Academic journal article MELUS

Property Rights and Possession in Daughters of the Dust

Academic journal article MELUS

Property Rights and Possession in Daughters of the Dust

Article excerpt

Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust (1991) is rightly regarded as a brilliant exposition of feminine subjectivity (Gourdine, Bambara) and diasporic consciousness (Brouwer, Mckoy, Waiters). Less understood are the ways in which the film explains concepts of property and possession shared not only by the Peazants, a Gullah family, but also by a First Nations character, Saint Julian Last Child. In voice-overs and dialogue, the characters describe their relationship to the land on which their family has lived for generations not in terms of individual ownership but in terms of cultural identity. For example, they do not conceptualize their relationship to the land within the terrain of Anglo-American property law, which would emphasize the exclusive rights of an individual property owner. Nana, the elderly matriarch of the Peazant family, understands her family's relationship to the land to be that of custodians who care for it; this is particularly true of the land where their ancestors are buried. She teaches her descendants to appreciate the land because it has fostered the family's identity and culture. Her ideas are similar to First Nations' understandings of their relationship to their ancestral lands. The relationship of First Nations people to landed property is not based on legal rights of an individual to assert ownership and exclude others but instead on customs and communal practices identifying an extensive family lineage with the land. Through an intricate network of visual images and voice-overs, the film "talks back" to Anglo-American political and legal theories of property from the historical period represented in the film, which positioned descendants of enslaved Africans and First Nations people as the dispossessed.

I will analyze two sequences in the film that associate characters and the landscape with communal property relationships that define their personhood. The first sequence to be discussed is a montage during which Iona Peazant reads aloud a love letter from Saint Julian Last Child. The montage positions Saint Julian Last Child and Iona among images of her family members within a variety of interior and exterior settings across Dawtaw Island. The next sequence discussed is set in the family graveyard, where Nana explains to her great-grandson Eli Peazant his relationship to his unborn child and his wife, as well as his ancestors. In these sequences, visual images locate the themes of family, possession, and property in a matrix of historical allusions to property law and legal rights of ownership. The film's setting, Dawtaw Island, is one of the Carolina Sea Islands that provided landing for slave ships until the American Civil War. (1) Flashbacks about Nana, the elderly matriarch of the Peazant family, as a young woman living on Dawtaw Island, as well as characters' narratives about the Ibo, tell the history of the Peazant family; the family's ancestors were brought as slaves to the island, where they survived and sustained a distinct Gullah culture. (2) Before the abolition of slavery, Anglo-American law defined Nana Peazant and others of her generation as chattel property owned by Americans. According to statute law, slaves were not persons with rights and privileges but instead were dispossessed of their liberty and subjected to their owners' wills. In the early-twentieth century, decades after the abolition of slavery, the Peazant family faces a different threat to their personhood: cultural dispossession. To leave the islands in 1902 threatens to dissociate those who migrate to the North from their family, culture, and belief systems. Members of the younger generations desire to merge with mainstream American culture, and they do not appreciate the value of cultural traditions, such as their family's tradition of communal property?

Western political and legal theorists such as John Locke and William Blackstone conceptualize property not as a thing, such as a house, but instead as a relationship. …

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