The Sublime Softness of Rising Out of History: Julie Dash’s ‘Daughters of the Dust’ & Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’

“The ancestor and the womb are one and the same.”

Daughters of the Dust (1991) dir. by Julie Dash

Daughters of the Dust embarks on a patient odyssey to recount a poem of a family living on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, wherein 1803, a large group of captive Igbo people took control of the ship that was transporting them and committed mass suicide rather than live as slaves. The Peazants, the direct descendants of this lost existence, are Gullah islanders in transition heading to the mainland, struggling with the fading of old faiths and the scattering of petalled pasts, seeds to the wind. 

Julia Dash – who seems to have no cinematic parallel, whose only direct inspiration is the shared cultural palette of all African-Americans – keys in on the experiences of the black women of the Peazant family. Moreover, Dash makes an aesthetic inquiry into the body, which carries the scars of enslavement. By the end of the 18th century, the Sea Islands were deemed a fruitful network of cotton, rice, and indigo plantations. The echoes of this lived landscape, soon ravaged by imperial siege, manifest physically on the women’s purpled hands, carrying the indigo hue which returns us to a kind of documentary practice, reminding us of the history which hovers over the racialized subject as an image of captivity. The lives of the body always seem to exceed the body’s dispossession. Dash transfers the (indigo) blues from the ears to the hands; these blues are not heard but seen. They are bruises of racial makeup, a kind of enduring, Shakespearean marker of violence that cannot be washed off. 

Daughters of the Dust (COURTESY: Kino International)
Beyoncé’s Lemonade (COURTESY: Beyoncé)

Daughters is a work splintered into small, prismatic shards of meaning which lend to an examination of its own cinematic purpose. However, a summary of Dash’s storyboard process in the construction of Daughters leaves no space for the shimmering, artistic mystery ingrained in the film’s autonomous choice to tie its content directly to its form. Within the depth of her rambling, in-the-margins poetry, Dash distills time, decelerates it, fixes it into her own theatrical poise as the episodic haze of intergenerational trials and tribulations meander between closeness and distance. Without preconceptions, we enter the luminous fullness of Dash’s fabular canvas; the erratic bend of braided hair; the haunting, gaunt cheekbones of a mulatto woman; all serve a purpose. The setting is aesthetically akin to turning one’s back to the sea, unable to visually perceive the ocean, yet capable of hearing the waves lapping ashore. Here, Dash presents an allegory of painting while blind. The discovery of elemental cruelty and its indifference – the nurturing, ripening, ravishing, and shiftlessness of it all. And humanity is compelled to be the eloquent guardian of its culture. 

Daughters of the Dust (COURTESY: Kino International)
Beyoncé’s Lemonade (COURTESY: Beyoncé)

In this manner, the film achieves something ungraspable to the original gaze of Eurocentric, linear storytelling. It gorgeously unbinds itself, resisting subjugation to the tyranny of intelligibility to a mainstream audience. Dash accomplishes the call-to-artistic-arms W.E.B. DuBois, and Langston Hughes demanded in Souls of Black Folk and The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain at the turn of the century. In contrast to the poet who saddens Hughes with their desire to be a white poet, Dash says with Daughters, “I don’t want to be just a poet, I want to be a Negro poet.” This does not mean that Dash’s film is defined by its blackness, but rather that its blackness is, in effect, one driving element of its ultimately humanistic form of artistic observing and rechannelling of the world. The deep-heavy Gullah accents are neither homogenised-American nor completely foreign; they are the hybrid that we see celebrated in other recent American gems, such as Tangerine (2015) and In Jackson Heights (2015). 

Initially conceived in 1975, Dash planned to make a short film with no dialogue as a visual account of a Gullah family’s preparation to leave their Sea Island home for a new life in the North. She was inspired by her father’s Gullah family, who migrated to New York City in the early 20th century during the Great Migration of African Americans from the southern states. Her narrative forms were also inspired by the writing of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Melville Herskovits. As the story developed for more than 10 years, Dash clarified her artistic vision and, together with Arthur Jafa, put together a short film to use for marketing. Her involvement in the L.A. Rebellion, a movement of artists and filmmakers who emerged from UCLA in the wake of the 1965 Watts uprising, rendered Dash a pioneer of cinema when black voices were at their most silenced. While some directors, such as Spike Lee, made black cinema within a mainstream commercial aesthetic in part for greater visibility, the L.A. Rebellion’s approach was to entirely reject white cinema, staying wholly within the confines of independent cinema to create an unfiltered aesthetic. 

