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Katherine Dunham

Commentary by Deoliver47, Black Kos Editor.

"The Spiritual Mother of Haiti"
is how former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide referred to Katherine Dunham.

Known world wide as the "Queen Mother, and Matriarch" of Black Dance, Dunham was an anthropologist, author, dancer, choreographer, and global activist.


She had a strong connection to Haiti and the Haitian people and their culture, and at the age of 82 in 1992, at severe risk to her own health she went on a 47 day hunger strike to focus world attention to the plight of Haiti and Haitian refugees to the US.

"It's embarrassing to be an American," Dunham said at the time.


She ended the strike only after entreaties from others.

KATHERINE DUNHAM HAD BEEN PREPARED to die. Instead, at 8:10 P.M. on the evening of March 18, the 82-year-old grande dame of dance leaned forward in the bedroom of her redbrick home in East St. Louis, Ill., and took a small sip of homemade chicken soup. For Dunham, it was the end of a 47-day hunger strike she had prayed would help change U.S. policy toward refugees from Haiti, a country whose rhythm and spirit inspired her art. Now she was abandoning that tactic at the urging of deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who asked her to return with him to Haiti as soon as the improving political climate there permits. "My purpose in this work has been fulfilled," said Dunham. "This torch now passes to other hands."

Only two days earlier, subsisting on cranberry juice, water and Tibetan tea, she refused the Rev. Jesse Jackson's offer to take up the fast for her. "This isn't just about Haiti," she said. "It's about America. This country doesn't feel that Haitians are human. And America treats East St. Louis the way it does Haitians." Outside, smoke from a tire fire curled into the air. The East St. Louis fire department has the resources to deal only with major blazes; small fires are left to smolder in this desolate city of 40,000, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

Dunham is tormented by the plight of some 16,000 people who fled Haiti by sea to Florida after Aristide's democratic government was toppled by a military coup on Sept. 30. Having defined them as economic rather than political refugees and therefore not eligible for asylum, the U.S. government has been sending almost all the boat people back to Haiti from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where they have been living in detention camps. Three days into her fast, Dunham wrote to President Bush. The response, from National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, she says, "fell far short of relieving my deep and urgent concerns." Now, however, she is hopeful that democracy may be restored in Haiti and that the refugees may be able to return without reprisal.


When Dunham died in 2006 at age 96, there were many tributes  documenting her indelible legacy. One of the most extensive was broadcast from St. Louis:

From KETC, LIVING ST. LOUIS producer Anne-Marie Berger traces Katherine Dunham's life, artistic career and influence on the people where she lived in East St. Louis, Illinois. Although it was broadcast shortly after Dunham's death in May 2006 at age 96, the profile contains what is believed to have been her last interview, conducted by Berger at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville in October 2005.

Her history, her childhood, her accomplishments are documented in detail at the Missouri Historical Society website.

It seems almost impossible that Katherine Dunham's remarkable life, filled with accomplishments in diverse fields, could have been lived by only one person. As an innovator and artist, she had few peers. It is revealing that Miss Dunham has been universally studied, written about, and praised across disciplines, not only from expected perspectives of dance and the arts, but also through the lenses of psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Her life and her work uniquely encompassed the academic and the popular while transcending the boundaries we usually erect between high and mass culture.

Katherine Dunham was born in 1909 to an African American father (Albert Dunham Sr.) and a mother (Fanny Taylor Dunham) who was described as French Canadian with Indian heritage. Although Katherine was born at a hospital in Chicago, the family actually lived in nearby Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Her mother died when Katherine was four years old, and she and her brother (Albert Dunham Jr.) lived temporarily with their aunt on the south side of Chicago. When Katherine was six years old, she and her brother moved with their father and a new stepmother to Joliet, Illinois.

While living in Chicago, Dunham was present during the influx of African Americans fleeing the South. She saw firsthand the ugly realities that people faced trying to escape Jim Crow by moving to northern cities. She further witnessed the injustices imposed on blacks who were not welcomed in the North, being forced to live in segregated communities in subpar housing structures and to work at menial jobs in order to provide sustenance for their families.

