It is 1902, and the Peazant family is celebrating. Black women in white dresses twirl on the white sand, bordered by blue water and blue sky, clapping hands and playing games. They are preparing to pass over to the mainland, and what's past is prologue, says Viola Peazant. The Christian missionary and cousin is returning to her family to mark the occasion, photographer in tow. Meanwhile, Nana, the matriarch, sticks to her home in the woods. She fears what may be lost when her clan migrates north without her.
And from another plane, the Unborn Child, a product of the rape of Eula Peazant, looks on, skipping and galloping as she tells her audience the tale of the family she is to be born into on the eve of the next chapter of their lives. Underlying this celebration are clashes between new and old ideals, between the chaste and the supposedly wicked, between what women want and what is expected of them.
This is the fiction. In reality, it is 1989, and there was a hurricane, the worst to hit Charleston in recorded history. This is when Julie Dash makes her film about the Peazant family. And by doing so, and by presenting Daughters of the Dust at the Sundance Film Festival and by having her movie distributed by Kino International in 1992, she became the first African-American woman to have a feature in general theatrical release. And she introduced the public to a culture that, while seemingly alien to most, exemplifies American and human history.
Daughters of the Dust tells the story of the Peazants — a Gullah-Geechee family — but it also tells the story about women and the expectations that come with being a woman. It's about keeping your ties to the past while progressing toward the future. The film is as unique as it is universal, and it is now 20 years old.
As Daughters reaches its platinum anniversary, the Avery Research Center of the College of Charleston, as well as the Carolina Low Country and Atlantic World and African American Studies programs, the International African American Museum (IAAM), and the South Carolina Historical Society, will host a two-day symposium on Sept. 16-17 commemorating the milestone. Professors from the University of California San Diego, Morehouse College, and as far away as Spain; Gullah artists like Jonathan Green; and actors and crew members from the film will present lectures and panel discussions on topics tied to the production and Gullah culture. The event will culminate with the creation of a bottle tree, where colorful glass bottles are placed on branches to trap evil spirits, and an outdoor screening of the film at Hampton Park, which is co-sponsored by the Charleston City Paper. Dash herself will give a keynote address.
Concurrently, the Charleston County Public Library has selected Dash's novel Daughters of the Dust, a sequel set 20 years after the film, for their annual One Book Charleston County program. In addition to giving out 4,000 free copies of the novel to interested readers, the library will host discussions, lectures, film screenings, and more activities at its various branches through Sept. 29.
In 1992, Julie Dash released the book Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African-American Woman's Film. In it, she candidly describes the production of Daughters from conception to release. Some of the details are staggeringly frank; she discusses the abortion she chose to have in order to see the film through to the end and the time she was almost violently confronted by one of her male actors.
Now looking back, Dash tells the City Paper that one of her favorite memories of that time is of the coastal beaches. She reflects warmly on shrimp burgers from St. Helena Island's Shrimp Shack restaurant and drives along Sea Island roads. "I love the way the sand dances as it travels across the hard pack at the shoreline. It's magical, impressionistic," she says. "We worked on the beaches, filming among the high dunes from sun up to sundown. I've been to many different countries, have visited many beaches, but I've never seen this before and never had the same feelings I have along our Atlantic coast." The crew arrived at Lady's Island, another Sea Island, right before Hugo; the hurricane hit the region the week filming was supposed to start. They packed away everything they could in six hours and evacuated to Atlanta. Luckily, the main filming locations were mostly spared. "Once we returned, I chose a new location for one of the closing scenes around one of the large oak trees that had been taken down by the storm," Dash says.
While running short on cash and high on stress, the director shot Daughters on St. Helena over 28 days in 1989. The feature opened in January 1992 at New York's Film Forum. "Daughters is a non-linear film, not like television, more like a foreign film to most viewers," Dash explains. It's treated with a dreamy aesthetic and told from multiple vantage points, a technique that may leave a typical moviegoer perplexed. Some enthusiasts have told Dash that they've watched the film more than 20 times, while other less-devoted viewers can't even make it through a single screening, finding it inaccessible. She adds that it gets different reactions depending on where it's screened, and apparently, international audiences from England to Japan never seem to have a problem accessing what to them should be an especially unusual culture. "I think that's because outside of the United States, most people speak several different languages and they are in daily contact with many people of different cultural backgrounds, so there's less resistance to storytelling that's unlike your typical American television show or Hollywood blockbuster movie."
