Roni Nicole Henderson
In 1999, my mother died. I was 20, a second year English major, a new wife and an even newer mother. My life revolved around discovery, quickly identifying who I wanted to be in the world so that I could help to shape my growing daughter’s life.
I dove into my studies at Clark Atlanta University as a refuge and found that the rigorous coursework offered me much more than a distraction from my mother’s death. There, embedded in my formal education, was the opportunity to question, and therefore, define my place within a continuum of black thinkers, magic folk, rebels, lovers, fools, mothers, daughters, humans.
If Charles Chesnutt and Claude McKay were the spark to my spirit of revolt, Toni Morrison’s universe of archetypes set me on fire. Everything I knew up to that point was viewed with new eyes and I felt a sense of place that transcended our tumultuous time in America as an enslaved people or my own grief upon losing my mother. Fully ablaze, with a newfound sense of self, I remember an image that kept coming to me: a young girl with plaits and a bright blue ribbon, skipping down a bendy path of white sand.
I had seen Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust as a teenager and had an affinity for the matriarch, Nana, as her ways of being in the film reminded me of my own grandmother. However, when I revisited the film at 22, I was transfixed. Toni Morrison’s work had given me a vocabulary with which to digest Daughters of the Dust and the magic came alive for me.
Julie Dash, in offering this trans-generational narrative, amplifies the magic of memory and matriarchal lineage. In spite of the horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade, the memory and therefore, the magic, of Africa survived. That image of a beautiful little black girl, a blue ribbon and plaits bouncing, was the Peazant family’s future, but she was also my own.
Years later, after a stint of teaching English to ninth graders, I again returned to the 1991 cinematic treasure that is Daughters of the Dust. This time, I was a first year graduate student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, pursuing an MFA in Film and Television. My own visions of my mother’s life had led me to learn the language of cinema as a means of healing my family’s deep wounds. I came back to Daughters with the desire to understand why the film struck me so deeply and continued to unfold in me. The colors, the textures, the sea, the faces.
Dash’s choices in the film astounded me. I knew it was a tremendous contribution to the tradition of storytelling, but now, I came to know it as a living, breathing string of conscientious choices that elicited my feelings about the film. Nana, in her deep purple, even deeper Gullah accent and with ever-mending/making hands. The ideals of so-called progress and the stronghold of Christianity held tightly in the person of Viola. The light of Ibo’s Landing and the strength of the Gullah people, gleaming through the eyes of the film’s narrator, an unborn child. I fell in love with the cinematography of Arthur Jafa, who lit black faces with care and celebration of the depth of skin tone and an appreciation for the spectrum that is blackness. I became a student of the art of Kerry Marshall, the film’s production designer. This nonlinear tale, chock full of symbols and subtlety, is a master class unto itself, but also broke boundaries in the studio system, placing it in towns across the nation in front of young black girls like myself.
A good piece of literature grows in us as we grow. As our wisdom and experience expand and alter our steps in this life, stories that were planted in us while we watched them unaware of their profundity, will indeed blossom. For me, Daughters of the Dust has blossomed many times. At first, it was simply a delight to see families like my own on screen. A strong matriarch who knew the old ways and loved her family with fervor was a kindred to my own grandmother with her stories and remedies. As I dove into an understanding of story structure, point of view and voice, Daughters offered alternatives to the Western story structure and authenticated the dialect of our people post-slavery in America. As I studied the spirituality and rich mores of West Africa and the retention of those values in America in spite of slavery, the film once again offered a transcendent view of the power of the African spirit.
Now, with camera in hand, I find myself again, as a daughter on the continuum of matriarchal storytellers, the keepers of our ancestral memory, with a duty to tell our stories and commemorate our survival.