Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun By Jennifer L. Shaw
London: Reaktion Books, 2017, 256p., 100 color plates, 80 halftones, $45.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Irene Gammel
On November 16, 1944, two French women, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, stood before a German war tribunal on Jersey, one of the English Channel islands near the coast of Normandy, just a short distance from Vichy France. The pair, who were better known under their artistic pseudonyms, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, were collaborators in radically queered photography and photomontages. They stood accused by the Nazi regime of having acted as “irregular soldiers,” as Cahun writes, paraphrasing the accusations of the officer in charge, Oberst Sarmsen. “[W]e had used spiritual arms instead of firearms”—an offense punishable by death.
So what crime did they commit, exactly? Using scissors and glue, prohibitively expensive during war time, the pair created tracts, collages, photomontages, and symbolic objects to instill doubt about the war and the Nazi regime among the German soldiers. Moore, who was fluent in German, created the German texts, which they signed Der Soldat ohne Namen (the soldier without a name), a nom de guerre that implied an entire network of agitators lurking among the enemy soldiers. The pair used simple objects, such as coins, as Cahun described their unrelenting inventiveness in 1943: “I painted them meticulously with nail polish … and managed to write very clearly on them Nieder Mit Krieg [down with war].” These coins they placed in public sites, ensuring they were in plain sight where they would be found and read. Despite the daily danger, the pair practiced their subversive art for several years before they were caught, tried, and sentenced to death, though they were eventually pardoned in 1945.
These harrowing experiences and courageous acts about an art practice both dangerous and playful are recounted in Jennifer L. Shaw’s fascinating book, Exist Otherwise, which casts Cahun and her partner as heroines. As Shaw writes, “[T]he resistance work that [Cahun] and Moore undertook during the Nazi occupation of Jersey shares more with our contemporary ideas of performance art and conceptual art than it does with the anti-Nazi propaganda of Cahun’s own time.” However, I would add that employing satire and even laughter in resisting tyranny is a longstanding tradition. Using a number of sources still unpublished or unavailable in English, and lacing Cahun’s voice throughout the biography, Shaw tells the story in four parts, each describing an artistic practice that functions as a counteraesthetic to the era’s dominating thought and revealing the multimodal flexibility of Cahun’s oeuvre.
Part One, “Views and Visions: Nantes, 1894-1920,” takes us inside the explosive trauma of growing up in a tension-filled household. Cahun was born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob in 1894, the daughter of Maurice Schwob, the Jewish publisher of Le Phare de La Loire, (The Lighthouse of the Loire), and his Catholic wife Mary-Antoinette, “an ‘Aryan’ mother,” in Cahun’s words, “obese … struck by mental illness,” whose volatile, violent, disordered personality left her daughter traumatized. Tiny and brainy, Lucy emulated her mother’s independence, intellectualism, and subversion, and embraced her father’s Jewish identity, positioning herself as an outsider in anti-Semitic France. At the age of twelve, she recalls, she was “tied with jump ropes to a tree in the schoolyard” and “stoned with gravel,” because her father advocated the release of Major Alfred Dreyfus, a victim of anti-Semitic persecution, from prison. Searching for alternative identities, Cahun pursued the classical education reserved for boys and dove into homoerotic symbolist literature, including that of her famous writer-uncle, Marcel Schwob. She also embraced a homosexual identity. At the age of fourteen she met Suzanne Malherbe, who would become her life partner, collaborator, and stepsister (her parents divorced, and her father married Suzanne’s mother). The pair adopted sexual and artistic pseudonyms, and Lucy Schwob asserted her maleness and Jewishness by naming herself Claude Cahun. The last name, a riff on Cahun/Cohen, was a particularly bold one to take in an anti-Semitic society. Malherbe became Marcel Moore.
In Part Two, “Heroines, Theatre, Masquerade: The 1920s in Paris,” Cahun and Moore are confronted with the rappel à l’ordre (return to order) that followed the cataclysmic Great War. This conservative ideology called for natalism and motherhood, hearth and home, inciting opposition among the feminist and lesbian circles of Paris, which included Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney, Sylvia Beach, and Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, friends of Cahun’s. This collective resistance also led Cahun and her partner to formulate their most radical innovations, performing gender in ways that anticipated Judith Butler’s philosophical formulations and Cindy Sherman’s artistic practice decades later. Like Sherman, Cahun used make-up and props, including wigs and body painting. She applied hearts to her cheeks, used lipstick to create a Clara Bow-type mouth, painted nipples on her dress. She transformed herself into an exaggerated doll-like figure, head tilting, body swaying, eyes staring boldly at the camera.
Cahun included many of these photographs in photomontages in her most famous book, Aveux: Non Avenues (1930), translated as Disavowals: Or Cancelled Confessions (2008). In this difficult, multivoiced text, Cahun transposes her whimsical deconstruction of femininity into experimental literary strategy. She did something similar in Héroïnes (1925), translated as “Heroines,” (in Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman ). Héroïnes playfully rewrites western mythology and fairy tales, recasting figures like Eve, Penelope, and Cinderella. In “Sappho the Misunderstood,” Sappho refuses to kill herself as she does in the traditional stories, explaining, “‘I am no fool! It was only a mannequin … pushed into the violet sea. (They do the same thing in the movies.)’” As Cahun sees it, the most important objective for the woman is not to love, but to create.
Although she was not politically dogmatic, Cahun turned her art into activism, as seen in Part Three, “To Embody My Own Revolt: Surrealism and Politics in the 1930s.” The surrealist effects are evident in a number of photographs: for example, an untitled one from 1932 shows Cahun asleep on a shelf in her wardrobe with her arm spilling over, an evocation of sleeping beauty. In another, Cahun stages her severed head disturbingly inside a bell jar, hair slicked back, eye brows painted on, lips painted full; the work is both a memento mori and a critical treatment of surrealism’s misogynist entrapment of women, as Cahun’s eyes stare at the viewer. Other surrealists wondered why an otherwise attractive woman would thus disfigure herself.
