On Homecomings: Katherine Dunham’s Return To Guinea

Robert Adams Jr.

The following paper reflects a journey into speculative ethnography, a piece of ficto-criticism that explores Katherine Dunham’s return to the ancestors. The paper was presented during a special session of the 2006 American Anthropological Association annual meeting in San Jose. The session, entitled Performances in Honor of Katherine Dunham, was organized by Maria Vesperi.

Her legs are suddenly spry again. She moves easily, exerting the rhythm she never lost. She carries the huge shell that has long been her companion. She reassuringly strokes the spirals of the shell, knowing they symbolize the circular motion of life and death. As she walks down the road to Guinea, the rocks call out, “Adios, mami.” Is she dancing? It is so hard to tell as she approaches Kalunga, that blurry line that divides the living and the dead. She pauses. She shouts, “Honor!”— the typical Haitian greeting—as she arrives at the threshold of life and death. “Respect!” the ancestors, simbi, and rocks respond in unison, inviting her across the watery divide. She crosses over to a hero’s welcome.

How many bandleaders and musicians have readied themselves for her homecoming? They miss the way her movements lead their music to places they had never intended to take it. A slow argument is already brewing about which style of music will accompany her homecoming. Konpa? Jazz? Samba? Rhumba? Maybe they will put their heads together (“tet ansam”) and produce a sound that blends different styles and reflects the tremendous musical diversity of Africa and the African diaspora.

The ancestors are quite happy to welcome home their sister, daughter, teacher, friend, and lover. Those she has met as she danced, taught, studied, and shared her life in Dakar, Havana, Port-au-Prince, East St. Louis, and Chicago—to name a few of her earthly venues—come out to greet her. They are quite pleased she has come home for good this time. She is not on one of her regular nocturnal visits in search of wisdom, cures, or interventions. She has finally come home.

Again she is the center of male attention as Durmarsais Estime pulls up in his vintage 1935 Buick to welcome her. Her husband jostles to the front of the crowd in order to be the first to greet her. Her adopted son, rescued from the dangerous streets of Port-au-Prince, only to be eaten alive by the mean streets of East St. Louis, appears at her side. Langston Hughes, Nicolás Guillén, and Jacques Roumain take turns honoring her with poems in their native tongues. Maya Deren is busy framing the scene in anticipation of filming this long-awaited reunion. Zora Neal Hurston, anthropology’s Lady Day, sits in the corner, half hidden by shadow. She ponders whether to turn Katherine’s return into a story or an ethnographic account.

Our beautiful Katherine turns to her admirers and secret sharers and recites the quote from Nietzsche that opens chapter 7 of Island Possessed: I could only believe in a god who would know how to dance; now I am without weight, now I am flying, now I see myself raised above myself, now a god dances in me. [Dunham 1994:117]

On both sides of the line, we nod our heads in agreement. We recognize that she actualized her divine nature. She produced a narrative that danced across the page and a dance style that spelled out humankind’s divinity. We are reminded in closing of her own words:

We danced, not as people dance in the houngfor, with the stress of possession or the escapism of hypnosis or for catharsis, but as I imagine dance must have been executed when body and being were more united, when form and flow and personal ecstasy became an exaltation of a superior state of things, not necessarily a ritual to any one superior being. [Dunham 1994:109]

We can all take a lesson from Katherine Dunham’s life. Hopefully, we can learn to unite our bodies and beings as we move through the dance of life, geared toward channeling our forms and flows into productive practices that reverberate beyond our singular selves.


# # #

Artist Panels:  Grace McCammond


Dunham, Katherine
1994[1969] Island Possessed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Robert Adams Jr. is former Assistant Professor of International Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. He holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests are the African diaspora, Afro-Caribbean religions, education, immigration, public policy, and social theory.

Transforming Anthropology, Vol. 15, Numbers 1, pps 1–2. ISSN 1051-0559, electronic ISSN 1548-7466. © 2007 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintInfo.asp. DOI: tran.2007.15.1.1.

Leave a Reply