The Library of Congress also has a complete timeline, and collection of her work.

Key in her relationship to Haiti and Haitian people was her deep understanding of the culture and the religion of Vodou. Dunham was a Mambo (priestess), or "servitor" to the Haitian Vodou deity Damballah, spirit of wisdom, purity and peace. She built and maintained a peristyle (temple) in Haiti, to carry on centuries old traditions.


Though she is no longer with us in person her indomitable spirit lives on in others who carry the torch.

The torch is carried

One of those who is a fierce and vocal advocate for her people is Haitian performance poet, dancer, writer, playwright and Human Rights activist lawyer Marguerite Laurent.


She is a member of the Poets & Writers guild and an essayist and educator who specializes in using her writing skills and public presentations to teach about the light and beauty of Haitian culture; the "Symbolic and Archetypal Nature of Haitian Vodun;" the illegality and immorality of forcing neoliberalism policies on Haiti and the developing world; the illegality and human rights violations caused by the U.S. embargo against Haiti during the Aristide and Preval presidencies (1994-2004) and the international crimes currently unraveling Haiti because of the U.S.-Canada-France-supported Feb. 29, 2004 coup d'etat and U.N. occupation; the need for France to repay the extraordinary 1825 ransom it extorted from the Haitian people and the constant Euro-US hostility Haiti faces, endures and struggles to overcome as the first Black Republic in the world after Ethiopia in a Eurocentric world which purposely inflames instability, insecurity, impasse and chaos in the Black republics in order to better exploit their labor and natural resources.

Laurent, carries on the tradition of the lwa, performing and speaking in the name of Ezili Dantò.


Often represented as the Black Madonna, Ezili is a fierce protector of her children, and it is fitting that Laurent carries her banner.

Like Dunham, Laurent heads a performance troupe and showcases and teaches Haitian culture.


She was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and raised in Stamford, CT. She holds a BA from Boston College, a JD from the University of Connecticut School of law, and, attended the Hartford Conservatory for Ballet, Jazz and Modern while studying Haitian dancing at home and with countless Haitian dance experts in the field.

More important to this discussion, she heads the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network, a group of outspoken critics of US, and  world policy in regards to Haiti.  

They have  issued policy statements delineating a sane US policy regarding Haiti:

- End the UN military occupation
Haiti needs tractors not tanks. Community policing, not war soldiers. (See, Haiti's image for violence is a big myth. Why is the UN in Haiti?- Scientists say there's more oil in Haiti than in Venezuela ; Oil in Haiti - Economic Reasons for the UN/US occupation; "There is a multinational conspiracy to illegally take the mineral resources of the Haitian people: Espaillat Nanita revealed that in Haiti there are huge deposits of gold and iridium" and, Haiti's Riches: Interview with Ezili Dantò on Mining in Haiti.)

- Grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) with a specification to stop all deportations and grant work permits (See, Singled Out) - Cancel immediately and without conditions all Haiti debt to international financial institutions, including old Duvalier-dictatorship debts

- End indirect aid to Haiti. Respect Haitian sovereignty, not boost NGO profits and power in Haiti. Began direct aid to Haitian government, not the monopoly families and foreign NGOs. Stop failed policies and effectively trading through USAID, churches and predator NGOs. A great portion of food aid from such entities do not reach the intended beneficiaries in Haiti and, end up for sale in the marketplace. Start fair aid and trading with Haiti and supporting grassroots, indigenous Haiti capacity building organizations. USAID denies Haitian sovereignty and progress by blocking, declining, subverting any direct assistance to empower the Haitian government while engineering so that the majority of Haiti's national budget (provided by the international community as a consequence the 2004 Bush/USAID regime change) is currently managed by its approved non-governmental organizations. In the agriculture department, for instance, some 800 NGOs control part of the budget, thoroughly undermining the state's ability to deal with the famine and food crisis.

There are many who disagree with Laurent, and her compatriots who are still staunch supporters of Aristide.

But the questions they raise, about the failures of our policy towards Haiti must be considered.  

