Encountering the Familiarity of a Foreign Culture: Julie Dash's Novel Daughters of the Dust

Encountering the Familiarity of a Foreign Culture: Julie Dash’s Novel Daughters of the Dust

Katharina Gerund

Introduction

Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust has received considerable critical attention and turned Dash into an acclaimed (independent) filmmaker.1 However, her 1997 novel of the same title has been widely neglected by critics so far and remains (often literally) a footnote to discussions of her film—if it is taken into consideration at all. Both book and film provide a portrayal of the Gullah or Geechee culture on the Sea Islands and offer a complex picture of the Gullah women. As Caroline Streeter points out, “[i]n terms of content, the novel simultaneously acts as both ‘prequel’ and sequel to the film” (782). Set in 1902, the film ends with the departure of some members of the Peazant family from the island. Myown and her mother Haagar Peazant head north, thus “leaving their personal history and entering upon the larger history of the African diaspora” (Dash, Making of 163). The novel provides additional information on the Gullah culture but focuses on the next generation of the Peazant family: its protagonist is Myown’s daughter Amelia Varnes. In 1926, she studies anthropology at Brooklyn College and decides to write her thesis on her ancestors’ culture. Therefore, she travels to Dawtuh Island to conduct her ethnographic fieldwork. At first, Amelia is confronted with suspicion and resentment, but she gradually gains acceptance and immerses herself in the culture. She uncovers and collects the (hi)stories of the people, her own family. When Amelia returns to New York, she has not only gathered material for her academic work but also acquired knowledge about herself, her familial roots, and her ancestral culture. Amelia decides against pursuing an academic career and publishing her findings in order to protect the Gullah culture from further intrusions. Finally, together with her mother, she returns to Dawtuh Island to live there.

Amelia’s experiences as an ethnographer as well as the fact that she attends university in New York in the late 1920s and lives in Harlem strongly alludes to Zora Neale Hurston’s biography. As Karen Jacobs states, “Hurston uneasily vacillates between speaking as and speaking for the given group, as insider and outsider, participant and observer, divisions which are inevitably laced with implicit standards of cultural value” (340). In this regard, Amelia certainly resembles her. The allusion to Hurston points towards one of the central issues of the novel: the relationship between anthropology and literature/literary studies. Hurston’s life as folklorist, anthropologist, and novelist serves as an outstanding example of the affinities of the supposedly discrete disciplines. Robert Hemenway locates Hurston’s first novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine at the crossroads of folklore and literary studies (130).2 In his opinion, she “adapts and transforms folklore for fictional purposes to a much greater extent than any other Afro-American writer” (131). Hurston’s writings not only utilize folklore but even affect “the disciplinary integrity between ethnography and fiction” (Hale 51). Trained under one of the pioneers of anthropology, Franz Boas, Hurston did not follow his footsteps. Rather, she “anticipat[ed] recent practices in literature and anthropology by considering culture across disciplinary boundaries” (Ellis 155). Daughters of the Dust can be read as a fictional commentary on anthropology and anthropological encounters with other cultures. The novel’s depiction of the Gullah culture parallels Amelia’s investigation. Just as she oscillates between being part of her cultural surroundings on the Sea Islands and keeping the distance of an observer, Dash draws her readers into the culture while at the same time keeping them outside. However, the author evidently addresses an outsider readership and even Amelia—though she frequently ‘changes sides’—does neither completely dissolve nor permanently destabilize the boundary between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the cultural sphere of the Gullah people. Taking Hurston as a ‘model’ to construct her protagonist, Dash conveys that there is a relatively clear dividing line between the ‘cultures’ of anthropology and literature—despite the numerous similarities and intersections. Hurston’s writings in general can be located at the crossroads of these two ‘cultures’ but her individual works can be clearly categorized: Their Eyes Were Watching God is primarily a literary work; Mules and Men is first and foremost an ethnographic project. Scholars have frequently emphasized that she blurs the boundary between the disciplines by using “folklore as basis for a literary text” and “introduc[ing] a literary dimension” to ethnographic writing (Lemke 169). Nonetheless, Their Eyes Were Watching God is generally categorized as a novel and Mules and Men as “ethnography” (Jacobs 329), “study of folklore” (Hernández 351), or “anthropological work” (Hale 53). Hurston’s life and work as intertext of Daughters emphasizes Dash’s take on culture and intercultural contact: there are relatively fixed boundaries between cultures (or disciplines), but it is possible and necessary to frequently change sides.