Shaw’s thesis—that women’s resistance must be read as part of their art practice—culminates into Part Four, “Spiritual Arms Instead of Firearms: Cahun and Moore on the Isle of Jersey.” The tracts, montages, and objects Cahun and Moore created during this period were not only resistance projects responding to Hitler’s racism and World War II, but were also consistent with their lifelong artistic practice. Surrealist effects can be seen in the pair’s cemetery project. They built wooden crosses that they painted black and inscribed in old German Gothic script, “Für sie ist der Krieg zu Ende (For Them the War is Over),” which they planted in the German soldiers’ cemetery in Jersey. Given the danger the pair were incurring, Cahun later called her resistance “my madman’s project,” adding, “But at least I was taking action.”
Shaw describes her book as “the first full biography of Cahun in English,” but she is quick to acknowledge a significant debt to François Leperlier, author of the pioneering Claude Cahun: L’Écart et la métamorphose (1992) (Claude Cahun: Distance and Metamorphosis). To this, it’s fair to add the work of a plethora of other recent scholars (including Elza Adamowicz, Gavin James Bower, Georgiana Colvile, Gen Doy, Therese Lichtenstein, Andrea Oberhuber, and Shelley Rice).
Readers interested in women’s multimodal art practices will find much to admire in Shaw’s book, which engages literature, performance art, surrealist sculptures, and resistance tracts. Moreover, such readers will be attracted to this story of art as it intersects with love. Cahun’s torrid affair with Moore anchored her and kept her sane (in contrast to the violent turbulence of another famous couple experimenting with photomontage, Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann). “Our desires meet one another. Already it is an effort to disentangle them,” Cahun writes in Disavowals. “My lover will no longer be the subject of my drama. S/he will be my collaborator,” Cahun continues, as queered desire becomes a metaphor for women’s artistic collaboration. In a letter written to Moore, excerpted in Disavowals, Cahun and Moore look together at a portrait of Cahun, which acts as a “magic mirror.” Cahun writes, “The exchange, the superimposition, the fusion of desires. The unity of the image obtained by the close friendship of two bodies—even if it sends their souls to the devil!” Cahun’s post-script, “At present I exist otherwise,” provides the title for the book.
Exist Otherwise is elegantly written and beautifully illustrated with artwork, and includes an appendix with short, translated excerpts of Cahun’s writings. Some readers may quibble with a narrative structure that, within each section, first lays out the events of a given decade chronologically, then performs a close reading of Cahun’s work during the same period; this necessitates occasional repetition and creates a sense of déjà vu. Although Shaw’s readings of the art works are deft and interesting, questions remain. What is the meaning of the 1915 photo of Cahun sitting at a little girl’s school desk? In this image, she is not a preteen but a 21-year-old adult. What was Cahun’s relationship to other leading avant-gardists in Paris, such as Marcel Duchamp, a photograph by whom is included in at least one photomontage in Disavowals? Or Man Ray, whose trademark checkered studio-floor, seen in several of his 1920s photographs, appears prominently on the bathrobe Cahun wears in the untitled mirror image (c. 1929)? Is this photograph perhaps a reference to Man Ray, who also played with mirrors, frames, gender, and Jewish identity? I also wondered about the glaring absence of dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who famously paraded her body as art as early as 1915, and whose film stills, showing her shaved head and body, circulated in Paris via Man Ray from 1921 on.
Despite these gaps, in Shaw’s telling, Cahun models how to practice radical art and action during politically fraught times like hers—and our own. “Human beings can be destroyed from the outside,” she wrote. “They can only be built from the inside, by themselves, through the exercise of their own freedoms.” Even though Cahun’s health was fragile following her ordeal at the hands of the Nazis, and she died in 1954 at the early age of sixty, her words still resonate and even gain new significance today, as she writes about confronting authoritarianism in a tone that is nearly manifesto-like. Ultimately, hers is a remarkable story of creativity, courage, and determination. As Cahun says, “Sacrifice yourself on your own altar. You are a god: respect yourself. But do not bend, for you will be beaten.”
Irene Gammel holds a Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture at Ryerson University in Toronto. Among her books are Looking for Anne of Green Gables (2008) and Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity (2002). She is the coeditor of Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (2011) and Crystal Flowers: Poems and a Libretto by Florine Stettheimer (2011). She is the director of the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre in Toronto. For more, see http://mlc.ryerson.ca/ and follow her on Twitter, @MLC_Research.
A Class By Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s By Nancy Woloch
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015, 337 pp., $39.50, hardcover
Reviewed by Katherine Turk
Nancy Woloch has written the definitive history of sex-specific labor legislation, a cornerstone of gendered public policy in the twentieth century. As the Progressive-era activists of the late nineteenth century positioned the state to protect workers from the ravages of industrial capitalism, they adopted a strategy that rooted heightened workplace standards for women in the logic of their inferiority. In the decades that followed, each state established some limits to women’s working conditions, hours of labor, wages, and more. These laws are Woloch’s main characters, but she also profiles many others: reformers, attorneys and judges, and state and local officials. These actors both conspired and collided as they debated whether women workers needed special protections and what the government’s role should be in labor relationships.
The first several chapters of A Class By Herself analyze the origins and early growth of state labor laws for women. Turn-of-the-century activists, inspired by European workers’ legal victories, argued that state governments should limit workplace dangers by exercising their prerogative to safeguard citizens’ well being. But judges frustrated their efforts to establish sex-neutral protections, instead preserving workers’ right to labor unencumbered by a so-called meddling state. Advocates responded by adjusting their claims to frame working women as especially defenseless. By defining the sexes against each other, protectionists found allies in state and federal courts. They also carved out a new sphere of authority for female reformers, who were denied full membership in the wider “legal fraternity,” writes Woloch. She spotlights some of the conflicts over sex-specific labor laws among workers, managers and reformers that began bubbling up all over: in “a Lowell mill”; “a Chicago box factory”; “a Utah mine”; and “a New York book bindery.”
The watershed US Supreme Court case Muller v. Oregon earns its own chapter. Woloch deftly avoids the pull of abstract arguments about sex equality and difference that often frame its analysis. Instead, she places the 1908 contest over an Oregon provision limiting female laundry workers’ hours within its social and legal contexts. As Woloch explains, the state’s attorneys countered the “conservative ‘legal fiction’” that worker and employer could bargain as equals with the “countervailing legal fiction” of females’ innate dependency. In accepting this argument, the Court placed woman “in a class by herself” and signaled its new willingness to consider the law’s practical effects. Muller thus narrowed reformers’ options at the same time that it opened a path forward. Advocates adjusted to this new legal environment with a “commitment to ‘difference’” that “hardened over time,” explains Woloch.