Dash believes that now, in a new millennium, Daughters still remains foreign, but she hopes it can ultimately serve as a visual building block, one of many films about American history. The hopes and concerns the Peazants face in light of their move — the desire for a better future, the concern for what may be lost with assimilation — is recognizable to any immigrant or emigrant. "It's the cinema of ideas and themes associated with our history: a family drama about migration."
Patricia Williams-Lessane's former students will tell you that they loved Daughters of the Dust, but they hated watching it with Professor L. When using it in her classes, the executive director of the Avery Research Center would recite all of the lines from her seat in the corner of her classroom as the movie played.
Lessane was living in Atlanta when she first heard about the film and attended an outdoor screening at Piedmont Park in the early '90s. "I remember going and just being so amazed and transformed by the film. I remembered looking at it and being reminded of works by African-American women writers like Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall and Gloria Naylor, and I just instantly had a kinship with the film." This was right before Lessane went on to grad school at Dartmouth College, where she received her master's of liberal arts and sciences while doing work on black women's literature. Taking an interdisciplinary approach to her research, she used Daughters in her thesis. "Once I started teaching, I started using it in anthropology courses, in women's studies courses, and in English, so I've always used this film to talk about Africanism and the African-American experience."
In 2008, while serving as a museum consultant for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Lessane developed the programming for their annual black creativity exhibit, which that year focused on blacks in television and film. She included a film series with Daughters, and Dash participated in a panel discussion with other black women filmmakers. The two became friends.
When Lessane was offered her current position at Avery last year, it dawned on her how important it was to do a commemorative conference around the film. She was planning on hosting a similar event in Chicago, but having it in Charleston is important for a number of reasons. "When you think about Charleston, and it is the place where over 40 percent of all enslaved Africans were bought and transported during the Atlantic slave trade, it's that power of place," Lessane says. "It is an important place in terms of African diaspora and identity, of which the Gullah tradition is part and parcel of."
At the point Lessane discovered she'd be moving to South Carolina, she didn't even know that Dash had a family connection to the Avery — her father and uncles graduated from the Avery Normal Institute, the free secondary school for African Americans built in the 1860s whose building currently houses the research center. Dash had also spent her adolescent summers in Charleston. "It's also important because of Julie's connection to Charleston. In many ways, she's one of Charleston's own whose work really elevated the profile of this culture."
The Avery did a call for submissions for papers to be presented at the symposium, receiving proposals from across the world. (They also hosted a juried art competition, which opened earlier this month.) The goal is for the presentations to be interdisciplinary, focusing on issues like women's rights, migration, agency and education, African spirituality, Christianity, sexuality, and more, presented by a variety of experts. Dash will deliver the keynote address on Saturday during lunch. "It will be the public's opportunity to really engage with Julie and for her to really give them a snapshot of why this particular story for her and the impact that it had on her life as a black woman filmmaker," Lessane says.
Beyond the narrative of the story and its affect on viewers, Daughters influenced the cast and crew who worked on the film, a handful of whom will take part in a panel discussion to share their memories. "It's not a scholarly conversation," Lessane says. "These are people who are talking about their experiences and how it impacted their careers today and their ideas about Gullah, African-American, and, more importantly, American culture, this hidden American tradition."
Dr. Ade Ajani Ofunniyin, a cultural anthropologist and former provost of the American College of the Building Arts, will also speak at this particular panel. The grandson of blacksmith Philip Simmons served as a crew member on Daughters, helping to design and build its sets. "It was a collective artistic rendering of Julie Dash's interpretation of a period in African-American history and of that Gullah experience," he says. "All of the artists that were involved, under Julie's directorship, worked to create that, those icons representative of Gullah traditions in that particular period of time."
In the two decades since the film's release, Ofunniyin estimates that he's seen the film 50 times and has shared it with at least that many people, who have then shared it with others. He's used the production in the classes he teaches and says that his involvement inspired him to return to graduate school, get his Ph.D, and help contribute to the preservation and promotion of Gullah culture and traditions.
Dash finds the symposium quite humbling. She's looking forward to seeing the artwork influenced by her film, participating in the building of the bottle tree, and meeting the attendees. "I'm going there to listen," she says. "I have no way of knowing in advance what the gathering of scholars will present or what take they have on the film's subject matter and themes, but I'm looking forward to the sharing of ideas and concepts."
In Dash's film, the Peazant family greets a wayward daughter for the first time in years: Yellow Mary, their prostitute cousin. The Hairbraider, played by Vertamae Grosvenor, looks on from the beach, bitingly declaring the other woman a "shameless hussy."
