Dunham Possessed: Ethnographic Bodies, Movement, and Transnational Constructions of Blackness

Article excerpt

The title of this article is an intentional play on words. "Possessed" plays on the title of Dunham's written work Island Possessed, about dance performance in Haiti.1 There is a clear mysticism in the title that intimates the exoticism with which black cultures could be cast through ethnographic discourses. This article queries, who possessed what? Was Dunham possessed, taken in, saturated by her environment-or did she manage to possess the movements and cultures she observed and put down in writing and on the stage in concert dance? Thus the question of ownership is also methodological and challenges the role of Dunham's primary research approach, ethnography. Does the anthropological approach take hold of the researcher, or is Dunham able somehow to manage the ideological and methodological consequences of her research tools? How does Dunham's particular ethnographic practice as a methodology inflect the trade of cultural information from one place and tradition to another? The "ethnographic bodies" of the title evokes the islanders studied and constituted in research by the gaze that attends them. It implicates Katherine Dunham, the ethnographer herself, as a subject in the symbolic trade of meaning in the making of identities. Importantly, "ethnographic bodies" also describes the bodies of work, both textual and kinetic, that Dunham produced. Movement refers to dance and the transnational movement across land and ocean that occurred in Dunham's ethnographic journey in the early 1930s to find and collect native dance. She studied in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Haiti and inaugurated most of her creative work in the United States. Bodies and movement traveled between nations. The search for and appropriation of West Indian dance moves as a discovery of a more general "black" culture constituted part of the transnational construction of a cultural blackness. The restaging of native dances into concert dance produced under the rubric of the federal government for the WPA Federal Theatre Project in 1938 by black American performers rendered the piece a construction of black United States identity. The performance of ethnography and dance forged black identities that were transnational. By 1969, Dunham was able to articulate that she "practiced, preached, and lived" negritude in the activation of a new blackness.2 Dunham accomplished a precious recognition and connection between blacks across national borders that models a negotiation of difference toward an insistence upon universal humanity and transnational equality. At the same time, Dunham's work participated in an imperial process of identifying the native, appropriating culture, and reinvigorating a U.S. black national identity. Her work demonstrates the difficulties of transnational projects to truly surmount the sometimes subtle boundaries inflected by national difference and power.

Called the "handmaiden of imperialism," the science of anthropology defined those racially and culturally different from the white West as inferior, thus providing a justification for imperial economic, military, and political power around the world. The process of collection and investigation, of research and description, secured studied populations in a hierarchical relationship apart from and below civilization. The process of investigation and representation secured the observed in a position of "other."3 In taking up the methods of anthropology, black artists from the United States participated in its imperial structure. Ethnography as a structure of power and a structure of representation is reflected in many forms of black expression in the early 20th century. It is what they did with the ethnographic material and how they molded the ethnographic perspective that made a difference in the making of meaning. Even though they could not escape them, African Americans shaped these structures through a practice of ethnographic subjectivity. Ethnographic subjectivity assumed a "framework that was contextual, literal, creatively symbolic, and participatory," permitting black anthropologists to reject objectivity (to some degree) and understand their relationship with their subjects in a malleable way. …