As Haiti slips off the front pages and recedes from view Laurent reports voices from Haiti not being heard from in the TM:

A cry for help from Haiti: ‘They are cutting off limbs needlessly and taking our dignity; the babies need to eat tonight’

Our good friend, a fellow artist and a colleague in the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network, Carl Telemaque, just called from Haiti. His number is 3711-1771. I don’t know if he will have resources on his phone for long. But he needs HELP now. If you’re not in Haiti, you can help by asking someone you know who is in Haiti to go lend a hand. Or you can send a money donation directly to Carl through Western Union et al.

"Zili," he said, "I’m taking care of 1,500 children in Croix-des-Bouquets at zone Li Lavoix along with their families since the earthquake. We need help. We need food, water, medicine, tents and flashlights. "For medicine, we need anti-diarrhea, antibiotics, hygienic kits and medicine to stop blood clots. (See HLLN’s list of "Urgent Items Needed by the Earthquake Victims in Haiti" at

"Tell the people something for me," he says. "Tell them that injured people I send to the Dominican Republic for help have mostly come back with limbs missing. That’s all they are doing: cutting, cutting, cutting and then closing the wound up and releasing the people."The doctors there are cutting off EVERYTHING: arms, legs, toes, feet, fingers. You have a cut or a wound and they just cut off the limbs. The people returning from the DR are always missing a limb. They are doubly traumatized and more depressed. Tell the people that for me. This can’t go on like this anymore.

Sobering news.  

We have much more to do.  We need to listen to more voices from Haiti, from Haitian progressives, from supporters of the Haitian people.  We need a better understanding of Haiti’s past, a clearer picture of the present, and to be cognizant in the days ahead of plans being made for Haiti’s future.


 title= Haiti we stand with you. Text "Haiti" to 90999 to send $10 through the Red Cross or Text "Yele" to 501501 to send $5 through Wyclef Jean's charity.

 title= title=
This weeks news by Amazinggrace and dopper0189, Black Kos Editor and Managing Editor


National TV Special Investigates the Color Lines in Recession and Recovery, Feb 12, 9:30 PM EST ColorLines: Race and Economic Recovery.

President Obama says the stimulus saved or created 2 million jobs in 2009. But is the recovery really working? The American dream of good jobs and strong communities is still just a dream for too many. The unfair economy hurts certain groups more, and that ends up hurting everyone. From the bottom line to the unemployment line to the color line, watch a new in-depth program from Link TV and Applied Research Center for a closer look.

Here's a sneak peek.


The Daily Beast:A Discharged Gay Vet: Let Us Back in the Army!

Just a handful of loud town hall meetings could send politicians running away from reversing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Anthony Woods, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who was discharged under DADT, on how to implement smart policy.

On Tuesday, Admiral Mike Mullen told Congress, "I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens." Thousands of honorable men and women discharged under this misguided policy have argued this for years. Serving your country and maintaining your integrity should never be in opposition to one another.



Everyone should remember this lesson! Race Talk: Talking about race: A marathon, not a sprint.

I’ve been navigating the waters of race conversations for over two decades and discovered that success in race relationships is a lot like training for a marathon. In both race talks and running I intimately know the importance of pacing, patience and pain.

When I ran my first half marathon three years ago, I couldn’t sprint first five miles and expect to finish the race with no problem. I had to start out slowly and set my pace according to my ability and my body. Likewise successful diversity conversationalists know the importance of pacing.

Having serious conversations about race is tricky and timing is everything. I can’t approach a stranger with questions like, "So, what do you think of the "N" word?" or "Are you uncomfortable when you see Muslims on an airplane?"

I instead start with less threatening inquiries like, "When did you first recognize race?" or "How do you think the media influences perceptions of race?" Slow and steady.

Once I develop my pace, I have to be patient with the results.

Smithsonian Magazine‏: The Changing Definition of African-American.

Some years ago, I was interviewed on public radio about the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation. I addressed the familiar themes of the origins of that great document: the changing nature of the Civil War, the Union army’s growing dependence on black labor, the intensifying opposition to slavery in the North and the interplay of military necessity and abolitionist idealism. I recalled the longstanding debate over the role of Abraham Lincoln, the Radicals in Congress, abolitionists in the North, the Union army in the field and slaves on the plantations of the South in the destruction of slavery and in the authorship of legal freedom. And I stated my long-held position that slaves played a critical role in securing their own freedom. The controversy over what was sometimes called "self-emancipation" had generated great heat among historians, and it still had life.

