to connect with something indigenous, and thus as offering a chance more authentically to inherit the islands to which her family first came as slaves.  For her, the decision to stay behind is wrapped up in a romanticizing of the sea-islands that flies off into a nearly rhapsodic pronunciation of their names.  The enchantment of the love-letter from St. Julian Last Child that Iona reads aloud turns out to be irresistible for her:  “Iona, as I walk towards the future, with your heart embracing mine, everything seems new, everything seems good.  Signed, St. Julian  Last Child…. Son of the Cherokee Nation, Son of these islands we call Dahtaw, Coosa, Edisto, Sapelo, Dafuskie, Ossabaw, Kiwa, Wassaw, Paris and Santa Helena” (p. 91).  

It could be said that there is also a deep romanticism lurking in the film’s appeal to the purely sensuous ways in which the body imprints its patterns on the world insofar as these are linked to the ways of tradition. Clearly the film is invested in the sounds and rhythms that accompany the grinding of grain, in the repeated patterns of heel and toe as they make holes for planting seeds in the ground, and in the nearly musical forms of speech that are integral to children’s speech and to games.  But rather than call this line romantic, I think it would be more faithful to argue that it is aesthetic precisely in the sense that these are all instances of meaning that has taken on a bodily form, of art conceived as a form of embodied meaning.  And yet it is precisely this version of the aesthetic, the making of embodied meaning, that “Daughters” ends up challenging as the route of its response to the past.  “Daughters” accepts and yet strives to transcend this version of the aesthetic in light of the fact that to seek and find an embodied form of meaning is supremely difficult when the body bears the scars of slavery, or when the spirit that seeks to find its way toward the future has been embodied in forms that are branded with resentment and a desire for revenge.  This is no doubt why Julie Dash appeals to the figure of an unborn child, that is to say, to a figure whose most concrete existence is not yet present and whose presence takes the form of a vision and a voice.  To think of art as a form of “embodied meaning” is endemic to a materialist critique of aesthetic idealism, and it serves likewise to hold romanticism in check.  But what Julie Dash proposes is something else, namely that art is a form of meaning in which spirit seeks the bodies adequate not just to bear it, but to unburden themselves of the past, and thereby to transform it.  This project is as much a matter of our immediate, sensuous experience in the present--of what actually exists in whatever non-alienated form we may be able to encounter it--as it is a matter of something more paradoxical, i.e., of our sensuous relationship to those things that do not yet exist.  It might seem an act of hubris to expect aesthetics to succeed where gods and religion seem consistently to have failed.  But if “Daughters of the Dust” does indeed seem to invite such a possibility this is because it remains sensuously in touch with whatever it is the senses cannot fully represent.  And that is equally and the past, which Yellow Mary describes as falling under a “silence that you cannot understand,” as it the unseen future which the unborn child brings.

 


[1] Julie Dash with Toni Cade Bambara and Bell Hooks, Daughters of the Dust:  The Making of an African American Woman’s Film (New York:  The New Press, 1992), p. 80.

[2] In the Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844 Marx wrote that “sense perception must be the basis of all science” (p. 355).  But there is more:  “to be sensuous, to be real, … is to suffer (to be subjected to the actions of another).  Man as an objective sensuous being is therefore a suffering being, and because he feels his suffering [Leiden], he is a passionateleidenschaftliches] being.  Passion is man’s essential power trying to attain its object” (p. 390).   [

 

[3] Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford:  Blackwell, 1990), p. 9.

[4] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 11.

[5]  Julie Dash suggests that this may be viewed as a lesbian relationship.