Daughters is clearly not only about the Gullah culture; it also deals with the ‘cultures’ of anthropology and literature. Its model of intercultural contact implies that there are boundaries which are never fixed, always permeable, and can be transgressed, though not transcended. The ‘intercultural’ encounter of anthropology and literature/literary studies in their mutually perceived or denied ‘otherness’ leaves none “out with an identity intact” (Daniel 12). In Dash’s fictional world binary oppositions are not deconstructed; neither are they stable and rigid. The novel suggests that neither hybridity nor dissolution of all borders constitutes the only logical result of intercultural contact. Rather, positioning oneself within or outside a cultural (and one might add academic) context is possible and maybe even imperative because like the cultural (or disciplinary) boundaries these positions are not fixed and oscillating between different positions.

Dash’s novel Daughters foregrounds the limitations and predicaments of reading at the crossroads of anthropology and literary studies. The “ethnographic novel” can be located where cultural anthropology and literature intersect, and so can the question to what extent parallels between the novelist and the ethnographer exist. An ethnographic novel is understood here as written by an insider or outsider “convey[ing] significant information about the culture or cultures from which the novel originates” (Tallman 12). Though Daughters does not perfectly fit into this category, it negotiates anthropology as an academic discipline, its methods, and representations of culture as it presents the Gullah culture to an outsider readership. In the (inter)disciplinary academic discourse around the notion of culture as text, the anthropologist has often been compared to or paralleled with the literary scholar or critic.3 At the same time anthropologists are producers of texts and their task can be compared with that of authors of fictional and non-fictional works. While literary critics and writers—to simplify—could be said to have distinct tasks of interpreting and representing cultural realities, the anthropologist has to do both. Analogously, as Rose De Angelis points out, literature can be considered to fulfil a dual role, in the sense that it “becomes both a creation and creator of culture” (2). In Daughters,the experience of the protagonist can be related to the act of reading the novel. To a certain degree, Amelia’s anthropological ‘reading’ of the Gullah culture resembles the reading of the fictional text. The (fictional) anthropologist and the reader (or literary critic) share the task of interpretation. Dash’s objective of creating a literary portrayal of the Gullah culture can be paralleled to Amelia’s ethnographic depiction. Both author and anthropologist deal with the challenges of representation. In every case, cultural portrayal and interpretation of culture involve positioning and awareness that each discourse is determined by its ‘situatedness.’

Anthropology and/in Fiction

bell hooks suggests that the film Daughters of the Dust “can be seen as having some qualities of ethnographic film” but quickly modifies her statement claiming that “one could see links between it and certain ethnographic films” (Dash, Making of 27-28). Similarly, the novel is not exactly an ‘ethnographic novel.’ Yet it is culturally rich and conveys significant information about the Gullah culture, in a way that can serve as an “entry point” to the culture (Tallman 13). As director Dash takes a didactic stance in (re)presenting the Gullah for a broader audience.4 As author, she is equally concerned to make the ‘foreign’ culture—at least to a certain extent—accessible. The choice of an anthropologist as protagonist whom the readers accompany in exploring that culture is one of Dash’s strategic means to achieve this goal. Additionally, it allows for the novel to comment implicitly on anthropology, ethnographic fieldwork and its consequences. While the plot is set mostly in 1926, the problems of anthropology and ethnography represented in the fictional world came to the foreground of academic discourse only within the final decades of the 20th century. Though notions of anthropology as a scientific and fact-based approach to culture have frequently been challenged in this discourse “ethnography is still seen as a repository of facts; even in our world of fiction, facts are highly valued” (Daniel 7).

