“My Story Begins Before I Was Born”:

Myth, History, and Power in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust
  • Judith Weisenfeld
Part of the Religion/Culture/Critique book series (RCCR)


In her 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust, director Julie Dash seeks to derive both a narrative structure and a cinematic style from the West and Central African1 religious traditions that inform the cultural sensibilities of the Gullah people who form the center of her story.2 In taking this approach, Dash requires that viewers enter Gullah culture fully from the outset, and she provides little context for her American audience to translate the characters or the story into the more familiar classical Hollywood style.3 Translation, the film insists, damages the integrity of the unique cultural and social experience of the Gullah people, and, as viewers, we are called upon to take the difficult road of letting go of ingrained expectations for what a film about the consequences of slavery should look like, how characters in such a story should behave, and what the function of religion in the community should be. Dash is so keen on disrupting what American audiences had been conditioned to anticipate concerning how African Americans—and black women in particular—should appear on film that she sought to set the atmosphere of a “foreign” film from the start, beginning with the voice of one of the narrators speaking in Gullah without providing subtitles.4 In this film, which is so much about opening oneself to West and Central African ways of apprehending the world, Dash requires that we engage these possibilities along with the characters in the film, even as we might find the task of doing so confounding or discomfiting.


Black Woman African American Woman African Descent Spiritual Power African Diaspora 
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  1. 1.
    Daughters of the Dust dir. Julie Dash (Geechee Girls Productions, 1992). While there is considerable variety among West and Central African peoples with regard to religious beliefs and practices, it is possible to identify a number of general characteristics held in common across ethnic groups, some of which will be addressed in the course of this essay. For a broad discussion of these general characteristics as they relate to African diaspora cultures, see Mechal Sobel, Trabelin’ On: The Slave’s Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979) and Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1983).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Gullah culture developed among the enslaved Africans who worked to produce cotton, indigo, and rice on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Isolated by virtue of their location on islands and allowed more cultural freedom because white slaveholders were often absent from these plantations, Gullah people developed distinctive religious and social practices grounded in West African traditions. The term “Geechee” refers to African American slaves on the Georgia coast who are culturally similar to Gullah people. The word “Gullah” is generally thought to be derived from the name “Angola,” but Margaret Washington Creel suggests that it may have originally referred to the Gola people of Liberia and that “Geechee” may derive from the neighboring Gizzi people. This would mean that Upper Guinea is the primary source for Gullah and Geechee cultures rather than the widely accepted Kongo-Angola origin. See Margaret Washington Creel, “A Peculiar People”: Slave Religion and Community Culture Among the Gullahs (New York: New York University Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The classical Hollywood cinema is defined both by stylistic markers and particular practices of production and exhibition. Although the boundaries of the period can be set in a variety of ways, David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Staiger argue that the classical Hollywood system was in place from 1917 until 1960. They assert that the system involved a particular style of narrative that emphasizes character and motivation, causation, and the creation of a coherent world in the use of space, composition, sound, and editing and that the style emphasizes a realistic presentation of the narrative. In addition, the vertically integrated studio system in which studios controlled production, distribution, and exhibition of films prevailed. See David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Staiger, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 6.
    Dash was unable to get the support of a major studio during the fundraising period and relied, instead, on other funding sources, including the nonprofit American Playhouse series, the National Endowment for the Arts, and various southern arts foundations, prompting her to comment that, “One of the ongoing struggles of African American filmmakers is the fight against being pushed, through financial and social pressures, into telling only one kind of story. African Americans have stories as varied as any other people in American society.… Our lives, our history, our present reality is no more limited to ‘ghetto’ stories, than Italian Americans are to the Mafia, or Jewish Americans are to the Holocaust. We have so many, many stories to tell.” Without a distributor, Dash took Daughters to festivals in 1991, including the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the award for cinematography. Eventually, Kino International, a distributor specializing in foreign-language films, agreed to take on Daughters and arranged for it to open at the Film Forum in New York City in January of 1992, where it sold out for every show with African American women expressing particular interest. See Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film (New York: The New Press, 1992), 7–26, for a discussion of the production and distribution process.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    Houston Baker, “Not Without My Daughters,” Transition 57 (1992): 164.Google Scholar
  6. 15.
    See George W. MacRae, “The Thunder, Perfect Mind,” in The Nag Hammadi Library James M. Robinson, ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1978). Dash made a modification to the text, substituting daughters for sons. I thank Lynn LiDonnici for her assistance in thinking about “Thunder.”Google Scholar
  7. 21.
    See Lisa Gail Collins, The Art of History: African American Women Artists Engage the Past (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002) for a discussion of this scene as indicative of Dash’s interest in showing black girls as both bearers and transformers of culture.Google Scholar
  8. 22.
    Savannah Unit, Georgia Writers’ Project, Works Progress Administration, Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies Among the Coastal Georgia Negroes (Athens: University of Georgia, 1940)Google Scholar
  9. 27.
    Stacy I. Morgan, “Dust Tracks Untrampled by the Dinosaur of History: The Ibo’s Landing and Flying Africans Narratives as Mythic Counter-Memory,” Sycamore: A Journal of American Culture 1.1 (spring 1997): 7. Available at (October 26, 2002).Google Scholar
  10. 28.
    Paule Marshall, Praisesong for the Widow (New York: Plume, 1983). Marshall’s main character, Avey Johnson, an upper-middle-class suburbanite, becomes culturally and emotionally rejuvenated on the Caribbean island of Carriacau and comes to understand and value her family’s history and traditions in the South. Avey, whose full name is Avatara, learns the importance of acknowledging that she is the embodiment of her ancestors, a truth she had resisted in her suburban life. When she was a child, Avey’s Aunt Cuney told her the story of the Ibo in an attempt to help her construct a strong identity using this communal myth as a grounding. In her engagement with Avey around the story, Aunt Cuney seeks, as Stacey I. Morgan argues, to destabilize “the privileging of Western/Christian narratives and strictly’ scientific’ perceptions of reality” by comparing the myth of the Ibo to events in the Christian scriptures. Young Avey questions the truth of the story. “Did it say Jesus drowned when he went walking on the water in that Sunday School book your momma always sends with you?” Aunt Cuney asks (Morgan, “Dust Tracks,” 10). One of the Sea Islanders interviewed for Drums and Shadows links the power of these Africans to Jewish and Christian understandings of God’s powers, pointing to the magic that Moses used. “Dat happen in Africa duh Bible say. Ain dat show dat Africa wuz a Ian uh magic powuh since duh beginnin uh histry? Well den, duh descendants ub Africans hab duh same gif tuh do unnatchul ting. Ise heahd duh story uh duh flyin Africans an I sho belieb it happen” (Drums and Shadows 28).Google Scholar
  11. 30.
    Thompson, Plash of the Spirit 117. See also Wyatt Macgaffey, Astonishment and Power: Kongo Minkisi and the Art of Renee Stout (Washington, DC: Published for the National Museum of African Art by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  12. 35.
    With credit to Toni Cade Bambara, “Reading the Signs, Empowering the Eye: Daughters of the Dust and the Black Independent Cinema Movement,” in Black American Cinema Manthia Diawara, ed. (London: Routledge, 1993).Google Scholar
  13. 38.
    B. Ruby Rich, “In the Eyes of the Beholder,” Village Voice 28 January 1992.Google Scholar
  14. 39.
    Fatima Tobing Rony, The Third Rye: Race, Cinema and Ethnographic Spectacle (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 8.Google Scholar

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© S. Brent Plate 2003

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  • Judith Weisenfeld

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