It seems that the contemporary adaptation of this revolutionary space for art has emerged unexpectedly within the hands of what Dash seemed to have been trying to subvert: the capitalistic mainstream culture itself. Notably, Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016) has not only risen as a digestible, visual album but as a contemporary anthem for the retribution of black women. Synthesizing the aesthetics of Warsan Shire’s poetry, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s intersectional feminism, and culturally compelling visuals of black life writ large, the album is an overt homage to the complexity of black womanhood. Shire, London’s first Young Poet Laureate, distills Dash’s exploratory vision of African migration into ardent words: 

“Well, I think home spat me out, the blackouts and curfews like tongue against loose tooth. God, do you know how difficult it is, to talk about the day your own city dragged you by the hair, past the old prison, past the school gates, past the burning torsos erected on poles like flags? When I meet others like me I recognize the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue, or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.”

From “Conversations About Home (At The Deportation Centre)”

At its core, Lemonade traces a story of infidelity and reconciliation. But the film deals with much more than that. Beyoncé gives her viewers an unfiltered look into black womanhood and police brutality. A snippet from a speech by Malcolm X declares, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” Throughout the cinematographic journey she takes us through, the singer transplants Dash’s images of diasporic beauty, such as the integration of elemental symbols which provide confessional spaces (trees), purification and movement (water), cultural heritage (food), sorrow and love (motherhood). It is clear that Daughters is used as a predominant source text for Beyoncé’s artistic production, making it a consumable and layered citation of shared affective histories with colonial encounters, slavery, and contemporary anti-black violence. Through Lemonade, she embodies the Unborn Child who narrates the living black archive of the ever-fleeting now. 

Daughters of the Dust (COURTESY: Kino International)
Beyoncé’s Lemonade (COURTESY: Beyoncé)

Dash, also a fan of Beyoncé, remembers how she felt when she watched the films for the first time: “It just took me places that I had not been seeing in a long, long time,” she told Vanity Fair. “It just re-confirmed a lot of things that I know to be true about visual style and visual metaphors. And the use of visual metaphors in creating, redefining, and re-framing a Creole culture within this new world.” Both creatives, therefore, explore the importance of the journey of black women migrating through space and time and finding healing in the traditions of their ancestors as they seek to define themselves in response to exclusion or rejection.

Despite how far we’ve come as a society since 1902, when one sees Sofia Coppola casually erase all women of color from her remake of The Beguiled, or Ana Lily Amirpour subject black characters to brutal violence at the hands of white ones in The Bad Batch, one recognizes the continuing importance of films like Daughters of the Dust. Nevertheless, there still exists a resistance within the confines of the creative industry that continuously stunts opportunities for racial equality; for it seems we have not listened to Dash’s nor Beyoncé’s pleas for justice. Writing for Vice, Nijla Mu’min articulates the frustration which has emerged from this additional territory of subjugation: “For every blog and celebrity statement about the misfortune of the Academy, there’s a filmmaker striving against all odds to make his or her movie or get into a writing room on a TV show. There’s a woman writing a character we’ve never seen. There are the sounds of exciting, groundbreaking voices that will be silenced if we don’t pay attention.”

This film left me humbled that a legend born of a bloody revolt of enslaved “water-walkers” could provide the basis for a film as gentle and as soft-spoken as this. Suffused with a melody of dream logic, this longing meditation on home is in many ways a form of resistance to everything it does not resemble – that is, the classical slave narrative – for it is a formless space suggestive of a romantic vision of cinema that is in transition, on a pilgrimage to rediscovery. Should we stay? Should we go? Can’t walk home. Can’t take it with us, either. So what now? Do we head North? With naked and defiant simplicity, these are the questions posed by the Peazant family as they debate amid the palm fronds and Spanish moss, feasting on platefuls of crawdads, okra, crab, and gumbo while the mournful strains of the sunset Maghrib meld with the crashing waves of the Georgia coastline. However, against such a backdrop, a question takes shape, challenging our impatience: What’s the rush?

Why do we long to re-cross that perilous sea to recover a home that is no longer ours? Why rush to the mainland only to embroil ourselves in a trauma we have so blessedly avoided in our solitude? 

And so, the eponymous daughters, ever on the verge of an incipient Northerly sojourn away from their idyll Ibo Landing, talk, create, embrace, and walk.

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