Writing

Daughters of Aje: Daughters of the Dust, Aje and Black Feminism

            Three brown women, dressed in white, Yellow Mary, Trula, and Eula sit within and alongside what is probably an Angel Oak tree stretching its large limbs in the Sea Island of South Carolina. Eula shares about her mother who has passed.

 

"I need to see Mama. I want to talk to her. So, I write her a letter, put it under the bed in a glass of water and I wait. I wait till my ma come to me. Come to me right out!"[1]

 

African derived rituals like these are laced throughout the film, Daughters of the Dust. Performed by the women characters, they evoke a power of Aje.   In Daughters of the Dust black feminism is defined through and on account of  African traditional religions. It correlates to the power of Aje; a woman’s power, located in the womb, the birthplace of creation and transition. It is a force within such that, as Montre Aza Missouri states, those who possess Aje “... are preoccupied with checking [challenging] those in power and bringing equality in all facets of social and spiritual life…”[2] I argue that because the characters are at the intersection of being woman and black they able to embody the religious power of Aje. Based on the cosmology, principles, and hybridity of the religions represented, Dash has created protagonists that challenge what bell hooks refers to as ‘white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.’[3]

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I approach [ST(3] this film through a phenomenological method and a black feminist lens. The above figure is adapted from Friedrich Heiler’s Concentric Circles referenced in Peter McKenzie’s phenomenological study of Yoruba religion, Hail Orisha! McKenzie categorizes elements of religion as manifestations, concepts, experiences and finally the object of religion. By analyzing the phenomena as they occur, the phenomenologist brackets his or her preconceived assumptions and suspends judgement as to the ‘truth’ of the occurrence. The categories “provide a more objective frame of reference than is sometimes the case when perspectives of importance may be overlooked by a particular researcher because s/he may be guided by her/his own individual assumptions.”[5] In my phenomenological reading of Daughters, I start with the experience of Aje, which I believe shapes the concepts and the manifestations.  I begin by examining the experience of Aje by Nana Peazant through a black feminist lens. Aje as experience is the supernatural occurrence of possessing powers to connect with the ancestors, divination and the ability to bring peace to one’s community. I also examine the men’s experience and respect of Aje. I then look at concepts including the unborn child's relationship to the Yoruba Orisha Ellegua and Dash's comparisons between the characters and the Orishas, Oshun, Oya, and Yemoja.  Lastly, I examine two manifestations or sacred objects, the charm bag and the Kongo cosmogram as African-derived religious symbols that bring power to its user.

Daughters of the Dust is a film adored by black feminists everywhere. And for a good reason. With an all-black cast and women as the main protagonists, it surpasses many movies made today that still depict stereotypical imagery of black women. By looking at Aje within Daughters through a black feminist lens, I am employing the work of Kimberle Crenshaw, and her groundbreaking analysis of intersectionality, bell hooks and her countless books on feminism, and Alice Walker and her notion of womanism. I am also drawing from the work of Montre Aza Missouri who begins the discussion of Aje, but I expand on this by offering a black feminist analysis applicable to multiple facets of the film. Black feminists such as these look at how black women are affected by race, class, gender, and sexuality. It became necessary to distinguish black feminism from the feminist movement, made up of primarily white women who generalized about the needs of women without a racial analysis.[6] It is clear that Dash was holistically creating these characters lives, which includes how they are treated based on living at an intersection of race, class, gender, religion and geographical location. In the publication of the script, bell hooks interviewed Dash, which I believe speaks to the director's engagement with black feminist thought.[7]

 

Background

            Daughters of the Dust tells a story of one family's decision to travel from the Sea Islands up north, leaving cultural and ancestral ties behind. The opening of the film notes, “At the turn of the century, Sea Island Gullahs, descendants of African captives, remained isolated from the mainland of South Carolina and Georgia. As a result of their isolation, the Gullah created and maintained a distinct, imaginative, and original African American culture.” Toni Cade Bambara comments on the significance of the setting of the film at the turn of the century in 1902: “The Peazants and guests gather on the island at Ibo Landing for a picnic at a critical juncture in history—they are one generation away from the Garvey and the New Negro movements, a decade short of the Niagra/NAACP merger. They are in the midst of rapid changes; black people are on the move North, West, and back to Africa.”[8] Made in 1991 it was the first feature-length narrative film directed by a black woman. In preparation, director Julie Dash spent ten years researching the Gullah tradition in New York City's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, university libraries and the Smithsonian in Washington. “Yet Daughters of the Dust is not a documentary. Rather, it is lyrical and impressionistically, told, as Dash says, in the manner of a West African griot, or storyteller, the way an old relative would retell it, not linear but always coming back around.”[9]

