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May 22, 2006

rips - Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham died in her sleep on Sunday.

Her impressively long life was full of chapters, but Dunham's long association with Haiti - her fieldwork as an anthropologist and choreographer, her long residence and numerous philanthropic activities there - holds particular interest for me. I know a few Haitians (my father, for example) who always rolled their eyes at the mention of her name. She had never spoken out against the Duvaliers, Dad would complain; she glamorized the voodoo practice that in his doggedly materialist view kept poor, uneducated Haitians shrouded in superstition. Me, I've always been willing to forgive her getting along to get along (it's not like she was Duvalier's lawyer), and moreover, her interests dovetailed with concerns of my own.

Shortly before Dunham left Haiti, she experienced a personal crisis that revealed her ethical sensibility in matters of belief. She decided to perform a ceremony in which she would promise the loa to consummate the kanzo, or second voudun initiation, at a later date. She wanted to perform the kanzo rite itself before she departed, but Herskovits had written her warning against it; he had been cautious about tackling things that were beyond his reach while working in Dahomey--the place of origin of many of the voudun mysteries. After observing the kanzo several times, she felt uncertain about undergoing the trial by fire. She was concerned about her "moral position" in making promises for future initiations. Questioning her own motives, she asked, "Could Herskovits tell me, could Erich Fromm, could Téoline or DéGrasse tell me what part of me lived on the floor of the houngfor ... and what part stood to one side taking notes? Each moment lived in participation was real; still ... without conscious doing or planning or thinking I stayed outside the experience while being totally immersed in it." She longed for an indication of possession to prove to herself that she was sincere. [link]

My mother had occasion to meet Dunham in Haiti a few times, and her recollections of these passing encounters are always lit by the soft, warm, glowing light of vaguely abject gratitude, a kind of ambient halo-effect that middle class colonial subjects tend to project onto civilizing, uplifting visitors from the metropole. That the great Miss Dunham (American, ligh-skinned) would adopt her little, benighted island as second home reinforced my mother's fragile, complicated Haitian pride, and the reversibility of the equation - the question of Dunham's gratitudes to Haiti - was never much on my mother's mind.

Me, I wasn't born in Haiti, so my Haitian pride has an ocean in the middle of it (this when it's distinctly Haitian at all), and has to fully encompass empty leagues that my mother has at best only traversed. So instead of my mother's gratitude I feel a kind of anachronistic kinship with this African American artist looking across a gap at something that may or may not be a stand-in for her own, lost authentic blackness. Dunham's quest for unimpeachable proof of her own sincerity though possession brings to mind all the voudounistic, hipster Haitian ciphers I've lucked into in Brooklyn and Boston over the years and immediately begged off of, not out of any particular skepticism but out of fear: "I went to the hounfour and all I got was this lousy t-shirt." Which is to say I can imagine Dunham being devastated if she started a fateful initiation and the loa didn't bother to come calling or riding.

[photos from the Library of Congress's Katherine Dunham Collection.]

Posted by ebogjonson in haiti, memory, on May 22, 2006 5:24 PM


Such a fine post. But COME ON, Dauphin, finish it!

Posted by: Piscean at May 23, 2006 2:24 PM