As I left the broadcast booth, a knot of black men and women—most of them technicians at the station—were talking about emancipation and its meaning. Once I was drawn into their discussion, I was surprised to learn that no one in the group was descended from anyone who had been freed by the proclamation or any other Civil War measure. Two had been born in Haiti, one in Jamaica, one in Britain, two in Ghana, and one, I believe, in Somalia. Others may have been the children of immigrants. While they seemed impressed—but not surprised—that slaves had played a part in breaking their own chains, and were interested in the events that had brought Lincoln to his decision during the summer of 1862, they insisted it had nothing to do with them. Simply put, it was not their history.

The conversation weighed upon me as I left the studio, and it has since. Much of the collective consciousness of black people in mainland North America—the belief of individual men and women that their own fate was linked to that of the group—has long been articulated through a common history, indeed a particular history: centuries of enslavement, freedom in the course of the Civil War, a great promise made amid the political turmoil of Reconstruction and a great promise broken, followed by disfranchisement, segregation and, finally, the long struggle for equality.

NewsWeek: The End of Black History Month?

When did everybody start hating on Black History Month? I have yet to find a person, black or white or anything else, looking forward to the February festivities. At one point, when speaking to a well-known black intellectual about participating in a video NEWSWEEK is putting together, I was stunned by the vehemence of his refusal. It's not as if I was asking him to march to Birmingham. But I get it. It seems ghettoizing and patronizing to spend one month of every year proving that black history is a holistic part of American history. As Morgan Freeman once famously told Mike Wallace, "You're going to relegate my history to a month? ... Which month is White History Month? ... I don't want a Black History Month. Black history is American history." Because today the divisions between black and white are not as cavernous or ugly as they once were. The contributions of famous black Americans, from Frederick Douglass to Oprah Winfrey, are widely known. Martin Luther King Jr. has his own federal holiday. The president of the United States is black. If tens of millions of white people voted for Barack Hussein Obama, the lesson has been learned, right? As if. Despite the election of Obama, African-Americans still live in a culture that is overreliant on stereotype and slow to explore the complexity of racialized issues such as the ghetto or Haiti. So you can complain about Black History Month all you want. But there's still work to be done.


One of our first "Little Known Historical Facts" is now a book. New York Times: A Lasting Gift to Medicine That Wasn’t Really a Gift.

Fifty years after Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in the "colored" ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital, her daughter finally got a chance to see the legacy she had unknowingly left to science. A researcher in a lab at Hopkins swung open a freezer door and showed the daughter, Deborah Lacks-Pullum, thousands of vials, each holding millions of cells descended from a bit of tissue that doctors had snipped from her mother’s cervix.

Ms. Lacks-Pullum gasped. "Oh God," she said. "I can’t believe all that’s my mother."

When the researcher handed her one of the frozen vials, Ms. Lacks-Pullum instinctively said, "She’s cold," and blew on the tube to warm it. "You’re famous," she whispered to the cells.

Minutes later, peering through a microscope, she pronounced them beautiful. But when she asked the researcher which were her mother’s normal cells and which the cancer cells, his answer revealed that her precious relic was not quite what it seemed. The cells, he replied, were "all just cancer."

The vignette comes from a gripping new book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" (Crown Publishers), by the journalist Rebecca Skloot. The story of Mrs. Lacks and her cells, and the author’s own adventures with Mrs. Lacks’s grown children (one fries her a pork chop, and another slams her against a wall) is by turns heartbreaking, funny and unsettling. The book raises troubling questions about the way Mrs. Lacks and her family were treated by researchers and about whether patients should control or have financial claims on tissue removed from their bodies.



The Nation: Note to ESPN's Jemele Hill: Tim Tebow is not Muhammad Ali‏.