Muller accelerated the spread of state labor laws for women. The book’s central chapters analyze the years between the provisions’ “golden age” in the 1910s and the beginning of their decline a half-century later. As courts began to affirm restrictions to women’s hours and working conditions, the US Department of Labor established the Woman in Industry Service—later the Women’s Bureau—to promote and monitor the restrictions. But the laws’ weak conceptual foundation rendered them less entrenched than they appeared. Some federal courts found defects in Muller’s edifice, and after 1916, the activist National Woman’s Party countered the rise of gendered protections with a push for strict sex equality. As these equal rights feminists sparred with the social feminists who acknowledged practical differences between men and women, Woloch argues, both sides lost momentum.
The New Deal and World War II undermined the protectionists’ position. The sex-neutral workplace provisions established in the 1930s tended to benefit men and diminish the viability of sex-specific laws. For example, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 found legal authority for new minimum wage, maximum hour, and overtime regulations in the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause. But advocates knew that interstate commerce “was not a gender-neutral term,” writes Woloch: most women worked in localized jobs that the new law would not reach. Policymakers relaxed gendered protections during World War II, which aroused the suspicion “that women workers didn’t need them, want them, or appreciate them,” Woloch explains. States tended to restore sex-specific provisions at the war’s end, but now these were part of a broader campaign to deliver male-typed jobs to returning veterans. As the logic sustaining feminist arguments for gendered protections lost its power, the laws’ surest allies began to defect. Progressive-era activist groups dwindled, their mission less attractive amid a postwar campaign for workplace equality driven by the Women’s Bureau, some state governments, and many labor union women.
As the book’s concluding chapters explain, sex-specific labor protections could not weather the shifting political currents of the 1960s. The President’s Commission on the Status of Women supported gendered distinctions in its 1963 report, but Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 threatened them. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), after several years of uncertainty, interpreted Title VII’s federal guarantee of workplace sex equality to invalidate state provisions that treated women as a special class. Rejecting protectionists’ notions of rights rooted in sex difference, the EEOC applied to women the mainstream civil rights movement’s conception of workplace equality, which prescribed attacking racial distinctions by expanding opportunity. Pressure from both the courts and feminists coerced this federal policy realignment against the backdrop of women’s increased waged labor, families’ growing need for two incomes, and structural economic transformation.
A Class By Herself closes with a critical analysis of the equal rights framework that survived these struggles. An overly blunt instrument, formal legal equality has not delivered parity to women. Late twentieth-century battles over workers’ reproductive lives reveal that strict sex equality has extinguished the potential for gender-based accommodations. In addition to awkwardly covering pregnant workers under protections designed for disabled people, equality, defined as nondistinction between the sexes, has offered little to women in “the lowest-level and most precarious jobs,” writes Woloch. In particular, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which grants some workers up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to attend to domestic emergencies, traps working-class women between providing life-giving care and earning life-sustaining wages. Sex-based protections were always a troubled remedy for laboring women’s problems. But policymakers have not come much closer to solving those problems in the age of equality.
Woloch’s volume distills previous scholarship that has emphasized sex-specific labor laws’ “double-edged” character: their benefits only ever compounded women’s workplace disadvantages. The book’s main strengths lie in its scope and detail. Bringing remarkable clarity to a complex story, A Class By Herself examines the laws themselves, their practical effects for working women, the groups and institutions that promoted them, and the clashes they provoked among women’s advocates. Woloch blends biographical and legal analysis without losing sight of the broader social movement and political circumstances. Complementing this hybrid approach, the book balances local and national components, explaining how gendered notions of citizenship shaped debates on the limits of federalism.
A Class By Herself also draws many previously obscure characters into view. Woloch attends to well-known reformers such as Florence Kelley, Louis Brandeis, and Mary Van Kleeck. But she also unearths lesser-known figures such as Caroline J. Gleason, an Oregon Consumers League researcher who assembled information about Portland women workers’ lives on and off the job. Gleason and her team went undercover, posing as ordinary laborers in the workplaces they were investigating. They calculated the costs of living in area boarding houses and purchasing clothing in local department stores. These prices, when compared to women’s average wages, provoked Gleason and her team to label Portland industries as “parasitic in character.” Woloch reminds us that each of these players, whether familiar or heretofore unknown, had distinct motives: lawyers burnished their authority, employers tended their profits, and advocates buttressed their class status.
Woloch refuses to evaluate labor laws for women by painting in broad strokes. Instead, she highlights the contingency in their story. As the book reveals, the history of state protective labor laws “veers closer than most to the accidental, unanticipated, and unpredictable. It is a story of close calls and near misses, false hopes and unintended consequences.” Reformers’ two-part defense—which sought to compensate for women’s labor force disadvantages while serving as an “entering wedge” to force sex-neutral worker accommodations—was not doomed from its inception. Rather, this strategy lost traction as its context shifted during Depression-era campaigns that drew from gendered strategies while weakening their rationale, wartime demands to abandon precedent in light of emergencies, and postwar economic and political transformations.
Considering the number of moving pieces Woloch must juggle, A Class By Herself is a remarkably coherent account. Still, she might have added another layer of analysis by presenting a more nuanced look at working women’s opinions of gendered protections. Beyond several pages on “Working Women’s Voices,” the author dedicates more attention to the policy arguments these laws inspired than to their reception by the women who toiled under them. Drawing from Dorothy Sue Cobble’s pathbreaking work, including The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (2004), Woloch explains that union women, in particular, understood the trade-offs bound up in gendered laws because they reasoned from experience as well as principle. But millions of other women worked without the unions’ protections or constraints. How did they make sense of gendered provisions, and how did the arc of their support or opposition match up to their unionized counterparts’? While questions of class drive the book, an emphasis on a wider cross-section of workers’ relationships to sex-specific labor laws could have illuminated these laws’ role in gendered racial formation.