While this statement is evident of the women's issues the film addresses, the casting choice is a less obvious declaration of the Gullah theme. Decades before the release of Daughters of the Dust, Grosvenor herself furthered the publicity of Gullah-Geechee culture when she released Vibration Cooking: The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, a popular cookbook based on traditional recipes and folklore, in 1970. Dash shows Gullah cooking in her film as well, with women cutting okra and preparing crabs and shrimp for gumbo. This continued progression of the spread of the culture is the result of years of academic and artistic projects, including Grosvenor's book and Dash's film.
"I think it's less of a mystery to most these days," Dash says. "A great deal of research has been done, and in the latter part of the 20th century a lot of books were published about patterns of retention in relation to the descendants of African slaves." She points out Gullah Gullah Island, a children's television show starring Ron and Natalie Daise that ran for three seasons in the '90s on Nickelodeon and in syndication throughout the 2000s. Locally, there's Native magazine, a publication aimed at Charleston's African-American community, which launched in February.
"The film did a very great feat in terms of introducing the culture and traditions to a wide international community," Lessane says. "I think that with the development of the national Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, with the establishment of the South Carolina African-American Heritage Commission, with organizations like that, with the Gullah tours, with books by people like Joseph Opala and the art of Jonathan Green, now, while people might not have a substantial or substantive understanding of what Gullah culture is, I think that people at least have some concept of what it is you're talking about when you say 'Gullah.' "
Ofunniyin believes that Daughters serves as a reference point for Gullah; for example, in one scene, Nana Peazant weaves a sweetgrass basket. This image may be commonplace to residents and visitors of Charleston, but it was not so familiar to people outside of the Southeast before the film's release. However, Ofunniyin is less optimistic about a continuing overall understanding of the culture. "Despite the efforts of the artist and the community of artists that participated in the creation of this film, there's still not a full appreciation of Gullah cultures and traditions, and perhaps even an appreciation of artists who take it upon themselves to represent Gullah culture and traditions, through their expressive art forms." At his panel, he hopes to discuss the need for the current generation to look more deeply at what contributions Gullah people made not only to the Lowcountry community, but as it spread beyond it. "I think that it's essential that young people appreciate their history. Without a full appreciation of your past — and I'm not the first to say this, so this won't be the first time you've heard it — if you don't know where you came from, you don't know where you're going, and you essentially don't know where you are."
The consequences of one's desire to capture the American dream exemplify the film's universality. "Here are people who were doing it in the backdrop of Reconstruction, and in many ways the failings of Reconstruction, yet they had not lost hope," Lessane says. "I think that given the time period that we're in today, when most Americans are struggling, to be able to watch a film about a family that refused to give up hope and that clung to the American dream, it is inspiring to hear people who are willing to do whatever they need to do to make sure that their children are educated and protected. And if that's not the American dream, I don't know what is."
And as much as Daughters represents the Gullah community, it is very much a women's film. Dash says that its focus is on the growth and change within the culture of women, illustrated by those within a large extended family living on a remote island. The relationships between Nana Peazant and her daughters and her granddaughters change as the younger generations decide to leave her behind. Viola explains that Nana has no right to judge, that she's never known anything besides this island that she was born on. Truthfully, the matriarch is afraid.
Sexuality is another issue. "At the heart of this story, there's this idea of black women being ruin't, as a result of having premarital sex or having been raped or having been jilted, etc.," Lessane adds. Eula, who was raped and is now pregnant, and Yellow Mary, who was essentially forced into prostitution, both deal with this stigma, the idea that black women can never be whole or can never be respected. The women in Daughters, Lessane says, struggle to have agency and self determination, and to have love. In the film's climax, Eula insists that the past that Nana wants so badly to hold on to is what ruin't its women. If the women live in the past, they will carry its scars. Instead, they must love and accept those they've cast out, like Yellow Mary, and they must embrace whatever new opportunities are presented to them.
If you've never seen Daughters of the Dust, either when it was released theatrically or since then on video or DVD, the Avery's symposium will give you the opportunity to view it, as well as study it from both historical and personal perspectives. "I want to encourage the Charleston community to come out, because that's oftentimes the problem," Ofunniyin says, fearing that the event will pass unnoticed locally. "We bring symposiums to Charleston and we bring people with different ideas and knowledge, and the Charleston community doesn't participate. And especially, we're still a polarized community. Whites, blacks still don't gather and benefit from experiences that our ancestors had that were common experiences, even though they were different experiences."
As Lessane says, Daughters is not simply an important piece of African-American history and tradition. It isn't even just an American story. "It is a human story that is about family, about love, about struggle, about dreams, and it is beautifully captured."