In Daughters,a critique of anthropological discourse is offered primarily when Amelia presents her thesis to the committee. In this context questions of difference and cultural distinctiveness of the Gullah are raised. The discussion evolves around whether or not they have a distinct history and language and can thus be said to constitute a culture of their own. Professor Anderson’s remarks are especially arrogant and devaluing. He suggests that the Gullah people do not have a history themselves, rather “some kind of crude imitation of the old plantation culture” (289). While he admits that he never actually heard them speak, he dismisses the Gullah dialect as a “simpler structure of English,” which has never received linguistic attention because it cannot be said to be a language. He even indicates that their dialect might be a sign of their lack of intellectual capabilities (290). However, Dash is careful not to reduce the discipline to a caricature and contrasts Anderson with other anthropologists. Professor Colby rejects Anderson’s comments and accepts Amelia’s wish to leave her thesis unpublished to protect the Sea Islands from further intrusions. Amelia says to him: “you taught us about respecting what we […] study […] and how as anthropologists we were not to introduce change” (294).

Despite these differences, the professors share a common concern about the scientific stance of their profession. Anderson’s final attack on Amelia’s account for revealing too much personal feeling may serve as a case in point. The sequence occurs chronologically towards the end of the novel, and it owes its impact to this position. The reader has already gained an in-depth view of the Gullah culture and has experienced the personal (hi)stories told in dialect. The professors’ discourse is strikingly disconnected from the culture in question. Amelia’s film about her fieldwork conceals from them what she had not wanted to share. During the editing process, she is less than satisfied with her academic work:

she realized her reluctance to share the images with strangers, people who would see only the simplicity of the life on the Island, but not realize the richness beyond the view of a casual observer. […] Contrary to everything she had started out to do, she did not want their culture, their ways, how they talked with each other described in academic terms that would leave out the spirit and overlook the common heritage and stories that bound them so closely. She had winced when she reread her thesis proposal with its distant perspective and cold language […]. (283)

In this passage the limits of anthropological accounts of culture become obvious. Dash’s novel manifests one of the advantages of a literary portrayal of culture because it is not bound to technical terms or scientifically justifiable and objective statements. Moreover, this excerpt displays the problematic status of the participant observer in general and Amelia in particular, because it is her ancestry and her family that constitute the scientific ‘subject.’ Ultimately, Amelia does not pursue an academic career but returns as a ‘non-observing participant’ of the culture. Just as her involvement with Boaz Samuelson—whose name recalls Franz Boas—does not turn into a long-term relationship, Amelia’s liaison with anthropology is of comparatively short duration.

During her fieldwork on the island, Amelia has to cope with several problems familiar to ‘real-world’ cultural anthropologists. In the beginning, she encounters a certain amount of resentment from her ‘subjects.’ Lucy expresses an open dislike of Amelia and her project while others simply do not cooperate and refuse to tell her their stories. Generally, Amelia finds that people are sceptical about her studies. As Lucy asks: “[h]ow you study you family?” (136). During the six months Amelia spends with her family, she immerses herself into the culture, gaining acceptance but also facing the danger of not keeping the distance of a scientific observer. The influence is not one-directional. Amelia brings changes to the Gullah culture from the very day of her arrival, for example in form of the gifts that she presents to her family. When she gives Rebecca a blond store-bought doll, the girl in her play assigns it the role of the “boss” whose wishes her others dolls have to obey because “her purtier” and “her got good hair” (129). The child adopts Westernized beauty ideals and develops a hierarchical relationship between them and those of her culture. While this illustrates the potentially destructive influence that the anthropologist might have, it is also clear that the influence works both ways. The fact that Ben—whom Professor Colby later refers to as Amelia’s “research assistant” (291)—takes control of her technical devices draws attention to the fact that the supposed ‘objects of study’ might appropriate the methods of the ethnographer and gain a certain amount of influence on the research. The stories told to Amelia are not necessarily factually reliable, but more importantly there are always things unsaid, reminding us that no portrayal of a culture will ever be comprehensive. In fact, one immanently important piece of information—the story of the unborn child—is revealed to Amelia only after she has returned to the island not as an anthropologist but as a family member.

In Daughters, the ethnographic work is never the focus of the story; however, the protagonist’s anthropological project allows for drawing parallels between her ethnographic approach and the fictional depiction of the Gullah culture. These similarities and differences revolve chiefly around two related issues. First, how the ‘otherness’ of the culture in question is represented and which strategies are used to balance its familiar(ized) and strange elements. Second, the standpoint chosen for this representation, the ‘situatedness’ of the discourse, has to be taken into account. In this regard it is crucial to consider not only the positions obtained by the characters in the text but also those of author, narrator, and reader.