Woloch’s volume offers major contributions to the fields of women’s, gender, legal, political, and twentieth-century American history. Bringing much-needed insight and synthesis to a key piece of our recent past, A Class By Herself is also a cautionary tale on several fronts. The book highlights the danger of trading varied and imperfect reforms for top-down coherence and reveals just how much advocates have forfeited in accepting narrow sex-based comparisons as the terrain for gender justice campaigns.
Katherine Turk is assistant professor of History and adjunct assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her book Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace, was published in 2016.
Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century By Tera W. Hunter
Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2017, 404 pp., $29.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Katherine Franke
The institution of marriage is asked to do an awful lot of work in most societies. It is used by couples to signal serious commitment, care, and love. It provides the social, economic, and legal structure for adult sexuality and the family, legitimizing those who enter its territory. Marriage also establishes the dominant rules of dependency and responsibility among adults and their children. And marriage serves as a useful means by which society makes distributional choices, such as allocating health insurance, tax preferences, property ownership, and other transfers of wealth. In its 1888 Maynard v. Hill decision, the US Supreme Court reflected the vital role that marriage plays in society when it ruled that marriage is “the foundation of the family and society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.”
But even more fundamentally, the capacity to marry has served historically as a social and legal endorsement of a person’s full humanity. Time and again the Supreme Court has found that laws limiting the right to marry interfere with fundamental notions of personhood, whether it denied the right to marry to incarcerated people, lesbian and gay people, disabled people, or interracial couples.
Historian Tera Hunter’s new book, Bound in Wedlock, shows how the dehumanization of enslaved people in the United States was normalized through the institution of marriage. Bound in Wedlock is a detailed, careful, and comprehensive mapping of the role of marriage in the enslavement and emancipation of black people in the US in the nineteenth century.
Hunter is no newcomer to the painstaking work of assembling a complex narrative out of the seemingly random data points of a rich historical archive. In her first book, To ́Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (1998), Hunter provided a stunningly detailed account of the role of work in newly emancipated women’s experience of freedom between the Civil War and World War I. As Hunter tells it, her subjects did not become free through legal documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment; rather they actualized their own freedom through a range of performances of self-ownership in and through wage-based work. To ̓Joy My Freedom marks a paradigm shift in the history of freedom in the US. It moved beyond the canonical accounts at the time of Herbert Gutman, Eric Foner, and Kenneth Stampp by foregrounding gender and focusing on Black women as stewards of their own emancipation—under conditions, of course, of enormous constraint. Hunter was joined by the historians Laura Edwards, Noralee Frankel, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Brenda Stevenson, and Deborah Gray White, among others, in documenting the domestic lives of enslaved people in ways that refused an appeal to stock characters or totalizing stories that either cast negative judgment on or romanticized the agency of enslaved people.
With this new book, Hunter provides a well-woven synthesis of others’ work on marriage, together with her own significant archival rendering of the ways in which both enslaved and freed black people solemnized their intimate relationships in marriage. The book contributes to the growing body of work that illuminates how marriage became, curiously, a container for both enslaved life and for freedom.
Of course, enslaved people could not legally marry, as marriage is a legal contract and enslaved people—legally considered property—did not have the capacity to form such contracts. Nevertheless, as many scholars have documented, enslaved people married outside the law. Their marriages were sacred and recognized before their god and their community, although not before their owners or the law. These marriages were every bit as “peculiar” as the institution of slavery within which they were nested. The first chapters of Bound in Wedlock provide some new examples and contexts for the well-known phenomenon of owners breaking up the marriages and families of enslaved people. These owners cared not at all about their slaves’ familial attachments—and love—as they made decisions about trading them as they might any other chattel.
Hunter also reveals the double binds spouses experienced in mixed marriages—that is, marriages between enslaved and free black people—in the antebellum period. Against a backdrop of overwhelming precarity, enslaved people did their best to preserve the integrity of their marriages and families; some freed spouses actually sold themselves back into slavery in order to remain close to their loved ones. This tragic necessity was motivated by laws that required emancipated black people to move out of the state in which they were freed. Uneasy slaveholders feared that the presence of former slaves would provide a bad example to the people they held in bondage and pushed for laws that would eliminate black people unbound to a white owner from the communities surrounding their plantations.
Perhaps the best example—though not one included in Hunter’s telling—of the perverse incentives created by these laws was embodied in George Washington’s will. Washington wanted to free his slaves upon his death, but he was reluctant to do so because many of his slaves had married slaves owned by his wife Martha—and the law of dower (which required him to provide for his widow in the event of his death) did not permit him to free her slaves as well. Further, if George’s slaves were set free upon his death, they would be required to flee the Commonwealth of Virginia, thus breaking up married couples and families. “To emancipate them during her life,” he wrote,
would, tho’ earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter.
George solved the problem in his will by giving Martha 123 of his 124 slaves, with the proviso that they be freed upon her death, thus (advertently or inadvertently, we do not know) putting a price on her head.
The underlying question upon which Bound in Wedlock rests is whether matrimony and slavery can coexist. While there were certainly contexts in which enslaved peoples’ interests in maintaining the integrity of their kinship relationships was coextensive with their owners’ interests in maximizing profit, maintaining a compliant labor force, or upholding their religious values, these felicities were mere coincidence, not necessity. Property law, not that of family or religion, provided the overarching structure for relationships among enslaved people, and between owners and the people they enslaved. Although both marriage and slavery created status relationships, when those statuses came into conflict, the status of being property always trumped the status of being a spouse.
Hunter’s study of marriage extends beyond the antebellum period to document the afterlife of slavery in the married lives of freed people up to the end of the nineteenth century. She describes a liminal state in which Black people were trapped between slavery and complete freedom, and how the right to marry figured in that racial entrapment. Cynical enforcement of fornication, adultery, and bigamy laws imposed a kind of racial discipline on newly freed people in the postbellum period.
Reviewing a valuable book like Bound in Wedlock presents a challenge for historians like me, who have written on this topic and have spent a great deal of time in some of the same archives. Marriage, slavery, and freedom are complex institutions amenable to many thoughtful readings.