 

Black Magic/African Religions

            In African traditional religions, there is little separation between magic and religion. They are categories that interact with each other to communicate and call on the energies of the supernatural and ancestral world. Materials used in a manifestation ritual, for example, can correlate to and draw on the strengths of a specific deity. In Yoruba based traditions, this blending is an intricate balance between the objects, numbers, food items, days of the week and other symbols and the spell or action to create the desired result. For example, in a ritual used to attract love, one may use honey to bring in the energy of the Yoruba Orisha of love, sensuality, and beauty, Oshun. Yvonne Chireau addresses this fluidity between magic and religion in her book Black Magic: An African American Conjuring Tradition. She asserts, “African American "religion" is not always distinct from what others call "magic." Instead, these are complementary categories, and they have historically exhibited complementary forms in African American culture."[10] This distinction is a critical observation because a separation of magic from religion, regarding it as mere superstition, diminishes its legitimacy and the intricate complex cosmologies that are at play in the application of manifestation, divination, hexing, healing and other practices. She quotes David Hall’s definition of “‘lived religion' or the practice and ‘everyday thinking and doing of lay men and women.’ African American religion, according to this perspective, not only embodies ecclesial formations of faith but also encompasses non-institutionalized expressions and activities."[11] By this definition, then religion is integrated into all areas of life. It is cooking and sharing food, the dances to the gods and the ancestors and the grieving rituals after the transition of a loved one into the other realm. It is the belief in the efficacy of a charm bag, and in the power of the practitioner and the gods to imbue those objects with the elements needed to create change. When looking at the religious representation in Daughters of the Dust from this vantage point it is essential to identify not just the overt references to identifiable objects or traditional African gods, but to the actions, behaviors and ritual performance of the characters.

 

Nana Peazant and Aje

            At 88 years old in the year 1902, Nana Peazant grew up when slavery was alive and well in the United States. Extreme Christian conversion had only just begun at the turn of the 19th century.[12] When Nana was born just before the civil war, Africans were still imported into the Sea Islands.[13] Through Nana, this connection to the ancestors and the African religious ways remains alive. In the script, Dash correlates Nana with Obatala the Yoruba deity of creation most likely because of her life-giving energy. As the eldest, she is the literal mother of many and a mother figure for her great grand-daughter-in-law, Eula. She represents the wisdom of the elders, and although many disagree with her religious practices, she is still honored among the community. In one of the last scenes the family comes to kiss a charm tied to a bible. Viola, a character who initially found great discomfort in Nana's practices “realizes the value of her grandmother’s traditions and folk beliefs” and “kisses the ‘hand’ that her grandmother has fixed as a gesture of reconciliation of her past with her future.”[14] Hagar, however, refuses to indulge in what she calls, “Hoodoo mess!”[15]

 

            Nana also exhibits the experience of Aje. McKenzie notes the need for incorporating supernatural abilities in the experiential category of phenomenology within a Yoruba study. “Supernormal forms are also in evidence such as the disclosure of an Orisha to the worshiper, appearance through dreams, visions and auditions, states of ecstasy and special gifts of healing.”[16]  Different from Ache, which is the spiritual creative energy that lives within all beings, Aje a power specific to older women. Aje is "often simultaneous with witches and granted to menopausal and postmenopausal women ensuring the reverence of older women."[17]

 

Aje's suzerainty comes from the fact that it is considered the origin of all earthly existence, and women of Aje are euphemistically called "Earth" (aye). Oduduwa, the tutelary Orlsa (Select Head) of Aje, is heralded as the "Womb of Creation"… and is symbolized by the life-giving pot of origins and also the "wicked bag" or earthen tomb in which all life forms find eternal rest and also regeneration. Aje, the "daughters" of Oduduwa, are said to oversee creation and destruction, divination, healing, and the power of the word. Given its female ownership and administration, it is fitting that Aje's terrestrial source of birth, actualization, and manifestation is the womb. Owners of Aje are said to control reproductive organs, and they are bonded through the cosmic power and the life-giving force of menstrual blood.[18]

 