Representing ‘Otherness’

Daughters seems to borrow the Russian Formalist idea of art’s function to defamiliarize; somewhat paradoxically, it also familiarizes its readers with a foreign culture.5 Through the “omnipresent moment of defamiliarization,” according to Stanley Corngold, “anthropological moments”6 inform the reading of fiction (160). For Corngold, prose fiction can be seen as the record of such moments which correspond to “empirical moment[s] in the practice of anthropology, which describes cultures remotest from the observer’s own while struggling to produce an idea of this other humanity” (156). Daughters provides anthropological moments which influence the understanding of the text. It also constitutes a record of such moments as well as their empirical counterparts. Corngold focuses on the anthropological moment as it enters and is appropriated by literature. Dash’s novel adds another aspect by highlighting the fictional account of the anthropological moments as they exist in empirical ethnographic practice and those anthropological moments that shape the interpretation of the fictional text. Both include a feeling of consternation which, nevertheless, needs “positive moments of successful interpretation” to exist (Corngold 157). In other words, both rely on recognizable, familiar aspects of an ‘other’ as well as alienating, strange ones. Dash manages to balance familiarity and strangeness in her portrayal of a foreign or ‘other’ culture.

In the first part of Daughters, entitled “The Land,” Dash provides her readers with basic information about the origin and development of the “unique history of culture and tongue known as Gullah or Geechee” (4). In the following section, an omniscient narrative voice introduces the reader to the storytelling practice on Dawtuh Island. Set in 1912 it concentrates on Miz Emma Julia’s telling “de lie” (11). The “lie” recounts a creation myth, which contributes to the reader’s frame of reference for understanding the Gullah culture. The act of storytelling involves the gathering of and interaction between teller and listeners, making the telling explicitly dialogic. This is particularly important in light of the way in which the stories that Amelia collects are presented. Every title is followed by the line “as told by,” emphasizing that the stories are mediated. The stories reflect characteristics of spoken language such as dialect or incomplete and elliptical sentences, but they are always related in one piece and without any interruptions. Thus, while the first “lie” is embedded in the narration and the depiction of its socio-cultural context, the other stories are more clearly separated. Because these stories are presented as they were recorded and recounted by Amelia, this can be interpreted as another commentary on anthropology’s limitations (which fictional representations of culture may transgress). In Dash’s cultural portrayal, the reader, for the most part, accesses the Gullah culture through Amelia’s encounter. However, it is significant that the sections preceding Amelia’s first appearance provide not only some basic notions about Gullah history and culture but also present particular details of everyday life, for example Elizabeth’s daily routine and life on Dawtuh Island. This allows the reader to get some first impressions independent of Amelia and her anthropological ‘gaze.’ Without concealing the strangeness or unfamiliarity of the Gullah culture, Dash provides the outsider reader with a framework for successful interpretations, primarily through the careful exposition and the prevalent use of Amelia’s viewpoint. Alienating moments which would impede understanding and/or interpretation are not eliminated but rather modified in the narration. For example, when a language other than English (and its Gullah dialect) is used, it is accompanied by a translation that occurs as part of the text. Within the fictional world, Amelia’s initial “uneasiness” gradually disappears as she becomes more and more familiar with language, traditions, and everyday life on the Island (65). Corngold states that anthropology tends to suppress the “negative moment of consternation […] in favor of moments of agreement and accord” (158). In Daughters, these moments are not completely suppressed but moments of successful interpretation are clearly emphasized.

Representations of ‘otherness’ always entail power relations. Even if there are reciprocal influences, ultimately Amelia is in a position of control regarding the representation, and her camera symbolizes her power to represent. This power shifts to some extent when her ‘research assistant’ Ben gains control over the camera and even directs Amelia. He exercises influence on the visual aesthetics of the scenes and on a first selection process in terms of what he films:

Ben waved at Amelia, signaling her to back up more. She frowned and glanced over her shoulder at Rebecca, whom Ben had placed further up the road. “It gonna look funny. Becca gonna look like her standin on you shoulder.” Amelia backed up until Ben yelled, “That it. Stay right dere! Okay, Becca, now do your dance!”  (255)

