In One or More Films
In this essay, I would like to discuss the representation of gender in the film Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash in 1991. The film tells the story of a Gullah family in 1902, who live in the Sea Islands (off the cost of South Carolina and Georgia) and wish to cross to the mainland. The family is free slave descendents for the past two generations; and as director Dash argues, these islands became the Elis Island for the Africans, the processing centre of the transatlantic slave trade (Dash et al, 1992, p. 6).
The film is overlaid with many but related topics on slavery, gender, and race, as well as the contrast between tradition and modern life. The main characters of the film are all women members of the Peazant family: Nana the grandmother and spiritual leader; Eula the pregnant daughter; granddaughter Yellow Mary who returned from an immoral life abroad; and the Unborn Child. Through these characters, Dash addresses different themes regarding the position of woman in society, the female body, and her relation to tradition, family, and religion.
Even though I would like to address gender in relation to this film, in order to fully understand Daughters of the Dust we must have knowledge of the conditions of the American South in the turn of the century and the positioning of women. Therefore, in the first part of my essay, I like to give brief information regarding slavery and the Gullah people, as well as a general plot of the film. Then, I will continue with a closer analysis of particular scenes that I find most powerful in terms of questions around gender. The body is very important in this respect because domination and slavery was largely through the body in the form of exploitation, physical punishment, and captivity (Camp, 2006, p. 90). The scenes I have selected involve the main female characters (Nana, Eula, the Yellow Mary, and the Unborn Child) and address different considerations of the female body (the spiritual, the maternal, the exploited, the innocent).
Even though Daughters of the Dust is set in the distant past of Atlantic slavery, I believe that it is still relevant today, not only in terms of representation of the past but also in terms of comprehending contemporary questions of gender and of the position of women in society.
Part I: Background
Daughters of the Dust is set in 1902 in a Gullah community of slave descendants living on the Sea Islands off the shores of South Carolina and Georgia. Their ancestors were taken from West Africa and brought to work in the rice plantations, and were consequently liberated by the Union Forces in 1861. Slave trade in the United States had been gradually restricted and banned for the past 100 years, from the Slave Trade Act of 1808 to the abolition of slavery itself in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment.
More than any other African American community, the Gullah people have managed to maintain to a greater extent their West African heritage. Among the reasons of the survival of the Gullah community was their isolated geographical location. The areas of the south-eastern United States were gradually abandoned by white plantation population because of violent hurricanes that turned the land into swamps, as well malaria and yellow fever epidemics, to which the Gullah were more resilient. Still today, the Gullah is a very active community. In 2005 the community unveiled the Gullah translation of the New Testament; and in 2006, the U.S. Congress passed the ‘Gullah Cultural Heritage Corridor Act’ that provides financial and cultural support to the community for the guard of its traditions and historical sites.
As portrayed in Daughters of the Dust, the spoken language of the Gullah is a mixture of English and original African language, thus, a Creole language found in colonies of white plantation owners and African, or Asian slaves. Most of the names of the members of the group are African or relating to their slavery past, and they engage in rituals, story telling, dancing, and other folkloric activities that are directly preserved from their African routes. The main theme of Daughters of the Dust evolves around the Peazant family, the younger members of which wish to leave their homes and African tradition, and move to the modernised inland. Overlaid to these issues of race and the clash between tradition and modernity, is gender. The structure of the islanders’ society is matriarchic, which means that the oldest and most respectful member is a woman. This was not something uncommon in slave communities where women had multiple roles (in the house, in the fields, raising the children), and therefore were strong figures within their family and marriage (Morgan, 2003, p. 333). Thus, even though the Peazants are not slaves themselves, Dash emphasises the link to slavery’s immediate past through the social role of women, as she does with the dressing habits that we will see later on.
The film pivots around a double break from the slavery past as well as form the African tradition in the form of the crossing over to the mainland to which Nana Peazant opposes. Other important characters are Eula, Nana’s pregnant daughter who was raped and thus alienated from her husband Eli, and the so-called Yellow Mary, Nana’s granddaughter, who returns from a shameful life abroad. The family is preparing a final farewell meal, and American photographer Mr. Snead has been invited to capture the moment. The atmosphere, however, is heavy with the presence of Eula’s unborn daughter, who appears in various scenes and acts in part as narrator. The movie ends with the greater part of the Peazant family boarding the boats to cross the sea, while Nana, Eula, and Yellow Mary are left behind, physically and symbolically, as guardians of history and tradition. Indeed, the island will be the reference point from where the Unborn Child later tells her story.
The film has a high visual quality and won the Sundance Award for Cinematography in 1992. It also preserves the Gullah dialect and shows a careful selection of costumes, while it combines many different modes of narration such as voice-overs and flashbacks. In this way, Dash’s film not only tells the story of women in relation to tradition, family, and male power, but also engages in a certain mode of presentation through the eyes of women’s personal experiences and recollections. Indeed, Daughters of the Dust has been characterised as challenging the popular misconceptions about black cinema and history, ‘a corrective history lesson in the culture where nineteenth-century black people are usually shown dressed according to the codes of Gone with the Wind and the like’ (Alexander, 1993, p. 21).
part II: Scene Analysis
I would like now to discuss four scenes that I find particularly addressing questions of gender, the position of women, and the presentation of the female body. These scenes engage the four main female characters of the film (Nana, Eula, Yellow Mary, and the Unborn Child), and as I will try to show are further related in terms of the conceptualisation of gender in history and society.
