By Precious Agbabiaka
I remember just over a year ago being completely captivated by Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade. The scenes belonging to the chapters “Hope” and “Redemption” from the hour long masterpiece brought me so much joy and renewed sense of pride as I bore witness to black girls and women, including some familiar faces, coming together to show the world the power in unity and the beauty that is black girlhood/womanhood. Little did I, and many others, know that much of the cinematography, historical referencing and the theme of inherited customs and traditions drew inspiration from Julie Dash’s Sundance-winning film, Daughters of the Dust.
Set in the early 1900s on a small island along the South Carolina-Georgia coast, Daughters of the Dust is a beautifully told story centred around the Peazant family. The film follows three generations of Gullah (descendants of West African slaves who have managed to preserve many of their African traditions) Peazant women – and how they emotionally navigate the pending migration of their family from the beloved island they’ve called home since their ancestors were brought over from Africa, to the U.S. mainland. The film specifically recounts the moments leading up to and including their last supper together on the island and eventually, their departure.
Dash uses her cultural knowledge of the Griot, the West African traditional oral story teller who uses songs, dances and poems, to narrate the last moments of a Gullah people in an unconventional way. She tells the story of a family with West African heritage in the custom of pre-colonial West Africa – through an assigned storyteller. Dash’s Griot, known as “The Unborn Child,” is the spirit of Eula Peazant’s baby, whose soul manifests itself physically, though invisible to the naked eye, to guide the family but is also deeply connected to their ancestors enough to tell of their past. Traditionally, Griot’s were much older and were commissioned artists or elders within the family, whose role was to pass on the memories, history and traditions to future generations through song and other art forms.
Throughout the film we observe the all-too-familiar generational divide between matriarch, Nana Peazant, her three granddaughters: Yellow Mary, the prostitute, Viola the devout Christian and Haagar the self-righteous granddaughter in-law, and Haagar’s daughter, Nana Peazant’s great-granddaughter, Iona. Nana is adamant to hold onto the rituals and history of her family. She struggles to comprehend life outside of Dawtuh Island, away from where older and younger generations are buried and away from a culture she holds dear. Nana spends much of the film telling stories of the past and reminding her lineage who they are but also mourning what she feels will be a loss of heritage as a result of the migration North. Whilst their opinions and lifestyles differ, Nana’s three grandchildren share the belief (some believe more than others) that it’s time for their old ways of living to come to an end and their family must move to the more “civilised” mainland where Yoruba talismans are replaced with Bibles. Then there’s Iona who, along with the other children on the Island, simply embody what it means to be carefree black children concerned only about love, fun and being together.
Daughters of the Dust, whilst set an age ago and on a land far from British borders, undoubtedly parallels areas of our lives as Black people living within the diaspora. Nana’s protest to leave, depicts the inner turmoil felt by many of our parents and grandparents. The understanding that accepting the “invitation to culture, education and wealth” to a land dominated by others could lead to the loss of ‘home’, culture, language and history which already for Nana Peazant was becoming a reality as she watched her grand-daughters reject and replace their West-African based sociocultural beliefs for necklaces of saints. We also see the development of what we have termed colourism, classism and respectability politics, and we’re reminded that the consumption of black female bodies by white people has been long-standing.
Senegalese director and screenwriter, Ousmane Sembene, once said that filmmakers are modern-day Griots. Daughter of the Dust is a powerful and relevant post-colonial story filled with captivating imagery, historical references to events such as the Ibo Landing and is a piece of art lathered in ancient yoruba-based music, folklore and symbolism. A quarter of a century later and Dash is still passing on stories, inspiring, generations with this ground-breaking film, like the true Griot she is.
Daughters of the Dust has been rereleased by the BFI to celebrate 25 years since it’s original release. Catch it all over the country from 2 June.
Although born and raised in London, Precious Agbabiaka is an Art Director based in Nottingham. She’s also a freelance videographer and editor and loves to write about film, black womanhood and identity for gal-dem.com. On Twitter she is @AsToldByPresh and @PreciousGNSD
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