F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

Daughters of the Dust

When Julie Dash’s critically-acclaimed independent film Daughters of the Dust appeared in 1991, heralded a seminal moment in Black filmmaking. Known as the first nationally distributed featured film directed by an African-American woman, the film has since been lauded for its depiction of Gullah-Geechee history and culture on the Sea Islands, which run along the country’s southeast coast and were historically populated by descendants of enslaved West Africans. The African-American residents of the sea islands are unique in that they’ve largely maintained cultural and linguistic traditions passed down directly from their ancestors, including the Gullah language, a creole of West and Central African languages and varieties of American English. Dash’s film is steeped in this remarkable culture, from its wide shots of lush Sea Islands landscapes to its depiction of West African spiritual practices, matrilineal family structures, and traditional Gullah food ways.  

When reflecting on the significance of this film, two possibilities for open-access digital resources come to mind. Both are data management and visualization projects that would provide opportunities to engage the artistic and cultural resonances that the film illuminates. The first project explore the “afterlife” of the film itself. Popular and critical response to Beyonce’s 2016 release of the visual album Lemonade, particularly the emergence of several versions of a “Lemonade Syllabus,” gestured to this notion of “afterlives.” Essentially, I envision a data visualization project that tracks and maps the visible influences of dramatic tropes and cinematic elements of Dash’s film throughout Black films, music videos, and visual art in the decades following its release. Such a project would be ongoing, and would provide a visual representation of the film’s influence on Black art, and, by extension, the influence of Gullah-Geechee culture.

The second project would be much more extensive and far-reaching in its scope and purpose. This project would explore the disbursal of West African languages across the African diaspora. Here, I envision another data visualization project, but one that researches, tracks, and maps the migration of West African lexical, grammatical, syntactic, and idiomatic forms across the world. The “lives” (because “afterlives” seems inadequate when discussing living, evolving languages) of these languages could be tracked through examples in films, literature, music, oral histories, and other uses of language that can be recorded and analyzed. Those usages could then be visualized and represented using digital methods. Such a project would require large-scale, collaborative research by linguists, historians, anthropologists, media studies scholars, cultural studies scholars, and digital humanities scholars. The project, along with the first one, would require considerable knowledge of copyright and fair use laws, and possibly funding for securing images, audio, video, and text that may not be in the public domain. These projects are certainly too ambitious for a single researcher (or a graduate student!), but undertaking them collaboratively, likely with significant grant funding, would allow scholars and the public at large to continue to explore the significant influence of Daughters of the Dust, Gullah-Geechee history and culture, and West African languages.

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