Academic journal article African American Review

Fashioning the Body [as] Politic in Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust

Academic journal article African American Review

Fashioning the Body [as] Politic in Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust

Article excerpt

Set at the turn of the twentieth century in a mythical port village on a sea island off the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, Julie Dash's 1991 film Daughters of the Dust features four generations of Peazant women. On the surface, the film's plot is quite simple: the characters struggle to reconcile their history of enslavement and their geographical and cultural isolation with the potential freedom and socioeconomic progress that their immigration from the island to the mainland promises. As Viola Peazant explains to Mr. Snead, the photographer she has hired to document the crossing over, migration represents the family's "first steps toward progress, an engraved invitation to the culture and wealth of the mainland." (1) Among the first uttered in the film, these words direct attention to the historicity of the family's movement. Indeed, critics of the film focus almost exclusively on the historical record Dash revises, arguing that the film repositions African American cultural history from margin to center. (2) Such readings also position the film within a matrix of representations that describe blackwomanhood as a tension between raced and gendered subjectivities. Intellectual and practical consensus on blackwomen's marginalization within discursive systems of both race and gender characterize blackwomen by intersectionality, a false center of the two. (3) Teaching and discussing the film has shown me that some audiences have internalized this conventional notion of intersectionality to such a degree that the film's rejection of conservative representations of blackwomen becomes confusing and problematic for them.

Common academic assumptions about race and gender as disparate categories, as well as blackwomen's representations of distinct standards relative to each of these categories, provide immediate but defective lenses for the film's spectators. However, because Daughters does not conform to established standards, or because it mutes them, viewers' most basic identification with the characters and plot is either generally inhibited or deferred. (4) When I taught the film in an undergraduate course for English majors at Louisiana State University in 1998, for example, male students of all ethnic backgrounds found the film difficult to comprehend, and white students male and female expressed an inability to grasp the "meaning," "follow the story," or "see the point." (5) Dash seems to anticipate such responses to her text, reasoning that

   when a work is so densely seeded within black culture, a lot of
   people who are not from the culture will say they find the film
   inaccessible or they will say they find it not engaging. What
   they are saying is that they do not feel privileged by the
   film, so they choose not to engage or allow themselves to
   become engaged. (qtd. in Bobo, 1995, 133)

Whereas Dash focuses on cultural and historical sensibilities, however, I want to argue here that her film narrates political sensibilities as it consciously refuses to enter the "entanglements of market and visual economies" that have made sociopolitical sense of the blackwoman's body (Collins 103). As Greg Tate indicates, Daughters offers "historical subtext" for blackwomen's surface emotions (70). Daughters challenges commonplace notions of blackwomen's place in the body politic and its relationship to it, and it engages their place in "the marketplace of the flesh" (Spillers 76). I use "body politic" here simultaneously to connote the social, political, and public sphere of the nation state, represented in the film as "North," and to juxtapose that political body with the natural bodies of blackwomen, always sexually and/or economically politicized.

This essay reads Daughters as a visual and verbal narrative that challenges the very concept of intersectionality and the illusory division between race and gender that sustains it. The film challenges the muted politic that woman itself names a subject that inherently excludes the film's subjects. …

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