The postbellum experience of marriage by formerly enslaved people goes to the core of what I termed in my book Wedlocked (2015) “freed-dom,” that is, the condition of being freed but not fully free. Freedom, it turns out, is a racialized term, something enjoyed fully in the United States only by white people. The badge of inferiority that marked black people as enslaveable persisted long after emancipation and licensed all manner of racial terror. For the most part, marriage provided a new opportunity for white society to elaborate that inferiority and terror rather than mitigate its violence. In my own work I portray this as the predictable result of a politics of liberation that looks to state regulation as key to freedom. Marriage rights, I argue, merely inaugurate a new regulatory relationship with the state, one amenable to cooptation by those who cling to the durability, if not truth, of white supremacy. Hunter’s book, by contrast, is animated by a refreshingly romantic view of marriage; she argues that the passionate and kin-based ties of formerly enslaved people persisted, notwithstanding the violence of the state and white society operationalized through the law of marriage.
Bound in Wedlock suggests a set of hard questions that arise in the settings where two foundational nineteenth-century institutions meet: matrimony and white supremacy. As Hunter notes at the close of the book, the forces that frustrated freed peoples’ efforts to achieve human flourishing through matrimony in the nineteenth century remain intact today. A social and legal landscape saturated with notions of racial inferiority deprived freed people of the security and dignity that matrimony promised to white couples.
Hunter concludes her monograph with the recognition that today African Americans marry at rates far below those of white people. Echoing the arguments made by Ralph Banks in Is Marriage for White People? (2011), Hunter attributes this disparity not only to the enduring effects of racism but also to the ways in which marriage no longer serves as the institutional family form for achieving economic security. The low marriage rate among African Americans is a kind of canary in a coal mine, she argues, for larger societal trends in marriage rates. For African Americans and for low income whites “[m]arriage is seen as something you do after you have established your material foundation in life, not as a means to building up from it,” she concludes. Ending with insights relevant to the current moment, Hunter observes that economic and social equality are the preconditions for enjoying the dignity and agency that marriage can provide, and that oppressed groups, such as formerly enslaved people or same-sex couples, cannot expect marriage to deliver dignity and well-being on its own.
I take a more critical view of marriage altogether. Hunter sees the crisis of marriage for African Americans as rooted in preexisting racial and economic status inequalities, thus letting marriage off the hook as the institutional site that generates its own status inequalities worthy of critical concern—particularly for African Americans. While gay people have had astonishing success in deploying the right to marry in a larger campaign of rebranding homosexuality as decent rather than disgusting, and respectable rather than repulsive, marriage remains a site of failure for African Americans. For African Americans, marriage has reinforced racial inferiority and reinscribed a toxic badge of inferiority. Recent Republican statements about the need for welfare reform have revived racist—and false—notions of “welfare queens” and other unwed women of color living on public assistance. Even the Obama administration endorsed the notion that low marriage rates among African Americans and absent black fathers (rather than the mass incarceration of black men) explained a wide range of “pathologies” in the black community.
Rather than see the low rates of marriage in the black community as a problem in need of fixing, or worse, as the cause of all manner of social ills, I see the complexity of kinship relations among black people as a virtue—evidence of resilience to be honored rather than of degeneracy to be repaired. The same may be said of the lesbian and gay community as well—the complex forms of attachment, care, love, and responsibility that we formed when we were banned from the institution of marriage were not malformations that grew out of necessity during an era of now-repudiated oppression. Rather, queer kinship provides a model for all people—queer and straight alike—that in many cases enables human flourishing, security, and happiness far better than the nuclear, marital family.
Like the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which affirmed the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry, Bound in Wedlock succumbs to the sanctification of marriage. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Obergefell,
Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.
Yet a marriage can be one of the loneliest places on earth. When it comes to writing the history of marriage, it is vitally important to foreground the role of white supremacy in devastating the family lives of African Americans, yet it is also crucial that in doing so we resist the impulse to sanctify the innocence of marriage itself.
Notwithstanding our different takes on these issues, Tera Hunter’s Bound in Wedlock makes a significant contribution to our understanding of slavery, of marriage, and to the contemporary implications of that history.
Katherine Franke is the Sulzbacher Professor of Law and the Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School, and chair of the board of trustees of the Center for Constitutional Rights. She is the author of Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality (2015).
Back in 2003, when I heard that Linda Gardiner, the founding editor of Women’s Review of Books (WRB), was retiring, I knew the position would be perfect for me—an activist-writer-bookworm. I was not wrong, although I’ll be honest: my first few years here were difficult, and we ended up having to suspend publication because we were operating at a financial loss. However, with the support of Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) and its executive director at the time, Susan Bailey, WRB reorganized and relaunched in 2006 as a partnership between WCW and Old City Publishing (OCP). I remained at WCW as editor in chief, and OCP took responsibility for subscriptions, advertising, and production.
It’s been a great journey. Surrounded by ever-changing stacks of books and in constant communication with distinguished feminist scholars and journalists, I learned new things every day. I had the pleasure of digging into the work of wonderful writers, doing my best to make it as good as it could be—so that new research and ideas emerging from Women’s and Gender Studies departments throughout the US could reach a wide audience. I was supported by dedicated volunteer editors and regular contributors: Robin Becker, poetry and contributing editor; Jennifer Camper, cartoon editor; and Ellen Feldman, photography editor; as well as fiction columnist Trish Crapo. At WCW, I was surrounded by brilliant social scientists, who soon became not only good colleagues but fast friends.
But you may notice (says the editor) that I am writing in the past tense. At the end of December, I transitioned away from my role as editor in chief of Women’s Review of Books. I will now have more time to
As I have with all WRB issues since 2003, I edited the January/February 2018 issue. An interim editor will be working with Old City Publishing through 2018, and I’ve passed onto her the inventory of articles I assigned and edited for subsequent issues. Watch this space for additional news and updates about the future of WRB. You can still access free articles and links to back issues on the WCW-managed site, womensreviewofbooks.org.
(Former) Editor in Chief
Women’s Review of Books
Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives By Leigh Gilmore
New York: Columbia University Press, 2017, 240 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Joy Castro
“Justice. I’ve heard that word,” writes Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). “I tried it out. I wrote it down. I wrote it down several times and always it looked like a damn cold lie to me.” As Leigh Gilmore’s third scholarly book about gender, identity, and trauma in women’s life-narratives amply demonstrates, women who publicly share their accounts of harm have good reason to see justice as a damn cold lie, for their stories are routinely met with disbelief, disregard, or worse. When women lodge accusations of violation, it’s they themselves—their behavior, apparel, and sexual histories—who are put on trial, interrogated, and judged.