It is Amelia, however, who does the cutting and ultimately decides which scenes will be selected for her film. While she cuts out scenes she considers to be too personal for her to share, the people portrayed do not have this privilege. Yet the people interviewed by Amelia, knowing very well that they were ‘studied,’ may have left out things for similar reasons. Dash’s fictional cultural portrayal is also necessarily selective. As a literary text, it is constituted by a “plurality of fictions” which “generate gaps” (Iser 172). In Wolfgang Iser’s sense, gaps are produced text-intrinsically. Yet, gaps can also be left open by the author. Toni Morrison claims to use a language that has “holes” and “spaces” in order to allow for what she calls “participatory reading” (125).7 In either case, the reader actively fills the gaps and is involved in the creative process.

Dash’s novel draws attention not only to its constructedness but also its incompleteness. Daughters demonstrates that although literature enjoys an amount of freedom that ethnography does not, it has limitations of its own: “the text itself is [always] a step removed from the materiality it depicts, essays on, elaborates” (Cesareo 161). Dash’s novel includes a set of examples that powerfully exemplify both the possibilities and limitations of literary portrayal: the formulas and instructions interspersed throughout the text. They can be related to the context in which they occur but still are clearly set apart. When Iona is preparing the bath for her daughter, Amelia is introduced to “Nana’s Hair Wash”:

Mix 10 drops of ginger, 10 drops of rose oil, 5 drops of lavender, and 2 tablespoons of sesame oil together. Let it settle, then shake it up real good. Part the hair and rub into the scalp. Slowly but firmly work up from the roots into the hair. It will soften the hair and soothe the head. (182)

This formula is inserted into the text when Amelia smells the oil. It is typographically distinguished from the main text and not incorporated into the narrative. While it conveys very detailed information, its source is not revealed. The fictional text allows for the insertion of such a piece of information without further commentary or attempts to integrate it. At the same time, this formula is removed from its materiality because it is insufficient to represent the actual product.

Nevertheless, such formulas are part of the cultural knowledge the reader can acquire. Dash provides detailed descriptions of the religious and educational life of the Gullah as well as their day-to-day activities and rituals. She uses several representational strategies: on the one hand to picture the ‘other’ culture as familiar and strange at the same time and, on the other hand to stress the problems of representation in terms of its unavoidable selectiveness, power issues, and, ultimately, fictionality. The Gullah culture is never portrayed as a completely isolated, homogeneous, and ‘alien’ cultural system. Rather, Dash’s depiction serves as a reminder that, to quote Ngugi wa Thiong’o, “[c]ulture contact is the oxygen of any civilization” (23). The Gullah people live peacefully together and interact with the ‘ancient people’—the Cherokee. The marriage between Iona Peazant and her Cherokee husband bears witness to this fact. Iona says to Amelia: “[i]t only natural. Dat me an Julien been together. It de way de ancien people an de captive live with each other from de very first” (173). Furthermore, though they are geographically separated, the Gullah people have several links to the mainland. Members of the Peazant family leave the island to work or study. As a schoolteacher, Elizabeth has to go to the mainland regularly to get school supplies. People from the mainland, like the school inspector, come to the island, and members of the Peazant family, who had left, return after living in such a different cultural setting as New York. Boundary-crossing constitutes a major theme of the novel, and the line between ‘self’ and ‘other’ is constantly and contradictorily negotiated. Most of the central characters—whether they are on the island, in New York, in Beaufort or bound for Paris—are related. Even the Bouvier sisters have, through Ol Trent, a strong and deep connection to the people on the island. The novel thus emphasizes familial bonds across cultures. Additionally, dealing with the problematic of representing culture and ‘otherness,’ it illustrates that “the problem of the cultural emerges only at the significatory boundaries of cultures, where meanings and values are (mis)read or signs are misappropriated” (Bhabha 206). This problem occurs only where strange things are perceived as familiar (whether they actually are or not) and familiar things become strange (because they are appropriated by the ‘others’ or perceived as part of what constitutes their ‘otherness’).

