This essay traces the evolution of Katherine Dunham’s relationship with Haiti through archival research and a consideration of her 1969 ethnographic memoir, Island Possessed. It argues that primitivist discourses framing Vodou as an instinctive capacity latent in all people of African origins provided interwar black artists such as Dunham with a tantalizing possibility of Pan-African solidarity through which they could mobilize their desire for connection with an obscured past and an imagined community in the present. When Dunham found her 1930s fieldwork inevitably run aground on the wall of cultural difference, however, her initial feelings of discomfort in Haiti transformed her writing into an interrogation of the supposedly innate and homogeneous nature of blackness. The language and praxis of Vodou proved flexible enough to provide her with the vocabulary to articulate a more nuanced version of diasporic blackness beyond her preconceived notions of an easy or automatic alliance between all black people.
An Ethics of Discomfort: Katherine Dunham’s Vodou Belonging
Marina Magloire is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Miami. She is currently working on a book that explores the influence of Haitian Vodou on black American feminism. Moving from the interwar ethnographies of Zora Neale Hurston and Katherine Dunham to the resurgence of Vodou imagery in texts by Audre Lorde and Lucille Clifton, this work argues that Afro-Caribbean spirituality has taught black American feminists to confront the inescapability of alienation, inauthenticity, and privilege.
Marina Magloire; An Ethics of Discomfort: Katherine Dunham’s Vodou Belonging. Small Axe 1 November 2019; 23 (3 (60)): 1–17. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/07990537-7912346
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