The search for identity in a new country comes to the fore in Julie Dash’s revelatory Daughters Of The Dust, now officially one of Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time. Sabrina Jones explores how a fixation on your roots can be alienating, and what to do with a stolen history.
Marooned on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, three generations of Gullah women exist in a moment between modernity and antiquity in American history in Julie Dash’s 1991 film, Daughters of The Dust. Freed slaves and their descendants, their isolation enables them to preserve vast amounts of the African folk-culture that forced displacement sought to erase. When inflated dreams of freedom pervaded the imaginaries of Black America in the 20th century, the Gullah remained geographically and spiritually separate. Languid and pensive in form, the film’s Afrofuturist approach asks to consider identity, recollection, and history beyond normative structures. As the Great Migration presents itself as an “engraved invitation to the culture, education and wealth of the Mainland”, family becomes fractured as each protagonist considers whether identity is something yet to be formed, or something to be remembered.
As a British African-American, a cohesive understanding of my roots is not easily accessible. Half my ethnicity relies on a diasporic sense of shared identity, meaning negotiating what it means to be African-American within a British context has been difficult. Watching Daughters of The Dust for the first time last summer, I craved to know what it means to recollect one’s history, to interpret the past as a mirror. In one scene, a circle of children wear okra horns as family gumbo is prepared, reciting Ibo translations of vegetables to their grandma. A dune transformed into an informal classroom, the cultural exchange between elder and younger ends with a trailed sigh. “That’s all done grandma, remember?” A century winds forward, and my own mother’s hand extends ladybird books on Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. The history we learn has changed, updated with the new encounters of oppression and resistance that met our ancestors as they moved from up North. Any knowledge of our past before the slave trade is unknown to me. A project of disassociation complete.
My Pop-pop was only made aware of where his African lineage originated two years ago, in a DNA kit gifted to him for Christmas. When did the loss of his history begin?
“An overwhelming majority of Black Americans speak no African language. Their religious beliefs and practices are non-African. They have no relatives in Africa, and they have never themselves been to Africa,” writes sociologist Phillip Gay in a 1989 article. Culture within my family is not African in ritual, custom or practice. Trips to visit family in D.C. and Harlem are distinct from the culture the Gullah wished to preserve. Family gatherings still revolve around food, endearment, and spirituality, but roots were grounded in the fertile lands of South Carolina’s cotton fields, rather than West Africa. Instead, identity has been carved through the shared experience of Blackness; the profound impact race has had on your history and present lived experience. As a light-skinned mixed person, the net of this identification does not cast itself out to me. Perhaps this attempt to align myself with something further away, something essentially African that was lost in my family’s movement northwards, is an attempt in vain to understand myself beyond identity as experienced as race.
In moments I have yearned for more than just my history, I’ve craved the soil my heritage was sewed upon. All I can access of my mother’s culture is what my family embraced and embodied. It’s hard to know what is intentionally remembered and forgotten. Was our African exchanged for a US identity? Did the brutal programme forbidding the enslaved to read and write impose a regime of erasure? Or was the deterioration softer than this, assimilation as an eroding agent in the slow separation from a past life?
Daughters of The Dust takes a non-linear approach to these questions, using tableaux-style frames of 18th century slavery to interrogate the role trauma plays in raising future generations. Immersed in the dream-like renditions of this image of 18th century America, Dash takes us on a disembodied tour through past and present. A symmetry between hands kneading indigo in water-filled vats, a dark pigment stains the minds and bodies of those who now lived freely. One of the sisters in the film, Eula Peazant, cries out in the climax of the film, stating, “Our past owns us!” In this moment, there is an understanding of the burden of remembering. To actively preserve a history and culture subjected to brutality, to recollect the intergenerational trauma of forced displacement and labour, how sorrow and memory could not be unlinked. As Eula pleads to identify as something beyond her scars, outside the nation she didn’t know but could never return to, perhaps it can be understood why some African-Americans live to forget.
Recently, a Nigerian security guard asked me where I was from. When presented with the rehearsed spiel of British/African-American, he responded firmly, “That doesn’t exist; African-American is a term invented by white people, you are African.” Being mixed race, my histories can often feel in tension with each other. Additionally, having the basis of one half of my ethnicity founded upon a colonial project is equally hard to navigate. In one sense, the mission was successful – at least within my family – as all African sensibility and history besides the skin that remains was erased. But can’t there be joy in the new forms of identity that came to pass? Despite the intentions behind the formation of this diaspora, I hate to consider my heritage as something that just happened to my ancestors. To remove the agency of my family and many other Black Americans in their role forming their identity is to compound a narrative of passivity that has plagued Black representation for centuries.
The dreaminess of Daughters of The Dust offers “a glimpse of the eternal”, an ethereal image of Blackness, heritage and world-making that does not limit the African-American experience to a singular concept. Each character contemplates where their identity sits on the axis of time, reclaiming their identity from ancestors, slave-owners, family members and society. There is an importance in remembering, in practising and in speaking our histories. Yet there is liberation in choice too.
I don’t think any of my family opted out of their stories, of how their place in America came to fruition. Those histories ceased to be spoken, but their impact still resonates. Whilst I crave to know more, there is no less authenticity in embracing the diasporic culture I was born with. There was authority in the new seeds that were planted, with hopes of an American dream.
Sabrina Jones (@slimeysabs) is a 25-year-old writer and filmmaker from London, UK. Her first documentary, ‘Kings Of Our Own Right,’ has reached the semi-finals of three European festivals and premiered in Greece in late 2022. She has also written for Wonderland, Trippin’ and JamJuice, and recently completed an MA in Visual Anthropology from Goldsmiths.
Daughters of the Dust screens as part of Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time, at the BFI in February. Get your tickets here.