Currently distinguished visiting professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College, Gilmore has been breaking ground in the intersection of gender and life-writing for decades in Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women’s Autobiography (1994) and The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony (2001), as well as in numerous scholarly articles. In her new interdisciplinary project Tainted Witness, Gilmore expands on her previous work, mobilizing methodologies from multiple fields to analyze the legal response to and public reception of “women’s testimony and life narratives about sexual harassment or political violence” and to ask why such accounts are met with doubt. On the heels of the 2016 presidential election, in which a self-confessed sexual assaulter without a professional background in politics defeated a highly competent woman with decades of relevant experience, and after last year’s spectacle when Bill Cosby walked free from a courtroom after more than fifty women had accused him of sexual assault, and in the midst of a moment when droves of women have accused Hollywood gatekeeper Harvey Weinstein of egregious sexual harassment, Gilmore’s question could not be more timely. Her answers are all about power.
Cogent, thorough, methodical, and graceful, Tainted Witness is a model of clear, effective, and sociopolitically important scholarship. Gilmore’s case studies are drawn from interestingly varied spheres, from politics to literature to public scandal. She tracks the tribulations and achievements of Anita Hill, who testified before the Senate about sexual harassment during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991; 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, whose memoir about political violence in Guatemala has been variously contested and vindicated; Nafissatou Diallo, the Guinean immigrant and housekeeper who was raped by former International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn; and the three women who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition, she analyzes the literary work of Kathryn Harrison, Jamaica Kincaid, and Claudia Rankine to assert conclusively that when women tell their stories of bodily damage, they are widely disbelieved.
Doubt attends their narratives in the form of two skeptical counternarratives that are almost inevitably deployed in the wake of accusations of (particularly sexual) violence: “he said/she said,” and “nobody really knows what happened.” Both function a priori to “render as unknowable and undecidable both physical evidence and verbal testimony.” In the courtroom and the media, women who testify to violence at the hands of powerful men are unlikely to receive a fair hearing. In contrast, women who turn to the medium of life-writing (whether in memoir or in autobiographical fiction), to present complex accounts of damage (sexual, physical, political, economic) may have a stronger chance of finding an “adequate witness”—over time, at least. Their testimony—even if contested and critiqued—can continue to circulate until it reaches an audience capable of receiving it.
The “adequate witness,” in Gilmore’s formulation, does not root her response in empathy, which relies upon some degree of similarity to the testifying woman. The requirement that she be like us in some recognizable way—that we be able to identify with her, sympathize with her, even idealize her—obscures the ethical demand of listening those different from ourselves and insisting upon justice on their behalf. What happens, for example, to the validity of the testimony of the truth-teller deemed too old, too unlovely, or too morally imperfect to generate empathy in listeners? In contrast, “[a]n adequate witness is one who will receive testimony without deforming it by doubt, and without substituting different terms of value for the ones offered by the witness herself,” writes Gilmore. She “resists the rush to judgment and learns how to attend to accounts of gendered harm and agency made by impure victims in conditions of complexity.” Gilmore’s overall argument is a strong one, borne out by multiple and well-developed examples over the course of the book’s unfolding, and her prose is both complex and concise, a pleasure and an education to read.
Particularly interesting is her third chapter, “Neoliberal Life Narrative: From Testimony to Self-Help.” Here she examines the fortunes of bestselling memoirs by white women—Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle (2005), Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (2006), and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (2012)—all three of which became major motion pictures with Hollywood stars. The critical and marketplace reality is that not all women’s life-narratives are disbelieved and dismissed. Rather, some are embraced, quite profitably—as long as they conform to a narrative arc of personal empowerment within capitalism via the overcoming of obstacles (poverty, the dissolution of a relationship, the death of a parent), while eschewing “critical engagement with historic, systemic inequalities and violence that exceed the neoliberal focus on the individual.” Such narratives meet with both critical acclaim and commercial success.
“Neoliberal life narratives,” Gilmore explains, “do not impose an ethical demand on readers. They focus on one’s relation to one’s self rather than to others. They focus on what one person can do”—or rather, on what one relatively unencumbered, privileged person—however wounded—can do: hike, heal, dine, travel, fall in love. Individual redemption, not structural political change, is the culturally comfortable remedy that neoliberal life-narratives purvey. They echo the story the culture wants to tell itself about the possibilities for women: that problems are solvable with enough personal growth, resilience, optimism, grit, determination, and hard work. You can change your life. You can have everything you want (as long as you want the right things). Just Lean In.
This narrative of individual healing, effort, and ultimate success is available primarily to white women, who have historically been constructed as precious and thus worthy of protection from hard manual labor, economic discomfort, and sexual violation (however ineffective that narrative may have been at protecting them from actual exploitation and harm at the hands of the white men who frequently controlled their bodies, finances, and lives). No comparable narrative of protection and worth attaches to women of color, who have historically been and continue to be depicted in ways eminently convenient for those who wish to exploit them: as built for the burdens of physical work; as hypersexual, even promiscuous; and as mendacious. She wanted it—and if she said she didn’t, she was lying.
Narratives of the deprivation and suffering of girls and women of color are far more palatable to western readers, it seems, when those are filtered through the benevolent accounts of white western men who uplift and save them, as Gilmore demonstrates in a chapter on Nicholas Kristof and Greg Mortenson, the author of (the subsequently debunked) Three Cups of Tea (2009). Gilmore’s concluding chapter returns to accounts and actions by women of color, specifically African American women, including Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Cullors, the co-founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012; Sandra Bland, who died while in custody in Texas; Bree Newsome, who climbed a flagpole to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse after the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston; and Claudia Rankine, whose brilliant mixed-genre autobiographical Citizen (2014) limns the multiple microaggressions that leave women of color feeling forever alien in their own land.