Taking Sides

The tension between familiarity and strangeness in Daughters is, at least in part, the result of unstable and shifting identities as well as unclear and changing positions. Many characters in the novel are not safely located within or outside the Gullah culture but rather oscillate between inside and outside. In addition, the narrative and representational strategies let the readers enter the culture to a certain degree but also keep them positioned outside. In many ways, this is the basic problem of anthropology’s concept of participant observation: where is the line to be drawn between being an ‘outside’ observer and an ‘inside’ participant?

Within Dash’s fictional world, Amelia experiences this problematic in her role as anthropologist and as a migrant, having her roots in one culture while being raised and enculturated in another. In this regard, the problem is not only representing an ‘other,’ which already involves the difficulty of positioning oneself in (a hierarchical) relation to the ‘other;’ it is also defining one’s identity. Amelia’s professor wants his students “to study [them]selves so that [they] could learn to study others” (85). For Amelia studying others necessarily means studying herself as she conducts research on her ancestral culture, of which she can still find traces in her everyday life even though she does not identify with it. She embodies two problems that are related but still distinct: individual identity that is challenged on the basis of double cultural affiliation, and role of a participant observer.8 Both problems are hinted at, but the information conveyed about Amelia’s connection to her cultural and social surroundings in New York never leaves the academic or immediate family context. Since all the other family members except Amelia have spent most of their lives on the Island, her family context already displays more about her relation to Gullah culture than to any other cultural setting. Amelia never personifies a hybrid mixture of two different cultures. Rather, at specific moments she takes a position either outside or inside the Gullah culture, displaying her changing affiliation(s). Therefore, cultural difference is neither set up as a clearly distinguishable binary opposition nor is it completely deconstructed. In this sense, one might describe Dash’s take on cultural difference as foregrounding what Helmbrecht Breinig and Klaus Lösch have termed “transdifference.” Basically, their concept denotes the “fleeting moment” when “notions of fixed cultural differences” are destabilized (27). Especially Amelia’s position can be described as transdifferent, entailing the possibility of simultaneous affiliations.

The difficulty of being observer of and participant in a culture at the same time becomes evident during the “winter gathering” on the island:

Amelia felt Clemmie’s summons and, at first, shook her head. She was just a visitor, an observer to this family ritual. When Margaret Anne leaned forward and whispered in her ear, “It for all women,” Amelia got to her feet, awkwardly looking for a place to join the circle. Iona danced in place and beckoned Amelia to the space that she had opened in front of her. (193)

Here, Amelia leaves her distanced, detached, observing role behind to participate in the family ritual. In general, her distance from the Gullah people decreases as their acceptance of Amelia increases. However, she is never safely positioned within one cultural realm. What Edward M. Pavlić states about Hurston is equally true for Amelia: “[h]er actual immersion experiences reveal the distance between herself and the community” (182). In this episode, Dash also foregrounds cultural heterogeneity. Not only Gullah practices and beliefs shape the cultural life on the Sea Islands: the winter gathering is primarily part of the Cherokee tradition, but everyone can participate. It is obvious that the ‘inside’ that Amelia experiences is not as homogeneous as an outsider might suspect. Again, this recalls Hurston’s ethnographic work. Pavlić asserts that Hurston, in Mules and Men, is positioned where “the anthropological inside/outside intersects the modernist interior/exterior” (183).

Amelia’s difficult position as an anthropologist is complicated through her individual identity crisis. Her identity is first challenged when her professors begin asking questions about some words in her journal. Having to admit that she did not know where they came from, Amelia felt “kind of ashamed, because some of it seemed kind of strange, and other stuff [she] just didn’t know what it was” (85). In the following, Amelia (re)discovers her own roots and starts searching for a ‘home,’ a ‘safe place’ which she finally finds on the Island. While she leaves many things unquestioned about her life in New York, her affiliation with the Gullah culture is chosen rather than given. Though Amelia gradually modifies her individual identity by an increasing sense of belonging to her ancestral culture, in her role as an ethnographer she vacillates between positioning herself within and outside the Gullah culture. This is reflected in her use of pronouns referring to the Gullah people. In her letter to Elizabeth in which she announces her visit, Amelia states that it is her project “to gather information about the colored people who live on the islands” (58). She is evidently not including herself. After her arrival on the Island, she claims that “[i]t’s important to know what makes us different” (77) and that she wants to “find out more about my own people, where we came from and why we did what we did” (86, all emphases added). Back in New York, she again excludes herself from the subjects of her study by constantly using the pronoun they. She positions herself within the academic discourse and ‘outside’ the Gullah culture while on the island she deliberately positioned herself ‘inside’ that culture. This may be due to her shifting affiliations but also to the strategies she has to use as an ethnographer in order to counter the initial resentment and to obtain the information she needs for her study.

