Book Review: Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash

One of my favorite movies is Daughters of the Dust. I saw it on PBS one night in my early college years. I remember flipping through channels, bored, and coming across black women in white dresses dancing and playing on a beach. Mesmerized, I kept watching. I didn’t understand what I watched, nor did I have a clue what was going on, but still, I was mesmerized, so much so I often cited it among my top 10 favorite movies.

imageMany years later, I got a chance to watch it again on DVD. I popped it in and watched it from beginning to end. This time, I had my writer’s skills to keep me company as I watched, and it kept nagging me, saying, “This is pretty and all, but where’s the plot? What’s with all the drama? Oh look, that woman is running off with that Indian. They haven’t even said one word to each other! What the heck’s going on?”

I didn’t know. The movie, other than looking pretty, made absolutely no freaking sense. I was at a loss as to why I liked it.

Back in college, I didn’t care so much. But now that we got the internet, movie ignorance simply will not do. So after the movie ended, I was on IMDB, trying to find out more information about the movie. And that’s when I learned that Julie Dash, the director of the movie, had also put out a book.

Daughters of the Dust has the unique distinction of being named after the movie it’s based on, but not as a novelization, but rather its sequel. Why Julie Dash chose to give the book sequel the same name as her movie, I don’t know, but the book follows the story of the Peazant family after several members migrate from Dawtuh Island, based off the Carolinas, to the North.  The consequences of that split is told in the story of two cousins, Elizabeth and Amelia.

Amelia is the granddaughter of Haagar Peazant, who was the main impetus behind the move to the North. Disdainful of island life, Haagar wants Amelia to succeed as a much as a black woman in the early-20s Harlem can. She has Amelia attend prestigious schools, works hard to ensure she has access to contacts with the upper-black class, and tries to weed out every ounce of Gullah influence, or even lower-class black  influence, in her household. Amelia however, wishes only to escape her grandmother’s heavy hand. Thus, when an opportunity to document Dawtuh Island for her thesis comes along, Amelia jumps at the chance, much to her grandmother’s outrage.

Returning to the land of her ancestors, Amelia meets Elizabeth, who is around her own age. Elizabeth’s parents chose to remain behind on the island, so while Amelia attended black social gatherings and teas and such, Elizabeth grew up learning about herbs and charms, helping her family with the land, and learning all she can from Nana, the eldest of the Peazant family. As much as Elizabeth enjoys the old ways, she is gripped by a restlessness she cannot name. She’s close enough to the land to know its secrets, yet she’s full of other knowledge that goes beyond what the land can offer. She becomes the island’s only schoolteacher, but is frustrated by the lack of vision in her students. To buy school supplies, occasionally she makes trips to the mainland to be a maid for a pair of white, elderly sisters. Elizabeth and Amelia take a shine to each other immediately, and Elizabeth aids Amelia in showing her life around Dawtuh Island.

imageAmelia is there to study the island’s inhabitants for her thesis, but soon she realizes the stories she collect is in reality stories of her past, to help put her own heritage together. Daughters of the Dust is built on story, or in the book “telling the lie”. Most of the stories told are history, but some can be considered magic realism. As Amelia gathers the stories, we see how the Peazants came to the island in the first place—indeed, how many of the blacks settled there. This is where the book excels over the movie—we need Amelia, an outsider, to make sense of the Gullah world. The movie gives us a glimpse, but without someone to explain why the people do what they do, all we see are pretty images without context.

The book reflects the leisurely pace of the movie but in a more intimate way. We are privy to Elizabeth and Amelia’s doubts, fears, joys and insights as we learn about the Gullah lifestyle. Elizabeth’s restlessness stirs in each scene, even when she’s at a standstill. It’s interesting to have her POV–in the movie, we see her as a girl spirit, a child not yet born, running unseen with the other children, popping up in photographs, the other characters doing a double-take as her long braids and hairbow flit across the screen. In the book, Dash takes her time in revealing the nature of Elizabeth’s conception, which in the movie caused lots of drama between her parents, Eula and Eli. In this, I truly appreciated the book. Like Amelia, we get to learn the history and the heritage of the Peazant family by walking among the characters, seeing the day-to-day tedium, but also the drama.

Everyone from the movie is here, in some form or another . We learn what caused the rift between Eula and Eli over Elizabeth’s conception, and finally see the courtship between Iona and Julien Last Child (in the movie, all they did was stare longingly at each other. At the end of the movie, as Haagar and her family ready to leave by boat to the mainland and their new life, Iona jumps out, running to Julien who awaits her on a horse. They ride off as Haagar screams and cries.) There are stories of people in the movie but not in the book, like Yellow Mary and Nana. In the movie, Nana was the lynchpin, the last tie to the old ways, and her fierce will could be felt radiating off the TV screen. In the book, Nana had passed on to the ancestors, yet her presence can still be felt over the island. There’s a lovely scene where Amelia finds a picture of Nana and presses her fingers to it, “almost expecting the figure to stir impatiently.”

Then there are others who are not in the movie, but have their own strengths and tragedy’s. One character that stood out was Ol’ Trent, a wanderer who goes around spouting Bible verses to condemn. There’s a great scene where he goes to a local juke joint and yells verses of judgment towards Toady, the “bouncer”. She, however, gives as good back, spouting out verses of her own until he slinks away in shame. Ol Trent is treated with scorn, and it’s easy for the reader to do so until Elizabeth learns about his past that casts him in a whole other, troubling light.

What I appreciate most about the book is Dash doesn’t give us clear cut, black and white characters. When we learn Haagar’s background, we see why she is adamant in putting the Island behind her and why she wants to forbid Amelia from even stepping foot on it. The white women who employ Elizabeth teaches her French and give her glimmerings of life beyond the island; are we to judge them because they are privileged and keep Elizabeth as a maid? Dash doesn’t make that clear, especially when we learn a bit about their own pasts.