Why the book’s subtitle does not more clearly foreground issues of race and ethnicity—it could be, for example, Why We Doubt What Women of Color Say About Their Lives—remains unclear. Surfacing race more boldly could have made the volume an even more pointed intervention in the current global conversation about women’s rights and voices. In 2017, it’s hard to understand why an academic press would mute the inherent intersectionality of a feminist argument.
One must wonder, too—as Gilmore does not—about the extent to which the interrogation, judgment, and silencing of the victim is a purely gendered operation. Is it women we doubt, or is it anyone who proffers an account of terrible—especially sexual—harm? Though male-authored examples of autobiography abound (indeed, as Gilmore notes in her first book, the genre was masculine by default throughout most of its existence), accusations by male targets of sexual violence remain extremely rare in either the public sphere or literature. Noteworthy exceptions that prove the rule include the global allegations of sexual abuse against Catholic priests; the Penn State case of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of young boys; Richard Hoffman’s excellent 1995 memoir of sexual abuse by a coach, Half the House (Harcourt); and Raymond Douglas’s stunning and astute 2016 memoir On Being Raped (Beacon), in which Douglas argues that the current state of affairs for male victims of rape—cultural silence, the unavailability of social services, and more—resembles the situation women faced fifty years ago. The deployment of skeptical “he said/he said” and “nobody really knows what happened” counternarratives functions to silence male victims as effectively as it does women. If, as Gilmore observes, “Shaming, victim blaming, discrediting, and denunciation attach to women’s testimony so predictably, and are so regularly associated with it, that these negative affects function as prolepsis: they are a threat that prevents women from testifying,” then how much more powerfully might this operate for men, given social expectations around masculinity and invulnerability? Whether one wishes to argue that the account of victimization itself is what society cannot tolerate, or that the articulation of an experience of victimization pushes one into a feminized role (thus provoking the doubt that’s always deployed against women qua women), what’s crucial is the way our culture tends to abjure accounts of severe vulnerability and damage, as if we cannot bear to contemplate the fact that such a horrific reality seethes under the surface of daily life.
In a critical and public context that continually calls out the genre of memoir for its supposed self-indulgence and navel-gazing, one core contribution of Tainted Witness is its assertion—made incontrovertible by Gilmore’s thorough documentation—that memoir, like testimony, has always done inherently political work, for ill and for good. Whether by reinforcing the neoliberal bootstrap narrative or by revealing and analyzing systemic forms of violence, memoir has the capacity either to uphold or to rupture and permanently alter the status quo. This is its power, and why the powerful fear it.
Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora By Joanna Dee Das
New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, 288 pp., $34.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Debra Cash
You may not think you’ve seen Katherine Dunham dance, but you probably have. In the 1943 Hollywood film, Stormy Weather, she is idling under elevated train tracks as Lena Horne runs to close a window against torrential rain. The lilies in Dunham’s hair and pinned to her dress almost capsize her, but nothing can; not the man whose dance invitation she rejects with a shake of the head, and certainly not the storm. A clap of thunder transforms her, in the ways of Hollywood dream ballets, into a sort of vodou goddess, a loa. Striding down a ramp, hips leading, long legs unfolding, dress loose in the constant wind, she and her dancers create a swooning jazz romance in which undulating bodies and shoulders tilting on the beat speak with Caribbean accents. Dunham called this number her “escapist impression.”
That is one image of Katherine Dunham, the one that made her a favorite pinup girl for World War II soldiers and was represented on posters for her Broadway shows like Tropical Revue (1943) and on a commemorative US postage stamp issued in 2012.
But here’s another image of Dunham, in the storm of segregated Louisville, Kentucky. In October 1944, she famously ended a performance by turning to the white audience and saying
It makes me very happy to know that you have liked us . . . but tonight our hearts are very sad because this is a farewell to Louisville. There comes a time when every human being must protest in order to retain human dignity. I must protest because I have discovered that your management will not allow people like you to sit next to people like us. I hope that time and the unhappiness of this war for tolerance and democracy which I am sure we will win, will change some of these things. Perhaps then we can return. Until then, God bless you—for you may need it.
Katherine Dunham (1909 – 2006) is often called the mother of black concert dance in the United States—although she vociferously objected to being defined in racial terms. She led a long, celebrated, extraordinary life in the public eye as a dancer, choreographer, teacher, activist, and self-declared cosmopolitan. She was of a mixed race background: her father, who ran a dry cleaners, was a descendant of slaves from West Africa and Madagascar; her mother, a school principal who died of stomach cancer when Dunham was just three, was of French-Canadian and Native American descent.
Raised in Joliet, Illinois, Dunham loved to perform from an early age and began formal dance training when she followed her beloved older brother to Chicago in 1928. She studied ballet with a Russian émigré and later with the dancer, choreographer, and teacher Ruth Page, in whose La Guiablesse (1934), based on a Martinican legend with an all-black cast, Dunham would make an early triumph.
She was introduced to the idea that black culture in America had its basis in indigenous African cultures at a lecture by the white anthropologist Robert Redfield at the University of Chicago. In 1929, that was not yet conventional wisdom. She decided to become an anthropologist and to focus her studies on dances of the African diaspora. By 1935, she had won a travelling fellowship to Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad and Tobago, and ultimately to Haiti. This cultural immersion would change her life and the scope of modern and jazz dance in the United States. (Interestingly enough, Dunham and Zora Neale Hurston saw themselves as competing for funding and recognition in their work. Both women identified the African origins of black culture in the United States in the culture of the West Indies.)
During those visits, Dunham developed her participatory ethnographic fieldwork strategies, learning the dances she observed and ultimately being initiated as a vodou mambo (priestess). The regional dances, with their luxuriant freedom in the pelvis and spine, isolations in the body, and percussive polyrhythms, would later be codified into Dunham technique, a studio curriculum she insisted required study as thorough as that of ballet.
When the scholar Joanna Dee Das first went to New York at eighteen, she was surprised that Dunham technique was not a part of conventional dance training. Das had grown up studying jazz dance in St. Louis, where the teachers had strong Dunham connections. Later Das became a certified Dunham technique instructor (making her someone involved in embodied dance research) and a scholar. She helped to process the Katherine Dunham Papers at the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center. These archives exist alongside the trove of materials (paid for with a $1 million grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation) held at the Library of Congress. Das, who is white, describes herself as “a guest in an African diasporic cultural practice.” Katherine Dunham, based on her dissertation, is the first deep dive into a remarkable trove of primary resource materials. It will not be the last.
