In 1991, New York City native Julie Dash made Daughters of the Dust, a gorgeous pastiche of a film dense with African symbolism and a distinctly feminine spirituality. Set in the 1890s on a remote South Carolina sea island, it documents life among members of the Peazant family, Gullah people descended from slaves and caught in the balance between encroaching progress and old traditions. Speaking their own dialect, a creole of English and West African speech patterns, the Gullah people in the film symbolize the beauty of the old ways--ways that are in direct conflict with rampant Westernization.
On the strength of that one movie, Dash continues to be revered by a loyal following. More recently, she's written a novel of the same name that updates the saga of the Peazant family. She'll appear this weekend at Through My Sister's Eyes, a women's film festival featuring a notable roster of guests including literary figure Maya Angelou and folklore scholar Dr. Beverly Robinson. A large part of the festival revolves around Daughters of the Dust and its lasting impact on women of color and the community at large; the film will be screened Friday evening at the Tivoli AMC theater on the Auraria campus.
Poet Nikky Finney has her own special affinity for Dash's work. Finney grew up in Conway, South Carolina, which she describes simply as a tiny southern town near the Atlantic Ocean.
"I don't call myself Gullah, because too many people do that now," Finney says a little sadly. Her voice has a lilting creole cadence we're not used to hearing from an American. "You have to grow up on the Barrier Islands to really understand the fullness of the specific traditions that pertain directly to Gullah, but because my family is from there, I have a string of connections. Where I was born, there were folks of that tradition all around me." Finney still uses some words from the once-forbidden Gullah, or Geechee, language--a patois that was, in fact, never completely abandoned on the islands, in spite of its being looked down on and even banned in island schools. "To describe something small," she says, offering an example, "we wouldn't say it's small, we'd say it's 'small-small,' doubling the word." Another similar expression is "lee-little."
Daughters, which contrasts the urge to move on with the compulsion for preservation, brought home for Finney the impact of the modern world on the sea islands. "The whole notion of family members remaining behind, holding on to traditions as other members relinquish them to move on to so-called better lives, is one we're faced with to this day," she says. "People deal with it much as they do in the film--they fight about it, hold on with both hands. Some people get lost in what is defined as better--they struggle and refuse to give up and stand their ground to fight a lonely battle, with family and with other communities encroaching upon their culture.
"That thing called progress has come into the islands and destroyed what was there for generations. There are still folks on a few of the islands in legal battle with developers who want to build bridges to the communities and destroy what in an actual Civil War-era document was designated for ex-slaves as a place where they could build communities."
Since the 1950s, Finney says, people saw the islands' potential as vacation land, adding, "It's whittled away at the culture in a criminal way for a long time." But Finney doesn't consider Gullah culture extinct. There's a renewed public interest in it, spurred by Gullah festivals and even a children's television show. "I think it's up to artists and poets and photographers and academicians and community leaders and preachers to put up a fight with words and film," she says.
And Finney's doing her part. The Gullah way of life is the basis of her two published books of poetry. She calls the second, a 1995 volume called Rice, an "actual metaphor for lives of black folk in South Carolina." She uses the grain as a symbol: "We ate rice three times a day--it's the state food of South Carolina," Finney says. "Many of the people who were chosen and bought for that area came from African cultures also raised on rice. It becomes more than a food in the book."
Finney, who will present a reading from Rice Saturday night, says, "I'm honored to be in the presence of so many other black women who are in the forefront of claiming the truth of who they are."
One of those women is Barbara O, an actress and teacher who portrayed fallen woman Yellow Mary in Daughters. She's busy these days making her own film drawing on African spiritualism, a documentary-in-progress called Ma'am Adji Fatou Seck: A Living Archetype for Contemporary Healing, about a 110-year-old matriarch and healer of Senegal.
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For O, Ma'am symbolizes a feminine principle that's been corrupted over time. "I'm unveiling from antiquity what that divine principle is--how it got flipped into dishonoring and disdaining women and how we can all access that knowledge and obtain the power to do personal healing," she says. O plans to show a clip from the film during the festival and talk about what she calls her "holy journey," encompassing both the filmmaking process and her own experience under the influence of a magical elder.
But O doesn't want to give up too much about Ma'am and the film's ultimate message. Instead, she encourages people to see for themselves. "If what I say touches people spirit to spirit, going past my stuff and past everybody's stuff--if they get it like that, they'll come," she says.
Through My Sister's Eyes. International Women's Film Festival, April 23-25, DU and Auraria campuses and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theatre, $7-$35 for evening events, some events free, 296-2891, 832-4049.