            Other characteristics of Aje are Eye and Eyo, both of which Nana possesses. As a diviner, she owns Eye which is a form of prophetic power, that enables women to accomplish anything. She also holds Ero which is a "soothing disarming and softer kind of power…which is capable of normalizing, negating or rendering impotent any other power, life or substance."[19] She has the unique ability to call in the past, the present and future as symbolized by the old can she carries around with the “scraps of memories.” She is also able to communicate with the ancestors and the unborn as both are metaphorically located in the womb that is also the space of Aje.[20] As a symbol of black feminism, it is the ability to bring balance to issues of power between the genders and social classes. It is the activism within Aje which is not to be confused with a perceived strength of black women, that often "ignores the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression..."[21] It is the act of resisting. Aje is the spiritual power of black feminism. A phenomenon originating in Africa, it is a strength specific to black women, and is a force that can be harnessed to combat oppression. As Montre Aza Missouri state's, “True Aje... are preoccupied with checking [challenging] those in power and bringing equality in all facets of social and spiritual life…”[22]

            Because of her position as an elder woman with the power of Aje, Nana has a unique connection to both the ancestors and the unborn child, both of which are linked to the womb. She can call on the ancestors to send the child because the child has just come from that world. Similar to the fluidity between life, death, the spirit world and the living, represented in the Kongo cosmogram, Nana works with this cyclical nature.[23] To calm the fighting between Eli and Eula, and prove to Eli that the child Eula is carrying is his, Nana Peazant calls on the unborn child to arrive. While the spirit child is running across the beach in voiceover, she says, "Nana prayed for help. I got there just in time." The shot turns to Nana who beckons, “Come child come!"[24]

 

Men’s Respect of Aje

            The men in Daughters show respect for the women of the Peazant family. Before Eli arrives at a place of accepting that the child is his, he has many doubts not just in his relationship but in his connection to the ancestors and the efficacy of African religious practices. At the cemetery, over the grave of his great-grandfather, he turns to Nana for wisdom, and to express his frustrations. "When we were children, we really believed you could work the good out of evil. We believed in the newsprint on the walls. . . Your tree of glass jars and bottles. . . The rice you carried in your pockets. We believed in the frizzled-haired chickens. . . The coins, the roots and the flowers. We believed they would protect us and every little thing we owned or loved."[25] For Eli, all of Nana's magic could not protect Eula from rape. For enslaved Africans conjure was a system of creating power for its practitioners and many harming and healing spells were created and adjusted for the circumstances of slavery.[26] While power and agency were inevitably accumulated through these practices, it did not liberate black people from chattel slavery or white supremacy.

            Although she cannot adequately protect him, she offers an affirmation of the protection of the ancestors;

 

"It's up to the living to keep in touch with the dead, Eli. Man's power doesn't end with death. We just move on to a new place, a place where we watch over our living family.... Respect your elders! Respect your family! Respect your ancestors! You're worried that baby Eula's carrying isn't yours because she got forced. Eli, you won't ever have a baby that wasn't sent to you. The ancestors and the womb ...they're one, they're the same. Those in this grave, like those who're across the sea, they're with us. They’re all the same. The ancestors and the womb are one. Call on your ancestors, Eli. Let them guide you. You need their strength.... I need you to make the family strong again, like we used to be."

 

            In the same conversation, Eli says he feels like Eula no longer belongs to him. Nana's Aje quickly and swiftly confronts the sexism implicit within that statement, "You can't get back what you never owned. Eula never belonged to you; she married you!"[27] As a woman of Aje, Nana commits to equality between Eli and Eula, between men and women.

            This respect for difference is affirmed by the man representing the Muslim presence on the island, Bilal Muhammad. Mr. Sneed who came to photograph the event, asks Mr. Muhammad what he remembers from the French West Indies. He responds, "Women are the sweetness of life. They are sweet to the eye because they are beautiful. They are sweet to the ears because of their lovely voice and the way they sing."[28] As Mr. Muhammad is saying this Eli is lying down next to him listening intently, possibly reflecting on his relationship with Eula. In this scene, men show their love and respect for women as bearers of a power different from their own. That power is a force of Aje that can bring equality and generate justice. Eli slowly internalizes this equality but not without the help of the spirit of his unborn child.

 

The Unborn Child

            A Yoruba concept represented throughout Daughters is the presence of the unborn child as a depiction of the deity of the crossroads, Ellegua. Although Ellegua is often depicted as a male, in Daughters he is a girl child of about seven or eight who holds power to communicate between the living and the dead. Although she has not been born at the time of the migration, she narrates the movie as though looking back on a past event. On a spiritual mission, the unborn child was sent at the juncture of her family's departure north.

