Daughters of the Dust (1991): Preserving a Forgotten History

“We di bridge where they cross ober on, we di tie between den and now, between di past and di story wa da come.”

In February 2021, I became obsessed with Gullah culture. I bought books about them, I tried to learn their language, I even wrote a play based on their culture. My parents are from Sierra Leone, and at home I speak Sierra Leone Creole (Krio), I eat Sierra Leonean food, I listen to stories of home. But I was born in London, raised in London, and speak like a Londoner. In terms of national identity, I have often felt a sense of hybridity, an in-between-ness. Therefore, I hungered to know everything about Sierra Leone and its history. When my mother was at university in Sierra Leone she knew of this man, Joseph A. Opala, he was a historian studying Gullah culture and he linked a lot of the Gullah history Africa, specifically to Sierra Leone. I knew that the Gullah language had lots of creole in it, like Sierra Leone Krio, but I didn’t know there were deeper ties. Gullah culture and language is a mix of various tribes in West Africa including, Twi (Ghana), Igbo and Yoruba (Nigeria) Mende, Fula, and Vai (Sierra Leone) as well as words and customs from Central Africa. 

“Some of the slaves taken to America must have known creole English before they left Africa, and on the plantations their speech seems to have served as a model for the other slaves. Many linguists argue that this early West African Creole English was the ancestral language that gave rise to the modern English-based creoles in West Africa (Sierra Leone Krio, Nigerian Pidgin, etc.) as well as to the English-based creoles spoken by black populations in the Americas (Gullah, Jamaican Creole, Guyana Creole, etc.). All of these modern creole languages would, thus, fall into the same broad family group, which linguist Ian Hancock has called the “English-based Atlantic Creoles.” – Joseph A. Opala

I’ve recently curated an exhibition on Black Screen History which included researching Julie Dash. I had heard of her film Daughters of the Dust (1991) but I didn’t know that it was the first feature film made by a Black woman, nor did I know it was about the Gullah/Geechee. Dash’s film is not only culturally important as a ‘first’, or aesthetically captivating but it is also significant historically. This film is about the preservation and legacy of a culture that history neglects. 

The care with which Dash created this film is evident in every single scene. From the unapologetically poetic dialogue, use of Gullah language and the precious treatment of family, history, and message of respecting those who came before us is beautiful. Slavery and cultural preservation becomes personal in the conversations between Eli and Nana Peazant. The expressive dancing of the daughters becomes spiritual. Every shot means something, every look, every prop. Even the way in which the film is edited with the slow dissolves helped to create an ethereal atmosphere that compliments the earthy and dusty visual tones of the film. Seeing the children play with okra, weaving baskets, cotton cloths, and grandmothers teaching children old words was highly emotive. Seeing ViewFinders and stereo cards from the early 1900s as well as hearing the Gullah basket names (which are like nicknames) reminded me of the prevalence of nicknames in my family like Poochie, Jaro, Coco and Spart. This film unearthed great memories for me. 

“Dr. [Lorenzo] Turner found that Gullah men and women all have African nicknames or “basket names” in addition to their English names for official use; and he showed that the Gullah language, like other Atlantic Creoles, contains a substantial minority of vocabulary words borrowed directly from African substrate languages. Altogether, Dr. Turner was able to identify more than four thousand words and personal names of African origin and to assign these, on an individual basis, to specific African languages.”– Joseph A. Opala

More than anything, every element of the film worked together to foster the theme remembrance and transition. I found myself thinking about my ancestors, what home means, the joys of community and family. Finally, the symbolism of the Ibo Landing and its embodiment of the conviction ‘freedom or death’, rekindled a fire in me for preserving and promoting the history of African people and the diasporas across the world. 

Chloé Jarrett-Bell

Featured Image Source – Still via Youtube // Daughters of the Dust (2k Restoration) | Official US Trailer // Cohen Media Group


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