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  • Souls at the Cross roads, Africans on the WaterThe Politics of Diasporic Melancholia
  • Sara Clarke Kaplan

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it "the way it really was." It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. [. . .] The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. [. . .] Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe if the enemy is victorious.1

When I ask, "How are gods made?" I am also asking, "How are histories told?"2

Introduction: To mourn a genocide

In 1992, Julie Dash's independent film Daughters of the Dust entered cinematic history as the first feature-length film by an African-American woman to have a national release. Set in 1902 in a Sea Islands Gullah community off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, Daughters tells the story of a pivotal moment for the Peazant family: their final day together on Dawtah Island before the majority of the clan departs to join in the widescale northern migration by African Americans of the era.3 Lauded for the depth of Dash's historical research, the ground-breaking techniques of cinematographer Arthur "A.J." Jafa, and the unflinching feminist perspective—both filmic and political—displayed in the film, Daughters had a notable impact on both African-American and independent film communities, earning it the dubious honor of "cult classic" status (Making xv, Lee E1).

Despite a significant and ever-growing body of scholarship on Dash's landmark film, relatively little critical attention has been given to the complexity with which Dash deploys the religious traditions of the Black Diaspora in the film as a critical part of her black feminist project.4 This article focuses on this oft-overlooked intertextual use of the cosmologies and religious practices of the Black Diaspora within Daughters. Rather than interpreting the film's allusions to diasporic religiosity as integral only to the aesthetic fabric or cultural context of the production, I suggest that through the invocation of the ceremonies and [End Page 511] spirits of black diasporic religions, Daughters produces a historical geography of diaspora through the performance of a collective cultural memory capable of linking contemporary individual and familial struggles to the historic trajectories of imperialism and white supremacy. In so doing, the film demonstrates how, through the open-ended engagement with a shared history of subjugation and opposition, formerly enslaved people and their descendants produce and sustain situated practices and places of diasporicity capable of intervening in contemporary material and discursive structures of racism.

If, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore has argued, racism can be understood as "the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death, in distinct yet densely interconnected political geographies" (261), then African chattel slavery's hyperexploitation of labor, multi-scalar expropriation and deformation of place—of bodies, homes, communities, and national status—and mass administration of social and physical death to captive Africans and their enslaved descendents can only be understood as a three-century practice of genocide.5 Any project that envisions black liberation, therefore, must first come to terms with the significance of this history of genocide for future political desire and action. In other words, the political and psychic stakes of "how to mourn a genocide" remain high (Lockhurst 244). In what follows, I argue that when read in conjunction with historical and contemporary theories of melancholia, Daughters provides a provocative model for mourning the conjoined genocide of African chattel slavery and the Middle Passageone that recognizes "that the work of mourning, for genocide, cannot be allowed to end" (244). The film's deployment of diverse symbols, practices, and philosophies of the diasporic religions of the black Americas engenders an "ethical hesitation between the possible and the impossible," the living and the dead, Africa and its displaced peoples, in which a radically different space and time of diaspora are produced (244). In this space and time of diaspora, I suggest, both past griefs and current political desires can be...


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