Katherine Dunham is a Great Woman study—a story of brilliance, will, and gumption. An academic rather than a popular biography (which more than once would have benefited from footnotes for people not in the fields of dance and/or Africana studies), it seeks to harmonize, even excuse, Dunham’s contradictory intentions and behaviors. Dunham was talented, ambitious, and self-serving. This made her an artist, but also set the stage for her failings.
Dunham walked the line between documentary truth and creative license. From the beginning, she was looking for a dance tradition that would affirm and ornament her own dancing and enrich her own identity. Her creative work was validated as documentary—reviews of the time often referred to her academic credentials—but as Das understands, Dunham was a modernist, evoking pan-African diasporic cultures for her own purposes. She believed in a “blood memory” or the unconscious transmission of African identity and cultural material (she did not actually visit the African continent until the 1960s), which she called her noir sensibility. This she related to negritude (then a term of pride and resistance to colonialism in Haiti) and later to Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor’s notion of metissage, African and European cultures hybridized into a new standard for humanism and agency. Das similarly argues for the essential “transnational unity among people of African descent,” yet without acknowledging that this is, itself, a historically rooted position, an explicit response to twentieth-century aspirations and to colonial and postcolonial struggles.
Unquestionably Dunham’s work offered “an aesthetic of modernity rooted in Africanist culture.” Both parts of that equation—the theatrical modernity and the Africanist use of the body and ritual reenactments like Yonvalou, the dance honoring the serpent god Damballa, or Shango, a fantastic scene of possession—are what make the best of her surviving work so satisfying to watch. In Dunham’s work, “primitive” meant closer to nature, more authentic, and more “universally” human. A promotional flier for a March 1937 Negro Dance Evening showcase in which she participated posited that West Indian dance spoke to a time when
the memory of a free life based on hunting and farming becomes more and more vague. But the black builders of the New World must sing and dance in order to forget the awful misery of their new life, which seems to hold no future.
Das offers a valuable section comparing Dunham’s ethnographic films, made during her Caribbean sojourns, with one of her productions, L’Ag’Ya. (For some reason she does not compare these productions to the work—and the reception—of touring African artists such as Sierra Leonian Asadata Dafora, who appeared with Dunham on that Negro Dance Evening in New York.) With multiple trips and a long residency, Dunham claimed an identity as an adopted daughter of Haiti; in 1992, when she was 82 years old and living in East St. Louis, she staged a 47 day long hunger strike to protest the US treatment of Haitian refugees. Yet Das does not venture to ask whether the urban anthropologist from Chicago was appropriating rural Haitian culture and romanticizing it for herself and her primarily white audiences.
Similarly, according to Dunham, the overt sexuality in her “tropical” dances wasn’t base or titillating; it was intimately linked to religious and the sacred. “Instead of fighting the association of blackness (and women) with the body, Dunham seized that association and turned it on its head,” Das writes, adding later that Dunham “drew on the erotic as a source of performative power.” Nevertheless, Dunham’s performances ended up reinforcing the association of blackness and women with the body: erotic glamour made Dunham a star and bought her the luxuries she came to assert were her due. Her career as a dancer and choreographer existed on the knife edge between the gratifications and commercial clout of sexual allure and the politics of social respectability. The impresario Sol Hurok, who managed her company for four years (and, although Das doesn’t report this, is reported to have insured Dunham’s legs for $250,000), called her
a quite superb combination of exoticism and intellectuality ... who had oscillated between the rarified atmosphere of women’s clubs and concert halls, on the one hand, to night clubs and road houses, on the other.
Dunham claimed her right to have it both ways, and so does Das.
From Dunham’s earliest years (she started her first black dance company, which lasted for only a single engagement, when she was 21), she thought in terms of building institutions. Dunham founded schools, companies, institutes, and retreat centers, and Das patiently documents them all. These cultural projects took form in the crucible of international theatrical practice and its emerging structures in the mid-twentieth century: presenters, grants, publicity, tourism, and the role of government agencies in cultural diplomacy.
They also, of course, took form in the context of American racism. Dunham developed strategies to deal with the routine Jim Crow indignities of not having a place to sleep or a restaurant to visit on tour. In 1945, she used a white go-between to purchase a mansion on the Upper East Side of New York for her school of dance, although she was forced to back out of the sale when the white neighbors complained, citing zoning. Still, Dunham made a fuss and Das notes, “she may have lost the house but she won the publicity war.” She eventually moved the school to the West Side, and her students included Hollywood actors (such as Marlon Brando, Eartha Kitt, and James Dean) and returning soldiers who paid for classes with funding from the GI Bill. She was canny, but she preferred acolytes to skilled staff, and she was a terrible financial manager, leaving many bankrupt projects in her wake. It’s a marvel, really, that the Rockefeller Foundation could see past that fiscal track record to fund her school in East St. Louis, the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC). The foundation saw in Dunham’s work “a case for the viability of cultural [meaning artists] solutions to what were perceived as the cultural [meaning way of life] problems of poverty.”
Das shares some stories of Dunham’s vanity and sense of her own eminence, and quotes black collaborators such as the dancer and choreographer Talley Beatty, who ultimately felt Dunham's “primitive” work became stereotyped and cheap. However, Das rushes to Dunham’s defense, attributing these complaints either to artistic choice or racist context. I think it’s no coincidence that Katherine Dunham shares scant information about Dunham’s dancers, collaborators, lovers, and husband, the white designer John Pratt (beyond what has to have been a doozy of a first kiss), and why they threw in their lot with hers. They revered her and put up with her; but she also insulted and took advantage of them.
Nonetheless, Dunham remains an icon of the powerful, transformative black woman artist. In 1983, she was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors and in 2000 named as one of “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures” by the Dance Heritage Coalition. Irreplaceable yes, but an American artist with an enduring legacy.
Debra Cash is executive director of the Boston Dance Alliance and scholar in residence at the Bates Dance Festival. She was fortunate to attend a public tribute to Dunham at Jacob’s Pillow in 2002.