            The film opens with the narration of the unborn child evoking the Yoruba ritual of calling on Ellegua first. "He alone can set an action in motion and interconnect the parts… The most fundamental absolute of the Yoruba is that there exists, simultaneously, three stages of existence: the past, the present, and the unborn. Esu [Ellegua] represents these stages, and makes their simultaneous existence possible, ‘without any contradiction,’ precisely because he is the principle of discourse both as a messenger and as the god of communication.”[29]

            In a white dress with a blue bow, the child traverses time and place. Through subdued colors, melancholy music, and low opacity a scene unfolds that tells the viewer that the child is but a spirit visiting people in the past dying indigo. Looking for a symbol that signified the blood and pain of slavery but not wanting to be graphic, Dash turned to indigo because it left marks that were acquired through this turmoil.[30] As the unborn child builds indigo blocks and dyes clothes, her voiceover says, “In this quiet place years ago, my family knelt down and caught a glimpse of the eternal. We left our markers in the soil. In memory of the families that once lived here. We were the children of those who chose to survive. Years later my mom told me I had been sent here by the old souls.”[31] Though Ellegua/the child, Eli and Eula also reconnect with their ancestors. “By leading them to the graveyard, the unborn child allows Eli and Eula to remember their legendary ancestors—the Ibo. By the end of the film, Eli and Eula decide to stay on the island with Yellow Mary and Nana Peazant, rather than migrating north with the rest of the family.”[32] Ellegua is one of the many Orishas referenced in this film. Others not explicitly stated but noted in the script are the three women, Oshun, Yemoja and Oya.

 

Yemoja, Oshun and Oya

            In Yoruba cosmology [ST(4] there are seven deities most frequently referenced. They represent the elements and govern specific areas of life. When initiated into the religion, devotees are crowned by a deity that exhibits similar characteristics of that person. For example, someone who is crowned Oshun the Orisha of love, sensuality and beauty might be a person who exudes femininity and loves to adorn themselves. The assigning of the Orisha is not gender specific as a gender non-conforming person who is feminine can also be crowned Oshun.[33] In the script Dash notes that Trula represents Oshun, Yellow Mary depicts Yemoja, and Eula represents Oya. Her choice to draw these connections evokes a black feminist critique by challenging Western sexist representations of ideal womanhood that is docile, sexually pure and accepts patriarchy as the norm. In contrast, these Orishas exhibit power because of and through their sexuality in the case of Oshun, are warriors and fight for social justice as with Oya and are the creators of life such as Yemoja. Their power is distinct from the power of the masculine energies of the often assigned to male Orishas, but they work alongside these energies. For example, Oya and Shango are both warrior deities that govern different areas of change.

            “Yemoja-Olokun is the mother of the Sea, the Great Water, the Womb of creation. Yemoja rules the house, nurtures the child in the waters of the womb; and has jurisdiction over the affairs of women.”[34] In Daughters, Yellow Mary is a woman who worked as a wet nurse for a white family. When the husband of the family sexually assaulted her, and refused to let her go, she cut off her breast, so she was of no more use to them. Monte Aza Missouri points out in Black Magic Woman and Narrative Film that like Yemoja, Yellow Mary cannot give birth although she rules maternity and breasts.

 

“In the character’s self-description, Yellow Mary is the “scorned one.” She is scorned for what she has done on the mainland to support herself, perhaps prostitution but certainly for the mutilation of her body… One can imagine that many scorn Yellow Mary for brazenly returning home to the Peazant family with her lesbian mulatto lover Trula, a character symbolizing Oshun. Yellow Mary continually tells the Peazant family in a bold ‘womanly’ fashion that she cares little for what others think of her. Like the waves, winds tropical storms, hurricanes and the sea, all of which are associated with Yemoja, Yellow Mary finds it impossible to settle down or be controlled.”[35]

 

            Yemoja’s power is also an example of Aje. Located in the womb, she has the power of creation although she cannot have children. Aje is not a force that is specific to people who can reproduce or to those assigned female at birth. Anyone who holds this feminine energy and be a conduit of creation.

            Yellow Mary’s lover is Trula, who embodies the characteristics of Oshun. According to Luisah Teish in Jambalaya: The Natural Women’s Book, Oshun is “the Scared Harlot. In Haiti, she is called Maitresse Erzulie. She is the African Venus- Aphrodite!... Beauty, love, and sensuality are Her creations. She is the queen of the performing arts, and the sacred drum is her womb. She is the golden lady; all jewelry belongs to her.”[36] Again similar to the description of Yemoja there is a reference to the womb as a point of creation. Although Trula does not say any lines in the film, she has the characteristics of beauty and an exuberant love for Yellow Mary.

