Daughters of the Dust: Julie Dash Rivetting African American Fable

Julie Dash’s first film, Illusions, was produced while she a member of an artists group at UCLA. Shot in black and white, on a budget of $28,000, the 34-minute film centers on a light skinned, upwardly mobile female that cleverly manipulates her hybrid status to gain foothold in Hollywood, circa 1942.

Illusions was the first installment of a projected trilogy about the experience of African-American women over the last three centuries. Dash’s highly acclaimed Daughters of the Dust, set in the 19th century, became the second part of a series whose third segment, Bone, Ash, Rose, will be set in 2050.

In Daughters of the Dust, Dash defines a different kind of African-American experience than the violent inner-city seen in American films. Since African-American women have been depicted conventionally in historical dramas (The Color Purple) or TV series (Roots), Dash counteracts this trend with a serious meditation on the identity crisis of black women, questioning the price of assimilation: Is the damage done by voluntarily abandoning one’s heritage greater than that imposed by others

Dash, who’s of Gullah heritage on her father’s side, paints a portrait of a resilient community of women. Lacking a linear plot, her film recaptures a time, a place, and a sensibility by exploring experiences in a ritualistic way. A celebration of a now forgotten culture, the film conveys Dash’s version of history through the personal journeys of half a dozen women. Showing links in an intergenerational cultural chain, Daughters of the Dust is a family quilt interweaving fragments of history.

At the center are Sea Island women, off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, on the eve of migration to the mainland. Some women were determined to make the trip and leave tradition behind, while others were intent on remaining and preserving their heritage. Dash’s narrative lends equal weight to the varying views of Gullah women as they struggle over questions of heritage. Nana Peazant (Cora lee Day), the old matriarch, would adhere to the old beliefs and remain on the island with her talismans and artifacts.

Of opposite persuasion, Haagar Peazant (Kaycee Moore) denounces the “hoodoo mess” of tribal ways, looking forward to the land of opportunity. Former prostitute Yellow Mary (Barbara-O) and would-be mother Eula Peazant (Alva Rogers) fall between these extremes, torn between the comfort of home and the lure of the new world.

Using the format of oral history, the dilemmas are presented in beautiful imagery laced with narration in a Gullah dialect. Moving around in long white dresses sharply contrasts with the landscape’s colors of orange, green, and brown. The alternating viewpoints, contained in a tale steeped in mysticism and melancholy, clarify both the recollection of slave ancestry and the progressive drive to the new world. Informative without being didactic, the picture’s sensual style captures the era.

More impressionistic than factual, Daughters of the Dust provides a tapestry of vivid Gullah beliefs. Dash views her women as both individuals and symbols: Nana Peazant wears the figurative clock of tradition, Yellow Mary represents the indignities suffered by black women, Eula Peazant stands for the bridge between the old and new world. But she never allows the symbolism to get in the way of the daughters’ individuality and their distinctive traits.