“We are as two people in one body, the last of the old, and the first of the new, we will always live this double life you know because were from the sea.”
—Nana Paisant, Matriarch
In Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, the first feature film directed by a Black American woman and distributed theatrically, the former slave Nana Paisant is the Geechee Island family’s ancestral link and keeper of knowledge and memory. She maintains an altered version of the role of the African Griot, the one who holds all the records of the old souls, which are not recorded exosomatically but are linked to (though not indexically) in the items she carries in a tin can: a totem, charms, trinkets, locks of hair she. Across the film, Nana struggles with the information that some of her children and grandchildren may leave the island they all were born on, and where their people arrived as slaves from Africa as other arrivals were shipped on to the mainland of what was or would become the United States. She does not want the family to be broken further (at least one member has already left before the diegetic moment(s) of the film, and she also believes it may be impossible for the family to persist since their ontology is incompatible with hegemonic ontologies of individualism, modernity, or even “family”). For her—and Dash makes this real through a profound reorganization of cinematic language and time—the family exists in its history which is partially within the specific land of their arrival and generational residence and their relationship to it. And the Black female body as a collective one is the bearer, archive, and program of the Paisant memory and existence. In Daughters, Dash’s production of this memory through time, sound, and image, presents a particular Black vernacular outside the dominant programs of discourse, transmission of knowledge, and the cinema (which is also both discourse and a mode of its transmission). Powerfully subverting one of the paradigmatic, hegemonic technologies of recording and preserving memory, Dash offers a Black feminist counter-cinema that portrays and delivers what I define here as a “Black vernacular memory.”
The world of Daughters is a lush, woman-centered, matriarchal, and liminal space on the Geechee Islands still tied to its history in Middle Passage and the consequences of life “in the wake” that will be changed by the moment of choice that fills the film.1 There, women’s memory is provided in the present as a privileged, world-making knowledge for a world that cannot be reproduced into a record. In the moment, which extends across the film but also is condensed into a final scene, each woman will choose for herself whether to leave for a prescribed, temporally and epistemologically anti-Black and misogynist mainland or, stay. The island also is a site of White violence, but Dash shows that the women there understand themselves through their Black womanhood on that land and in their family practices. Dash offers the moment and the story of the family through and alongside voice-over narration by Nana and the temporally unbound female child that would be her granddaughter. The two identities and voices comingle in ways that disrupt clarity about who speaks at which time, and how and when one or the other might possess the perspective of the knowledge provided. Through this narration is established as a collective, memory-based, embodied and in-the-body vernacular. It’s insistence that the audience accept the contingent and collective as a body of knowledge and mode of transmission presents also a counter-history, counter-archive, counter-future for those viewing, and provides also for a new program of Black feminist living.2
Whereas the cinema relies on anti-Black and settler-colonialist time and representation to be legible within programmatic White Supremacist visual and semantic regimes, Daughters of the Dust produces something new. Building the cinematic time and space of Daughters from Black women’s visual and aural perspectives, Dash offers a different sensorium and vernacular that rejects “vernacular modernism” of Hollywood that Miriam Hansen has described as a haptic, assimilating discourse.3 In sequences that depart from Hollywood-style continuity editing and perspectival convention, Dash de-programs her film and cinematic transmission from its reproduction of the ideologies and experiences of modernity (and its periodization): capitalist time; White colonial, imperialist, and anti-black supremacy; and the misogyny inculcated in the subjects and socials formed by vernacular modernism.4
I argue that the “memory” which constitutes Daughters’ vernacular is not the individual or autonomous formation the cinema so often offered through flashback. Rather it is more like the animated, “dynamic, evolving body of knowledge and stories,” that Rosalyn Collings Eves’ insists “connects us to our pasts and informs our identity as individuals and members of communities.”5 Memory according to Eves is not static, although it may occasionally appear to take static forms. In Daughters memory not only precedes or “informs” the individual, but also collectivizes her in its movement across shared time and experience. Dash depicts the women and natural spaces of the Geechee Islands as alternative to “modern” and mainland counterparts, which, with a few exceptions, she does not show but rather alludes to. Keeping the camera and its strategies in the time and place of the island, relaying in moving, circular shots and woven sounds the women and their accepts, Nana’s indigo-died hands, and the stories of the Ibo and time itself crashing in and through the shots—and reorganizing shot-reverse-shot patterning—Dash gives her viewers only the time and modes of knowing and seeing interconnected with the island and Nana’s family.
The memory Dash offers as narration and images in the present of the film is vernacular to the extent that it is shared in common. But it is also a vernacular that can only operate with the force of the collective because the master program—whether of film tools or identity formation—insists that cultural memory is dependent on the written or visual record, deliberately preempting the legitimacy of memories from communities that have been historically marginalized or oppression. The memory and experience of those like Dash’s daughters, and the subaltern, may only be legible in as matter through DNA, epigenetics, dreams and visions, and in the vernacular. Before the introduction of what Alondra Nelson refers to as “reconciliation projects,” more commonly termed genetic ancestry tests, African American have had to rely on vernacular memory for individual, familial and social affirmation.6 Vernacular memory—or the sharing and dissemination of a specifically Black cultural memory, is what ties African American people to one another and to their ancestors despite all that was lost during the Atlantic slave trade and specifically on the Middle Passage, which Nana regularly refers to the in film. She warns her family not to lose their forever and innate connection to the Middle Passage as they are all people of the sea. In her article, Eves explains how due to the destruction of family, traditional record-keeping, and heritage, African American people had to store memory differently than their White masters. As enslaved peoples, African American found ways to validate their experiences “not only in oral traditions passed down through generations but also in the transmission of material cultural goods, such as quilts, samplers, and recipes which represent alternative rhetorical options of culturally sanctioned form of memorialization.”7
Within the extended time-space she has created, Dash delivers as and through the present of memory, an unborn girlchild might mark a recording technology that can only capture what is – not what is meant to be – but nonetheless re-presents a girl in one of her possible futures already in the present: in the photograph recently invented and shown now though in fact developed later when the camera and photographer will return to mainland. In such cinematic operations, and in particular the powerful, circularly-shot scene in which the women together re-narrate their own embodiment into a collective, womanist history shaped by racial trauma and the women’s survivals, Dash argues that Black women are both individual subjects and embedded archives whose engagements constitute the vernacular of their ongoing memorializing and gathering.8
As a shared, evolving, a-temporal form and praxis of feminist survival and nourishment, vernacular memory is a counter-memory that simultaneously de-programs and re-programs the master archive to center “memories from the margins.” Daughters is an affirmation that black cultural memory exists within black people, primarily black women, and as such it continues to build its own discourses, records, and worlds regardless of the oppression black women and black people are forced to endure.
- Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.
- Eshun, Kowodo. “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism.” The New Centennial Review. 3, no. 2 (2003): 287-302.
- Hansen, Miriam. “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism.” Modernism/modernity, vol. 6 no. 2, 1999, p.59-77.
- In this respect Dash’s film also provides a subversion and/or alternative beyond the “oppositional gaze” hooks calls for in Black Looks, Race and Representation, Boston. South End Press. 1992, p. 115-131.
- Eves, Rosalyn Collings. “A Recipe for Remembrance: Memory and Identity in African-American Women’s Cookbooks.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 24, no. 3, 2005, pp. 280–297.
- Nelson, Alondra. The social life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.
- Eves, 280.
- Moten, Fred. “Black Op.” PMLA, vol. 123, no. 5, 2008, pp. 1743–1747.