Amelia collects filmic material to add weight to her ethnographic study. Analogously, Dash uses several strategies to add weight to her representation of the Gullah culture. The formulas and instructions, the stories, the introductory remarks on the historical background of the Gullah people, an omniscient narrator, and the integrated academic discourse serve to fulfil that function. It is clear that the implied reader of the novel is not an ‘insider;’ it is purposefully set up to familiarize an ‘outsider’ with a foreign culture. Therefore, the reader is more or less securely positioned outside the culture. However, at some points there is an attempt to let the reader and Amelia get ‘inside’ the culture while at the same time drawing attention to the limitations of the medium and the unavoidably incomplete cultural representation. In one scene, both Amelia in her interaction with Iona’s husband and the reader are left outside:

He slowly saluted Amelia with a hand signal. Amelia was bewildered, not knowing what to do. She awkwardly stuck out her hand, only to pull it back quickly when Shadda spoke up. “Dat aint what you do!” He stepped forward, pulling Neeny behind him. “De man do dis!” He demonstrated. “An den de woman do dis!” He waited as Neeny looked up at Amelia. “Neeny!” he commanded. She returned his salute so quickly that Amelia did not see it. (177)

There is a clear willingness to make Amelia acquainted with their signals, their codes. Yet she cannot pick them up. For the outsider reader, a similar situation occurs. When Amelia sticks out her hand, most readers can visualize the image easily. In contrast, Julien’s hand signal is not described at all; nor are the salutes demonstrated by Shadda and Neeny. The reader is not provided with any clues on what they might look like. More than just illustrating medial limitations, this leaves her—and to a certain degree Amelia—outside the traditional way of passing on (cultural) knowledge on the island. This knowledge is passed on within the culture orally or by demonstration. By and large, it is not subjected to critical reflection. The parts of the songs incorporated into the narrative reveal the strategy of letting the reader get a glimpse of the culture while denying him (possibly important) details. Some information like lyrics and context are presented, but it goes without saying that there are elements to these songs that can hardly be described in prose fiction. Dash never creates the impression that her fictional portrayal of a foreign culture is preferable to the ethnographic project that she depicts. Just as Amelia feels that her scientific thesis does not give justice to the ‘reality’ of the cultural life on the island, Dash’s novel draws attention to its limitation as a work of fiction and as a representational means of reading and/or writing culture.

On both levels, the limits of understanding and the possible pitfalls of interpretation of a foreign culture are exhibited. Daughters suggests that neither ethnography nor fiction can create a cultural portrayal without generating gaps and introducing generic, cultural, and personal lenses through which culture is viewed. Similarly, in Clifford Geertz’s notion, “doing ethnography” is defined by the “kind of intellectual effort it is;” by its “elaborate venture” in “thick description” (Interpretation of Cultures 6). From an anthropological standpoint, he claims that “what we call our data are really our constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to” and even compares ethnographic analysis with the task of the literary critic (Interpretation of Cultures 9). Just as Dash’s fiction self-reflexively exposes its constructedness and incompleteness, Geertz reminds us that anthropological writings are also “fictions, in the sense that they are ‘something made,’ ‘something fashioned’” and, thus, constructed (Interpretation of Cultures 15). Moreover, he states that “[c]ultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete” (Interpretation of Cultures 29). With cultural analysis at the heart of Amelia’s as well as Dash’s endeavor, the similarities between literature/literary studies and anthropology could not be more evident. In both cases, as in the “study of culture” in general, “analysis penetrates into the very body of the object” (Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures 15). How both projects ultimately deal with the ethical questions involved in investigating the Gullah culture and presenting it to the public constitutes a performative contradiction between the novel’s content and its own implicit programmatic: While Amelia decides not to publish her findings in order to protect the Gullah culture, Dash actively aims at familiarizing her readership with the culture and thereby exposes it to a certain degree to public interest, interpretation, and judgement. Based on this observation, several of those objections instantly raised to Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God primarily by African American critics could, at first glance, still apply to Dash’s novel. Hurston was prominently criticized by, for example, Richard Wright because—in his view—she “addressed […] a white audience whose chauvinistic taste she [knew] how to satisfy,” continued a tradition of fulfilling white expectations, and oversimplified African American life and culture (76). From a contemporary perspective and considering Hurston’s seminal status in African American literature and culture, these reproaches appear as inaccurate and inappropriate as they would be with regard to Daughters. However, similar debates also surface in the anthropological discussions on Gullah culture in Dash’s novel which represents this culture to an outsider (potentially white) readership. By incorporating these discourses on the appropriate representation and evaluation of the Gullah culture, Dash openly presents the problematics entailed in cultural portrayal—be it literary or ethnographic. With Hurston as a central reference point, she clearly writes herself into a tradition of African American female authors who transgressed boundaries and thereby challenged and changed the literary (and academic) landscape but she also reveals the power and significance of cultural and disciplinary boundaries.


