Witnessing is hard when bias blinds. Why is it important for Dash to tell this story, and why 25 years later is the film still a classic? Not only do audiences have to struggle philosophically with the linguistic resonances of this American people--without subtitles, at the same time, audiences also have to imagine beauty among a people, in a place stained by the horrors and legacy of slavery and its aftermath.
When we look at Black people in the Diaspora and trace their inspirations and continental movements, the trajectory is often ancestral -the move towards a shifting and unreliable home across multiple spaces, sometimes defiled, often unconventional, as are the stories gathered and then dispersed across landscapes. Amelia Varnes, red-boned (4) descendant of residents of Ibo Landing, Geechee territory in Julie Dash's novel, Daughters of the Dust (1997), gathers her scattered pieces and claims a heritage she could not even imagine. An anthropology student headed from New York to her ancestral country for fieldwork--to collect "lies", she learns that what she was living was the lie and here with her Geechee relatives lies the truth. The reflection turned outward reveals her mother, Myown and grandmother, Haagar as silhouettes, shadows, not fully alive human beings. The irony? Her father is a mortician.
The novel, which is an extension of the iconic film by the same title, follows the Peazant family migration north and takes up the story of those Peazant family members who stayed with Nana Peazant, elder and matriarch of the family. Unborn Child is born on the island and is now a school teacher, Elizabeth (Lil Bet) who is similar age as her cousin Amelia.
In Daughters of the Dust, the novel, we learn more about the characters who shaped the film's narrative: Nana Peazant, Yellow Mary, Eli and Eula, Haagar and Myown. We are introduced to the spinster sisters: Miss Genevieve and Miss Evangeline, Ol'Trent, Willis George and Woodrow McKinley Harrison or "Sugarnun," Carrie Mae, Toady and others.
Through her character Amelia and those characters Amelia comes to know, Dash reveals the power of family and community, the collective story made from individual episodes, which whether tragic or heroic, often serve as a talisman stretching cross generations. Amelia learns along with Lil Bet why certain members of the community behave as they do and why others departed and can no longer return. We learn of Egbe or astral beings and ghosts who walk with Amelia and Lil Bet in Nana's house.
Within the novel, are potions or charms mixed to dispel sadness, encourage happiness and create wonder. The recipes sweeten bitter passages or add light to darkness. Rituals and ceremonies seen in Dash's film are more fully articulated in the novel especially regarding both the captives and the ancient ones--both Indigenous people and the Africans. The author even has the young anthropologist pack film and movie cameras to aid her research that her cousin, Ben, helps her use. The story the anthropologist tells explains why Dash chooses to film Daughters the way she does.
In a published conversation with bell hooks regarding her film, the two writers talk about the concept of myth and the visual and poetic lyricism present in Dash's work, which is historic, yet fictional. (1) Dash describes a scene omitted from the final cut that shows the pain of separation between a mother and her child--something that is evocative of the slave trade. In the scene, instead of the mother crying salty tears, Dash has the mother's breasts leak milk on the ground referencing the enslaved mother's grief when her baby, known later as Nana Peazant, is sold.
Nana's mother sends a lock of her hair to her child, which Nana keeps in a tin all her life. According to Dash, "The mother would send the quilt on to that plantation and when the child was old enough she'd be able to look in her own baby blanket and find a lock of her mother's hair. And sometimes that was the only thing that we had to share with our children or with husbands or wives" (Making 33).
Faced with another separation, actress Cora Lee Day's Nana, interrupts her great grandson Eli (actor Adisa Anderson) as he tells her why he too has to leave the island: "Eli... there's a thought... a recollection... something somebody remembers. We carry these memories inside of us. Do you believe that hundreds and hundreds of Africans brought here on this other side would forget everything they once knew? We don't know where the recollections come from. Sometimes we dream them. But we carry these memories inside us.
"Eli to Nana: "What're we supposed to remember, Nana? How, at one time, we were able to protect those we loved? How, in African world, we were kings and queens and built great big cities?"
"Nana: Eli... I'm trying to teach you how to touch your own spirit. I'm fighting for my life, Eli, and I'm fighting for yours. Look in my face! I'm trying to give you something to take North with you, along with all your big dreams" (Daughters, film, 96).
This is the dilemma of the captive in exile, the freed, formerly enslaved Africans in the Diaspora--what she chooses to remember and what she forgets.
What he or she forgets often paves the road for tomorrow, so where does the path lead when it is inadequately marked? Dash's characters find clues--bits and pieces that point to larger patches of light in the celestial canopy. If Nana is gone, her buddy Miz Emma Julia remembers the lies, rituals and relationships between the people and their deities.
Cultural memories live in stories passed from generation to generation. One such story looks at a barren woman's desire for children and the troubles this brings when her children cannot get along. She names the children after the gods: Oya, Yemonja, Ogun, Osun, Elegba. A creation story, we learn of Mother Goddess crying and her tears filling the spaces where the land broke apart where her children were exiled: deserts, mountains, woods, grasslands, and hills. Miz Emma Julia says the mother waits across the waters for her children to stop fighting, so they can be reunited with her (Daughters, novel, 14).
What is the lesson here?
Miz Emma Julia then shares the story of the slave ship, de Sorcerer, which runs enslaved Africans to the islands after the continental Atlantic slave trade is outlawed. There is mystery surrounding the fate of the Africans onboard until Amelia and her cousin, Lucy find de Sorcerer captives' shackles and bones buried in Lucy's plot of land one afternoon as the two women plow. Lucy takes to her bed, sick at heart. The elders are called, and the community comes together to dig up the rest of the plot, assemble the remains, and prepare to give these ancestors a proper burial.
Miz Emma Julia says to Lucy and Amelia: "Now they come back to we! Just like the captives dey throw in de water! It a sign! Us haint been livin right, an de ol ones comes back to tell we. Us got to put dem to right! Us got to move dem from de evil dat brought dem here and live in dis land. Us got to make de journey of the ancestors" (Daughters, novel, 237).
She then tells the townsfolk what to do to prepare the burial. They are to gather certain items: water, earth and shells. Cook particular foods: hearty stews without salt. Build a casket to hold bones. Find blue cloth to cover the altar. Everyone labors night and day for two days to prepare the altar for the ancestors: weeding, cleaning and leveling the ground near the older burial site. Finally, everything is ready for Miz Emma Julia's inspection. She returns and nods; bones and shackles placed on quilts at the frail women's feet as she raises her hands and prays for the souls of their ancestors, ancestors no one mourned.
This because at the time of the massacre when the bodies washed onto the shore, the enslaved Africans refused the master's orders to bury the dead. They went into their cabins and shut the doors. The master had to hire white men to bury the captives and pay them double. Miz Emma Julia tells Lucy, who was confined to her bed from the discovery to the ritual burial to mourn her ancestors, "Go-on gal. Let dem saltwater tears wash down an cleanse dem. Aint nobody cry for dem for years. Dey lay down in dat field for nobody know how long. Dat why the fields so rich with de earth. Our elders give dey life blood. Dey give what was took from dem" (Daughters, novel, 241).
"Amelia spreads out the bones as requested. She then touches a bone, and 'feels a jolt and pulls back. Miz Emma Julia just nods encouragingly. 'Dey reachin out to you. Take what dey got to offer....' [Amelia] held the bone above her head with both hands and cried out when she felt the waves of fear, pain, and despair wash over her" (Daughters, novel, 241).
Miz Emma Julia puts a skull in Lucy's hand. "Just as she was about to let it roll off her palm, her head snapped back as the force hit her. She jerked...