            Embodied in the character Eula is Oya. "Oya- Yansa is the Queen of the Winds of Change. She is feared by many people because She brings about sudden structural change in people and things. Oya does not just rearrange the furniture in the house-She knocks the building to the ground and blows away the floor tiles."[37] Montre Aza Missouri notes the following similarities:

 

"In Oya's story, she is said to have two husbands, Shango and Ogun the deity of war and iron. In Daughters, Eula's partner is Eli, who is an ironworker and frequently perspires, a characteristic of Ogun. As with many female water deities, Oya is as elusive as the bodies of water these deities represent. Like the river and the sea, femininity can hardly be controlled or contained according to Yoruba cosmology. Eula is represented as informed by the folklore and iconography of Oya, with the characters face often hidden by her long dark braids or as photographed using wide angles to avoid close-ups of the face. These directional choices refer to the notion of Oya, similar to the Greek goddess Medusa, possessing eyes and a face powerful enough to kill at a glance, Oya, alongside her husband Ogun, goes to war on behalf of her devotees and is particularly unrelenting in fighting injustice."[38]

 

            Out of the anger, he feels at Eula's rape Eli, smashes all of the bottles on the tree outside his house. The bottle tree is an ancient Kongo custom brought to the Americas that is said to trap evil spirits.[39] His breaking of this tree symbolizes his frustration with the Nana’s magic that could not protect his wife. "… Eula is seen in the house covering her ears while gusts of wind, the wind of Oya, swirl around her. The wind is a manifestation of Eula's anguish over being sexually assaulted and having her husband not be sympathetic."[40] The women in the community are also judgmental, claiming that she is ruined because she has been raped. This subtle sexism ultimately blames the survivor for violence committed against her. Slowly Eula's power builds as does the storm, as injustice begins to be uncovered.  The clouds turn grey, the men cover the chairs with blankets and Eli puts his hand out to touch the rain. The last straw for Eula is Hagar chastising Yellow Mary, "Now how she gonna come and put her shame on Mother Mary Peazant?"[41] Like the wind, Eula reaches out her arms and screams for them to stop, demanding they recognize all the good Yellow Mary has done for the family. Eli shouts for Eula to tell them what happened to her. She responds,

 

 "You are so ashamed of Yellow Mary because she got ruined? What you say about me? I'm ruined too? As far as this place was concerned, we never was a pure woman. Deep inside we believed they ruined our mothers and their mothers that come before them. And we live our lives always expecting the worst because we feel we don't deserve no better. Deep inside we believe that even God can heal the wound of our past so protect us from the world that put shackles on our feet...Even though you are going up north, you will think about being ruined too. You think you can cross over from to the mainland and run away from it? You gonna be sorry sorry if you don't change your way of thinking before you leave this place."[42]

 

In this scene Eula becomes physically sick and begins to vomit as if she is releasing something.

 

" If you love yourselves, then love Yellow Mary. She is a part of you, just like we are a part of our mothers. A lot of us are going through thing we think we need to go through alone. There are gonna be all kinds of roads to taking life. Let not be afraid to take them. We deserve them. Because we all good women!"[43]

 

            Here Eula's Aje names the insidiousness of patriarchal white supremacy; specifically, how it has been ingrained in the minds of these women that they believe they must carry the burden of rape by white slave masters. She demands that this not be a private matter but one dealt with by the entire community to heal those who have suffered. Eula asserts that healing must happen, one cannot run away from harm, because trauma is ancestral, carried by the children in the next generation. Instead of running from it, she encourages the women to love the parts of themselves that feel this shame and hurt, so that they may accept their mothers and themselves as whole. Finally, in a grand affirmation, she declares that "We are all good women!" Here in all of her demand for social justice, is the Orisha, Oya.