1 Since the film’s release several articles and studies on Daughters of the Dust have appeared in books, journals, and magazines; most recently, Mary Jane Androne’s “Daughters of the Dust: Julie Dash’s ‘Diasporic Elsewhere’” (2008), Sheila J. Petty’s Contact Zones: Memory, Origin, and Discourses in Black Diasporic Cinema (2008), and Nancy E. Wright’s “Property Rights and Possession in Daughters of the Dust” (2008).

2 Hemenway coins the term “folklitics” to describe an analysis at this intersection of folklore and literary studies (130).

3 Anthropologists like Clifford Geertz who understand culture as text have incorporated literary theory and concepts into their discourse. For Geertz, the cultural anthropologist’s most important instruments are “in-wrought perceptions.” Although there is a real benefit to more sophisticated understandings of textuality, the discipline also runs the risk of becoming subjective, relative, and particular or even failing to generate “robust and reliable real-world knowledge.” Cultural anthropology becomes “[r]ather like literature, actually” (“Strange Romance” 29).

4 For example, she added the prologue that cites the history of the Gullah because “a lot of people did not know anything about [them]” (Dash, Making of 27).

5 Both aspects can also be found in the film. The prologue of the film, for example, provides some background knowledge for the audience to understand what they are about to see. However, Dash states in a dialogue with bell hooks that, in terms of symbolizing slavery and its persistent marks, she “wanted to show it in a new way.” hooks immediately associates this with “defamiliarization” (Making of 33).

6 Corngold describes an “anthropological moment” as “the moment when one human being, to his consternation, ‘perceives’ another as inhuman while struggling to conclude that this strangeness is part of a design” (156).

7 In an interview with Claudia Tate, Morrison said: “My writing expects, demands participatory reading, and that I think is what literature is supposed to do. It’s not just about the story, it’s all about involving the reader. The reader supplies the emotions. The reader supplies even the color, some of the sound. My language has to have holes and spaces so the reader can come into it” (125).

8 This illustrates that, as Corngold suggests, psychology might be considered as a “local kind” of anthropology (164).

Works Cited

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Bhabha, Homi K. “Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences.” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge,1995. 206-09. Print.

Breinig, Helmbrecht and Klaus Lösch. “Introduction: Difference and Transdifference.” Multiculturalism in Contemporary Societies: Perspectives on Difference and Transdifference. Ed. Helmbrecht Breinig, Jürgen Gebhardt, and Klaus Lösch. Erlangen, Germany: Univ.-Bibliothek, 2002. 11-36. Print.

Cesareo, Mario. “Anthropology and Literature: Of Bedfellows and Illegitimate Offspring.” Between Anthropology and Literature: Interdisciplinary Discourse. Ed. Rose De Angelis. London: Routledge, 2002. 158-74. Print.

Corngold, Stanley. “Consternation: The Anthropological Moment in Literature.” Literature and Anthropology. Ed. Jonathan Hall and Ackbar Abbas. Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP,1986. 156-88. Print.

Daniel, E. Valentine, and Jeffrey M. Peck, eds. Culture/Contexture: Explorations in Anthropology and Literary Studies. Berkeley: U of California P,1996. Print.

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