The only few quibbles I have with the book is that not all stories are told. I would’ve loved to hear Lucy, Elizabeth’s sister tale, though I’m not surprised she never shared her story—that’s the way she is. Aside from the stories, the book is mainly told in Amelia and Elizabeth’s POV. However, there are times when the book switches to a cinematic omni-POV. Seeing that Dash also did the movie, I can see why. Sometimes it works—there’s a beautiful passage when Amelia’s walking with a boy, and the POV briefly switches to a fisherman watching them. Other times, it feels out of place, such as when a white board supervisor comes to Elizabeth’s school. Having only seen Elizabeth’s and Amelia’s POV, it’s jarring to switch to him and all his judgmental thoughts.

The ending, also, strangely left me unsatisfied. I don’t know why—perhaps things are wrapped up a little too neatly for my liking. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed it. But it felt like Dash overcompensated for keeping so much out of the movie that she put too much into the book. Some things could have been left dangling, such as after Amelia returns to New York to finish her thesis. If her story ended there, it would have been good, but Dash continues it instead.

I’ve been asking myself which is better, the movie or the book? Hard to say. I think the book does a better job overall of putting the reader into the world of Gullah. But I don’t want to discount the movie. Had only the book come out, I would probably discount it as just another book about African Americans after the civil war, and put it into my to-read pile, never to see the light of day. With the movie, however, what captivated me was the scenery, the clothes, the speech, and the beauty of these people that was so different from what I saw from other black movies. It sparked my curiosity to get the book in the first place. And now I know who’s who, I can watch the movie again and go, oh yeah, that’s Yellow Mary, and that’s Haagar and…

Daughters of the Dust gets 5 homemade charms out of 5. And I can’t help but wonder what the Peazant family would look like today. Would most of them still be on the island eking out an existence, or would many of them be living in New York now, ignorant of the rich past they’ve lost?

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Book Review: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

I made the decision to start reading more scifi/fantasy books by people of color (i.e. black people) about a week before I learned anything about RaceFail. In February’s issue of Ebony Magazine, they listed some books to read. I usually skip over it their selections, since they usually have romance and/or memories–stuff I’m not interested in, but then I read a blurb about "The Intuitionist", a story about the first black female Elevator Inspector caught in a political war in her department. Elevator Inspector? Now that intrigued me.

Lila Mae Watson is an Intuitionist. She is part of a new breed of Inspectors who can go into any elevator and inspect it just by intuition. This pits them against the Empiricists, who inspect elevators the hands-on way, and who scoff at the Intuitionists, calling their methods voodoo, touchy feely.

Then an elevator falls and crashes, an elevator Lila Mae inspected and cleared. Lila Mae, who is never wrong, finds herself caught between the two factions’. It’s election time to vote in a new chair, and the two candidates, one Empiricist, one Intuitionist, push and pull Lila Mae to concede to their wishes. There is also much about the founder of Intuitionism, James Fulton, who hidden blueprints to the perfect elevator, and it is up for Lila Mae to find them so she can clear her name.

There’s a lot packed in this relatively short book. Whitehead (I love this guy’s last name–he’s black–did he take it into account when he decided to become a writer?) puts the setting of the book in an alternate, but close mirror of the 1930s, where mobs easily kidnapped journalists and break their fingers so they won’t print certain stories. The story has a vague steampunk feel to it with all the focus on how elevators work and the different factions of the Inspectors. It treads in the shadow of speculative fiction, though as I got towards the end, I became hard-pressed to find it.

Told from Lila Mae’s point of view, the whole subject of race is also pulled into it. We see Lila Mae breaking barriers by becoming the first colored female Inspector, but her path to get there is hard–at the school where she learns about Elevators, the only place for her to live on campus is in a janitor’s closet in an abandoned gym. And the barriers are still very much present–there is a dramatic scene where Lila Mae goes to the Elevator Follies disguised as a waitress, and she sees two of her white coworkers in blackface doing a routine. She then sees the only other colored person, who had been invited to the Follies, cracking up alongside the others. She returns to the kitchen, who are all black women, and ponder how they remain silent, doing their chores knowing full well what was happening in the other room.

When the story doesn’t linger on the intricacies of elevator philosophy, it puts us squarely in Lila Mae’s conformed-to-standard shoes. This is not a woman who stands out. What defines her is her uniformity. Her apartment is sparse, her lifestyle built on routine, until her world is shaken. We then see her life, through present time and flashback, as she begins to change from someone who follows directions, to someone who truly follows her intuition.

Whitehead’s writing is circuitous. Weaving between Lila Mae’s predicament to her past, dipping into Fulton’s long winded theories about the perfect "black box", an elevator that would transcend itself, jumping to other characters like the polite but apathetic thugs Jim and John–Whitehead’s style of writing takes a little getting used to. At times, the information on elevators get a bit much–having Lila Mae go through an oral exam was torture for me, and probably her as well. But Whitehead also surprises by showing us a slices of the 30s and 40s you wouldn’t normally see. For instance, when Lila Mae get chased by Jim and John, she escapes by ducking into a Dime-a-Dance in progress. I never knew such things existed back then. But the way he uses the venue is wonderful and touching.

The ending, for me, is ambiguous as we learn Fulton’s history and the meaning behind his invention. It feels like I need to read it over again, just to read between the lines of the whole story. But it would be something I’d would to read again, maybe even buy and keep on my bookshelf a while. Not bad for a debut book. Three 1/2 elevator cabs out of five. And watch that first step–it’s a doozy.