 

Manifestations and Sacred Objects

            As women in white gather around Nana Peazant, Nana, in a purple dress distinguishing her from the others, instructs them on the making of a charm that she deems will keep them safe as they travel North. Whispers are heard "what is she doing with that thing?" as she sews a leather pouch. Another character assures Nana, "the Lord will carry us through. Trust in Jesus. Nana, we don't need no charms of dried roots and flowers." With a look of confusion and annoyance, Nana continues to build her charm. Out of a tin can, she pulls out a piece of her mother's hair that she gave to Nana before she was sold away from her daughter. Nana kisses it and adds a piece of her own hair stating, "There must be a bond. A connection between those that will go North and those who will remain. Between us who are here and us who are across the sea. A connection! We are as two people in one body. The last of the old and the first of the new. We will always lead this double life you know. Because we are from the sea. We came here in chains, and we must survive!"[44]   By making this sacred object Nana, an elder black woman, is creating a connection between the ancestors and the young women that watch. It is a charm that is both religious and magical which is drawing on the relationship between the living and the ancestors by combining objects associated with Nana and her deceased mother. She emphasizes the need to remain connected to the ancestors as a source of strength and does so through the creation of a material object that can be carried as both a source of power and a tool of remembering one's roots. This is a charm that has its origins in African religious/magical practices.

 

European travelers, who found protective charms to be ubiquitous among African peoples, called them gree-greeor gris-gris, a term from the Mande language that related to spiritual forces. "The Religion here, if it may be called such," wrote John Atkins in the 1700s from Sierra Leone, "is their Veneration to Gregries." Some of these items were worn on the body or kept conspicuously about in the open to guard against misfortune and evil. The French trader Jean Barbot described gris-gris charms in seventeenth-century Upper Guinea (the present-day Senegambia) that were displayed by elites ‘all over their body, on their head, neck, arms, waist and legs’ that contained ‘scraps of paper written with Moorish or Arabic.’ In areas that had been influenced by Islam, Africans placed ‘unlimited faith’ in the power of gris-gris, leather and cloth packets commissioned from Muslim priests and marabous that guaranteed health and protection to their wearers.[45]

 

According to Theopus Smith in Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America "Kongo charms or sacred medicines -minkisi (singular: nkisi)- are containers within which are placed material media that, in combination with the living entity or spirit of the charm, create its phenomenal power.[46] The making of the charm was done with formulaic intention and held different meanings according to how they were bound such as being tightly woven to represent attachment. The inclusion of bodily remains represented the essence of the person, and the combination of these remains with substances could create a desired trait. Objects also carried various meaning, "red pepper to produce heat or irritation; lodestone to draw desirable forces magnetically; bone fragments to signify the passage of powers from the otherworld; soil from gravesites to symbolize the presence of spirits in transitional places; acrid herbs to displace evil essences metaphorically.[47]

The charm that Nana is creating in the above scene created power and protection for its wearers and was one of many elements used by Dash to emphasize a connection between Africa and the Americas. Nana also explicitly states the crossing of the sea, a metaphor for the connection between those that were brought as slaves and those that remain on the continent. The charm not only connects people currently living on the island to the ancestors of Africa but to the Gullah Islands as another geographical shift takes place, the migration North.  

            Another African sacred symbol in Daughters is the Kongo cosmogram. Traditionally it is drawn as horizontal and vertical lines crossing and at the point where they meet a circle joins them. Art historian Robert Farris Thompson notes that the cosmogram across the Americas symbolizes the worlds of the living and the dead. It mirrors the "birth of a person, in the rising of the sun; the maximal power in a vertical line which culminates with the sun at noon; the death and decline in the lowering of the sun and its disappearance beneath the sea or earth."[48] "In African American lore the cosmogram signified power through connections to one's ancestors. More than a symbol, a cosmogram drawn on the ground or embodied in the form of a forked stick or crossroads drew spiritual power to a particular point on earth. "[49] By drawing a cosmogram, the symbol gives power to the location and the religious practitioner.

            Next, to the drawn image in the script, it reads "Holding the turtle. The young boys have painted an African symbol [the cosmogram] on the back of the turtle. An encoded message, and "S.O.S." to relatives across the sea, markings passed down through generations who have long since forgotten their exact meaning."[50]  The voice over is Nana Peazant talking about how the African ancestors keep family ties through memory. Like her reference of the charm as a material object that represents the Gullah's connection to Africa, the Kongo cosmogram also serves as this representation. Nana says, "those 18th century Africans, they watch us, they keep us, they ancestors."[51]  In Native American folklore the turtle represents the earth.[52] As the boy hands the turtle to an older man he runs his finger over the vertical line, representing the separation between planes and says "we come from a long line of creation that started from those first captured Africans and Nana, she carried them with her. Four generations." It is Nana Peazant, and her power of Aje that connects the ancestors and the future generations through African originated objects, symbols and shared memories. She embodies the fluidity between the stages represented by the cosmogram.[53]

 

Conclusion

Dash's characters embody an African power associated with the patriarchal stigma of witchcraft or the black feminist power of Aje. Through objects such as charms or the Kongo cosmogram, Nana is able to harness the strength of the ancestors to pass along to the next generation. By summoning the unborn child  she brings peace between men and women, between Eula and Eli, and brings together the community around her in a final farewell regardless of divergent religious beliefs. Thus, Nana embodies a power of Aje that combats oppression. The men see this too. Eli goes to her for advice and sought her magic as a young man. Any sexist notions of ownership over women that he retains, Nana quickly  confronts.