Jemele makes the case that Tim Tebow's presence in an anti-abortion Super Bowl Ad, funded by Focus on the Family, "should be praised rather than condemned." This by itself shouldn't be too surprising. All week, every sports writer on earth from the Washington Post's great Sally Jenkins to Tebow's personal foot masseur, Sports Illustrated's Peter King, have raised this "defend the courage of Tim Tebow" line to a deafening din. (Tragically in our culture, I would argue that taking a stance against women's reproductive rights, is anything but "courageous." It's clearly as mainstream as the Super Bowl itself.)

But Jemele Hill chose to take it to an entirely higher level: a level that deeply miseducates her readers and demands a response. She chose to write, "Tebow's decision to appear in this ad should be considered just as courageous as Muhammad Ali's decision to not enter the draft, or Tommie Smith's and John Carlos' black power salute at the 1968 summer Olympics."

Dear Lord, Jemele. Where do we possibly begin to unpack this? Tim Tebow is starring in a 2.8 million dollar ad while being praised by sports writers, pundits, and politicians from coast to coast. In contrast, Muhammad Ali's decision to refuse the draft and say "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong" resulted in getting stripped of his title, being abandoned by almost every significant person in his life, pushed to bankruptcy, and hit with a five year Leavenworth prison sentence, which included revoking his passport. The very same day of his conviction in federal court, the US Congress voted 337-29 to extend the draft four more years. They knew how important Ali was and the full weight of the federal government was hell-bent on breaking his will. As Jack Olson wrote years later inSports Illustrated, "The noise became a din, the drumbeats of a holy war. TV and radio commentators, little old ladies...bookmakers, and parish priests, armchair strategists at the Pentagon and politicians all over the place joined in a crescendo of get Cassius get Cassius get Cassius."

The Root: 100 Years of Black Cinema: Oscar Micheaux, Melvin Van Peebles, Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons‏.

As we all know, February marks Black History Month. But this year, February also marks something else: The 100th anniversary of the birth of black cinema. Black cinema was making black history before Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926. And this week, black cinema is making history once again with the nomination of Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire for Best Picture. It’s the first time in the history of the Academy Awards that a film directed by a black director is nominated for the top award. Director Lee Daniels is following in the footsteps of those who came before him—namely, William D. Foster and Oscar Micheaux.

Oscar Micheaux is often lauded as the father of black filmmakers. But William D. Foster began producing films nearly a decade earlier than Micheaux’s first effort. In 1910, Foster, a sports writer for the Chicago Defender, formed the Foster Photoplay Company, the first independent African-American film company. (Foster wasn’t a complete stranger to show business; he had also worked as a press agent for vaudeville stars Bert Williams and George Walker.) In 1912, Foster, produced and directed The Railroad Porter. The film paid homage to the Keystone comic chases, while attempting to address the pervasive derogatory stereotypes of blacks in film.

This was three years before D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a plantation fantasy credited with establishing negative stereotypes of blacks in film that still exists today. Consider the Reconstruction scene, where barefoot black legislators eat fried chicken, swill whiskey, lust after white women and pass a law that all legislators must wear shoes. Insert a cantankerous mammy, tragic mulatto, murderous buck, black rapists and a lynching, and you’ve got what is shamefully considered to be one of the greatest films of all time.


Voices and Soul by Justice Putnam, Black Kos Tuesday's Chile, Poetry Contributor

Sharing a meal is the sharing of the Heart and Soul. Heart and Soul
though, is not some ethereal matter floating above and around the
table; it is an ingredient that is emulsified and blended into the
very substance of each dish. Acknowledging the tedium of preparing a
meal, Lucille Clifton then shows how Heart and Soul are added. How the
anguish, pain and redemption of Love and History, Family and Community
are flavors and scents that connect The All with Everything. How is
Heart and Soul added? It starts with...

cutting greens

curling them around
i hold their bodies in obscene embrace
thinking of everything but kinship.
collards and kale
strain against each strange other
away from my kissmaking hand and
the iron bedpot.
the pot is black.
the cutting board is black,
my hand,
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,
and the kitchen twists dark on its spine
and i taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.

-- Lucille Clifton


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Originally posted to Black Kos on Tue Feb 09, 2010 at 12:01 PM PST.

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