The first visual scene of the movie, after the opening introductory text on the isolation of the Gullahs, is a pair of hands full of dust. At a later point, the image returns as a flashback of young Nana taking a handful of earth in her hands and, while this is blown away by the wind, asks: ‘how can we plan in this dust?’; to which her husband replies: ‘we plant each and every year, or we’re finished!’. This scene is a very powerful representation of the spiritual function of women, because it relates to the title of the film and the notion of Mother Earth and Africa, from where all the strength and guidance of the Gullah community is drawn. Also, the crossing over, in which Nana will not be included, symbolises the break from the fertile soil, but also from tradition. As shown in another scene where Nana entrusts the protection of the family on Eli, the crossover also means the shift of the social role of woman from spiritual leader to wife. The dust, just like Nana’s powers, does not only represent the origin of the community, but also the threat of losing one’s own history and culture, as much as life, if one does struggle year after year to preserve this connection alive.
A second representation of gender is portrayed by Yellow Mary. Her return is upsetting for some members of the family because she is seen as a ‘ruined’ ‘hussy’, having an implied affair with Trula, another female prostitute (Cucinella and Curry 2001, p. 208). Yellow Mary resists this stereotypical condemnation of sexually active women when she says that she will not be defined by what the others think of her. Even though Yellow Mary recognises how she has been exploited and mistreated by men, she tries to find the power to live on, and keep on moving, as she says. In addition, I believe, Yellow Mary’s return is upsetting because it functions as a herald of ill fate and the dangers that lie ahead; a shadow that only her people’s spiritual power can make go away, when Yellow Mary kneels and kisses Nana’s talisman and decides to stay. The warning, both spiritual and physical, is not to leave one’s values and traditions behind even though the pass, as the passing of history, is inevitable.
The reclaiming of the female body is further articulated in Eula’s defence of Yellow Mary, when she says:
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. (From the original script; Dash et al., 1992, p. 157).
Eula’s words can be related to many other scenes of the film but also to background knowledge. As Angeletta Gourdine argues, the marked body of black woman (a body politic where gender and race are interlinked) signifies a history of conquest, enslavement, lynching, and rape (Gourdine, 2004, p. 501). The scars are first and foremost the physical scars slaves carried as the reminder of their owners’ violence; but are also the internal scars of women that give them strength and endurance. Moreover, the scars, as in the scaring of animals, is a mark of ownership and in this case, show the racial and cultural identity of the Gullah, from grandmother, to mother, to daughter. The scars finally, represent the plight of women in male society, but also the inner strength to overcome the past and try for a better future.
A better future, however, is still uncertain, especially in a modern voyeuristic society. Mr. Snead, in his modern suit, sets up his fashionable and technologically advanced camera to capture a dying present. Behind this device, he can hide and enjoy an intimate gaze of his subjects. In a shot of the gentry, lined by the seashore in black suits, the Unborn Child, in white, curiously appears. To the outsider-photographer she is a stranger and only visible through his lens, set up to capture a community in a transitional period whose ways he cannot comprehend. The scene also relates to Dash’s own camera and her effort to return to that lost past (see Brouwer, 1979). The connection across past, present, and future, here visual but also audio as narration, is the Unborn Child.
Yet, unlike popular approaches to the objectified and engendered black body (Scully and Paton, 2005, p.20), Dash does not try to hide the complexity of representation of women and narration of the past, as we understand by the fleeting presence of the Unborn Child. This does not mean however that one cannot try. Dash masterfully utilises different costumes to indicate problematic relations such as the innocence or exploitation of the female body (white in contrast to yellow); or the end of the spiritual connection to one’s roots and history and the passage to a modernised male society (blue in contrast to black suits). Other accessories such as hats, bags, shirts, and petticoats relate to the dressing habits of white, rich people – a bright future that the Peazant family seeks, but which also holds many dangers, some of which physical and others of alienation from one’s own routes and tradition. In other words, the Peazants leave behind their African heritage, religion, and social structure in order to pass to the modern, industrial world of men.
Daughters of the Dust is a very powerful and complex film. It discusses many issues, from slavery, race, and history to spiritualism, tradition, and representation. Gender is an underlying factor in the film and of great importance as I have tried to show. The four female characters (Nana, Eula, Yellow Mary, the Unborn Child) that participate in different aspects of the Gullah life show the different roles of women, then and now. These are the spiritual connection to one’s own body and history, the motherly and scared body, the exploited female body, and the innocent child as the herald of hope and a better future.
According to Patricia Mellencamp, the past is a question of memory and history that haunts the present (Mellencamp, 1994, p. 91). Not only in the dust in Nana’s hands, but also in the scars and wounds that Eula talks about, the present is written on the body and the soul of the Gullah people. Even though the bigger part of the family detaches itself and moves to the mainland, the Unborn Child remains on the island, which is thus still fertile and the link to tradition and history lives on.
Also relevant today, the film tells of women’s solidarity that can surpass any obstacles, portrayed in the relationship between Eula and Yellow Mary, and Yellow Mary and Nana. Most importantly, solidarity and hope linger on in the Unborn Child that can be seen as the daughter of all these figures, the child of the world and the emblem of the spirit that cannot be touched, harmed, or forgotten (Curry, 1996, p. 352). Indeed, as the Unborn Child narrates, it was Nana’s words that helped her spirit and guided her in this world.
In this way, the film shows how women can resist the physical as well as psychological violence of men and protect their body, family, and position in society. However, as Teresa de Lauretis warns, one should not universalise sexual difference (de Lauretis, 1987, p. 2). In other words, there cannot be a unified view of the past, nor of the role of women in society. Rather, there are many aspects, and it is this multiplicity that helps us to critically engage with contemporary issues of gender.