            Eula, Trula and Yellow Mary embody Orishas that represent deviant forms of womanhood. Through the emboldened nature of Yemoja, Yellow Mary defies stereotypes supported by her community by traveling to different places, taking unconventional jobs, loving another woman and altering her body. Like Oya, Eula shakes the foundations that prescribe to the sexist notion that once a woman is raped, she is ruined. Eula encourages the healing of her fellow black women and affirms they are "good women."

            Daughters of the Dust has reached the level of being a classic not only because of the identity of the director, but because of the ways she meticulously weaves the experiences and ancestral history of black women into her characters, representing in positive ways black religions that till today have negative stereotypes associated with them.

About ten years ago I attended the 20th-anniversary screening at the New Museum in New York City where black women lined up to express their gratitude to Julie Dash for affirming and reflecting their existence by making this film. As a young emerging black feminist, a practitioner of African derived religions and an aspiring filmmaker, Daughters showed me the beauty and complexity of my ancestors. I saw on screen what my black magic mama taught me at home. A few years ago, I showed this film to a group of young black girls in New York City. As to be expected, their lack of information about their ancestral traditions left them a bit bewildered and confused, but I am sure they too will understand once they become black magic daughters of Aje.

 

 

 

[1]Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash. Produced by Julie Dash. By Julie Dash. Performed by Adisa Anderson and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. United States: Kino International, 1992.

[2]Missouri, MontreÌ Aza.  Black Magic Woman and Narrative Film: Race, Sex, and Afro-Religiosity.   Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pg 52

[3] Hooks, Bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York: Washington Square Press, 2005. Pg. 17

[4] Heiler qt in McKenzie, Peter Rutherford. Hail Orisha!: a Phenomenology of a West African Religion in the Mid-nineteenth Century. Leiden: Brill, 1997. Pg. 3

 

[5] McKenzie, Peter Rutherford. Hail Orisha!: a Phenomenology of a West African Religion in the Mid-nineteenth Century. Leiden: Brill, 1997. Pg. 3

[6]For a further discussion of black feminism see: hooks, bell. 1981. Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston, MA: South End Press, Crenshaw, Kimberley. On Intersectionality the Essential Writings of Kimberle Crenshaw. New York: New Press, 2018. Walker, Alice. 1984. In Search of our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

[7]Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman's Film. New York, New York: New Press, 1992. Pgs. 27-69

[8]Bambara qt in Brouwer, Joel R. “Repositioning: Center and Margin in Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust.” African American Review, vol. 29, no. 1, 1995, Pg 3.

[9]Brouwer, Joel R. “Repositioning: Center and Margin in Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust.” African American Review, vol. 29, no. 1, 1995, Pg. 3

[10]Chireau, Yvonne Patricia.  Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition. University of California Press, 2006. Pg. 22

[11]Ibid, 19

[12] Ibid, 42

[13] Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash. Produced by Julie Dash. By Julie Dash. Performed by Adisa Anderson and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. United States: Kino International, 1992.

[14] Patton, Venetria K.  Grasp That Reaches beyond the Grave: The Ancestral Call in Black Women's Texts. State Univ Of New York Pr, 2014. Pgs. 155–156

[15]Dash, Julie.  Daughters of The Dust: The Making of an African American Woman's Film. New Press, 1992. Pg. 161

[16] McKenzie, Peter Rutherford. Hail Orisha!: a Phenomenology of a West African Religion in the Mid-nineteenth Century. Leiden: Brill, 1997. Pg. 6

[17]Missouri, MontreÌ Aza.  Black Magic Woman and Narrative Film: Race, Sex, and Afro-Religiosity. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pg. 54

[18]Washington, Teresa N. "The Mother-Daughter Àjé̱ Relationship in Toni Morrison's "Beloved." African American Review 39, no. 1/2 (2005): 171-88. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.emory.edu/stable/40033646.

