Julie Dash’s glorious film Daughters of the Dust is not for the faint of heart. Not because its violence is gruesome, nor because sexuality is on display as though the act of lovemaking were a spectator’s sport. But it is purely provocative filmmaking, a dreamlike foray into the sultry landscape of the Sea Islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this land was largely considered unsuitable for white settlers due to its climate, which served as a breeding ground for various tropical diseases and fevers. Gullah culture was born from the once enslaved West Africans who tended their white masters’ rice plantations in relative isolation, allowing for an unprecedented preservation of culture with little European influence. The film is set at the turn of the century in 1902, years after the Civil War had ended and Black folk wrestled with the dual identities of now being both African and American. Centering around the Peazant family, we are introduced to them in a moment of great transition. If they leave their island for the mainland, traveling North with its promise of greater opportunity and assimilation into American life, will they lose vital pieces of their culture and forget how to belong to themselves? 

I first met Julie Dash, in college after a screening of her work. I must admit upon first viewing, I could barely follow the plot and hardly put into words how the movie had affected me. But it left its mark—whether that was through the images of beautiful women with darkly luminous skin dancing on the beach in ethereal, creamy Victorian style dresses, or the sense of connection I felt to the Peazant matriarch who charged her family to remember and respect their ancestors and traditions—I still can’t quite say, but it left me longing to know more about this rich heritage, that at the time, was lost to me. I had known myself largely to be American, certainly, but the African piece, my own blackness, was mostly unexplored territory. I was, most immediately, born into a Black family who had worked incredibly hard in attempts to overcome the limitations of racism, but in so doing did not emphasize where we’d come from, only where we might go.

Ms. Dash herself posed a striking figure, her grounded, powerful presence as a storyteller something I simultaneously felt intimidated by but deeply admired. She spoke of womanhood, describing it in part as the ability to create, hold, and birth new life, our wombs the great container for literal and figurative transformation. She invited us to consider what we carried woven into our very cells, from our ancestors tenacity to survive, down to the lovers we invited into the sacred temple of our bodies. She seemed to wink at me when she mentioned lovers, and I am sure I blushed. This was also unexplored terrain, the kind of delicious sinfulness I had yet to taste for fear of eating, and in so becoming, tainted fruit. The religion of my youth had effectively divorced me from experiencing my body as something to celebrate, its pleasures only allowable within the confines of a heterosexual, martial union (and even then…I was fairly certain I was not supposed to really enjoy my own body, let alone someone else’s). 

What does it mean to be a daughter of the dust, equal parts soil and wind, matter and spirit? It implies something temporal yet lasting; the weight of history and the witnesses who have gone before us; the buoyancy of surrender to the energy of transmutation. There is no daughter without mother. No dust without earth. No history without the present moment. Daughters of the Dust invited me into these seeming dualities, each one intrinsically tied to the other to form a whole. The opening lines of the film feel full of this ancient wisdom:

I am the first and the last

I am the honored one and the scorned one

I am the whore and the holy one

I am the wife and the virgin

I am the barren one…and many are my daughters

I am the silence that you can’t understand

I am the utterance of my name

Resisting linear storytelling forms and opting instead for a kind of visual lyricism, one could almost argue that the film in itself is a series of bridging shots between the rooted past and the winds of migration. For all of the seeming conflicts between magic and religion, sexual purity and shame, African and American, slave and free, ancestors and children; you might imagine heavy contrasting in lighting and use of shadow, symbolic changes of weather, or quick montages juxtaposed with long, steady shots, but this is not the case. Daughters of the Dust is set in the balmy, warm afternoon light of the coast, its pacing deliberately measured, its sense of continuity an invitation to all to sit with its poetry in meditation, in community, or perhaps, if you can, with family. 

When I watch Daughters of the Dust, I feel part of the Peazant family, but I don’t think this experience is unique to me simply because I identify as African American. The themes of this film are universal, perhaps unique in specificity but not in applicability. We all benefit when we are familiar with our heritage, when we can look it in the face and see its laugh lines as well as its scars, accepting both, with all the sorrow and joy that may entail. When I belong to myself, when I truly love all that I see in the mirror, there is nothing that tarnishes or diminishes me, unless I allow it. And that is provocative, that is revolutionary. To love oneself in a culture that is propped up by our fears, insecurities, and isolation, to belong to communities that imagine different ways of being and foster interdependence, this is radical. This has the power to change the world. 

Daughters of the Dust has recently been restored and this exquisite version is available from Cohen Media Group.