[19]Abiodun 1989, Pgs. 7-13 qt in Grayson, Sandra M.  Symbolizing the Past: Reading Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust, & Eve's Bayou as Histories. U.P. of America, 2000. Pg. 43

[20]Missouri, MontreÌ Aza.  Black Magic Woman and Narrative Film: Race, Sex, and Afro-Religiosity. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pg. 54

[21] hooks, bell. 1981. Ain't I a woman: Black women and feminism. Boston, MA: South End Press Pg. 6

[22]Missouri, MontreÌ Aza.  Black Magic Woman and Narrative Film: Race, Sex, and Afro-Religiosity. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pg. 52

[23]Patton, Venetria K.  Grasp That Reaches Beyond the Grave: The Ancestral Call in Black Women's Texts. State Univ Of New York Pr, 2014. Pg. 6

[24]Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash. Produced by Julie Dash. By Julie Dash. Performed by Adisa Anderson and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. United States: Kino International, 1992.

[25] Ibid

[26] Black magic was used to fuel the uprising against slavery in the Nat Turner Rebellion and the New York Conspiracy of 1712. See Chireau, Yvonne Patricia. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006. Pg. 61

 

[27] Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash. Produced by Julie Dash. By Julie Dash. Performed by Adisa Anderson and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. United States: Kino International, 1992.

[28] Ibid

[29] Brouwer, Joel R. “Repositioning: Center and Margin in Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust.” African American Review, vol. 29, no. 1, 1995, Pg. 6

[30]Dash, Julie.  Daughters of The Dust: The Making of an African American Woman's Film. New Press, 1992.

[31]Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash. Produced by Julie Dash. By Julie Dash. Performed by Adisa Anderson and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. United States: Kino International, 1992.

[32]Patton, Venetria K. Grasp That Reaches Beyond the Grave: The Ancestral Call in Black Women's Texts. State Univ Of New York Pr, 2014. Pg. 12

[33]Conner, Randy P., and David Hatfield. Sparks. Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Participation in African-inspired Traditions in the Americas. New York: Routledge, 2013. Pg. 3

[34]Teish, Luisah.  Jambalaya: The Natural Woman's Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals. Harper & Row, 1988. Pg. 118-119

[35]Missouri, MontreÌ Aza.  Black Magic Woman and Narrative Film: Race, Sex, and Afro-Religiosity. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pg. 58

[36]Teish, Luisah. Jambalaya: The Natural Woman's Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals. Harper & Row, 1988. Pg. 121

[37]Ibid, 120

[38]Missouri, MontreÌ Aza.  Black Magic Woman and Narrative Film: Race, Sex, and Afro-Religiosity. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pg 56-57

[39] Thompson, Robert Farris. "Face of the Gods: The Artists and Their Altars." African Arts 28, no. 1 (1995)

 

[40]Dash, Julie. Daughters of The Dust: The Making of an African American Woman's Film. New Press, 1992.

[41] Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash. Produced by Julie Dash. By Julie Dash. Performed by Adisa Anderson and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. United States: Kino International, 1992.

[42]Ibid

[43]Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash. Produced by Julie Dash. By Julie Dash. Performed by Adisa Anderson and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. United States: Kino International, 1992.

[44]Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash. Produced by Julie Dash. By Julie Dash. Performed by Adisa Anderson and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. United States: Kino International, 1992.

[45]Chireau, Yvonne Patricia.  Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition. University of California Press, 2006. Pg. 61

[46]Smith, Theophus Harold. Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America. Oxford University Press, 1995. Pg 40

[47]Chireau, Yvonne Patricia. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition. University of California Press, 2006. Pg 63

[48]Thompson qt in Grayson, Sandra M. Symbolizing the Past: Reading Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust, & Eve's Bayou as Histories. U.P. of America, 2000. Pg. 48

[49]Fett, Sharla M. Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations. University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Pg. 56.

[50]Dash, Julie.  Daughters of The Dust: The Making of an African American Woman's Film. New Press, 1992. Pg. 147

[51]Daughters of the Dust. Directed by Julie Dash. Produced by Julie Dash. By Julie Dash. Performed by Adisa Anderson and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. United States: Kino International, 1992.

[52]Lake-Thom, Bobby. Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories, and Ceremonies. New York, NY: Plume, 1997.

[53]Patton, Venetria K.  Grasp That Reaches Beyond the Grave: The Ancestral Call in Black Women's Texts. State Univ Of New York Pr, 2014. Pg. 11-12