Though I have not smelled the smell of burning flesh
and have never seen a black body swaying from a southern
tree, I have felt these things in spirit. . . . Through
the creative artist comes the need . . . to show this
thing to the world, hoping that by exposing the ill,
the conscience of the many will protest. . . . This is
not all of America, it is not all of the South, but it
is a living, present part.
The U.S. government strongly disapproved of the production’s
negative tone. Because of growing pressure, Southland was
performed only twice, once in Chile and once in Paris, and Miss
Dunham suffered financially. For years her company, unlike other
touring companies, did not receive any government support. Not
only did she not stop speaking out against inequality and intolerance
but she also continued to fund her company independently through
theatrical productions and films.
Another example of Dunham’s outspokenness occurred after
a performance of Tropical Review in Louisville, Kentucky,
in October 1944, when she pinned to herself the Colored Only
sign that she found hanging backstage and made the following
announcement to an all-white audience:
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. . . . I have discovered that your management
will not allow people like you to sit next to people like us.
I hope that time and unhappiness of this war for tolerance
and democracy . . . will change some of these things. Perhaps
then we can return.
According to Sally Sommer, writing for PBS’s online Free
to Dance series, Miss Dunham and her company experienced
an additional financial burden in the 1940s when she refused
to sign a Hollywood contract because it stipulated that she
replace all of her darker-skinned dancers. At a time when African
Americans were expected to know and remain in their place,
Miss Dunham never stopped standing up for what she believed.
She did not look for recognition for her actions. She often
took her stance in a composed manner and made it understood
that her position was non-negotiable.
Another little-known action with major international impact
involved Katherine Dunham during the late 1960s. While working
in Senegal, Miss Dunham discovered that Edmond Rothschild, the
owner of Club Med, planned to build a resort on the Isle
of Gore, the site where many Africans were imprisoned
prior to boarding ships for the dreaded Middle Passage. Rothschild
intended to exclude native Senegalese and other Africans from
membership. Miss Dunham addressed the president of Senegal (her
personal friend) and was informed that although he disapproved
of the plans, he felt that it was too late to make changes. She
took the measure further and convened religious leaders of Senegal
to fight this development. As evidence of her efforts, Gore Island
is now a historic site and a destination for many African Americans.
In a more publicized action, while living in East St. Louis
at the age of 82, Miss Dunham went on a hunger strike to protest
the treatment of Haitian refugees by the U.S.
government and the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
She received international attention and continued her hunger
strike for 47 days despite the adverse effects to her health,
ending it only after a visit and direct plea from President Aristide.
>> Click on each image to
see a larger view. <<
in support of Katherine Dunham's 47-day hunger strike in
1993 to protest the treatment of Haitian refugees by
the U.S. government and the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide. Gift of Katherine Dunham, Missouri Historical
Society Museum Collections.
Dunham with the president of Senegal (1960–1980),
Léopold Senghor, 1962. Missouri Historical Society
Photographs and Prints Collection.
Dunham and Eugene Redmond with Rev. Charles Koen and other
members of the Black Egyptians, 1968–1969.
The Black Egyptians recognized the need for steering the
youth of East St. Louis into socially responsible activities
but were viewed as revolutionary by the media and white society.
They supported the arts and civil rights programs and provided
recreational outlets for young people. Missouri Historical
Society Photographs and Prints Collection.
|This view of
Gore Island, Senegal, best known as The Door of No Return,
is the last image that enslaved Africans saw of their homeland
before being taken on the Middle Passage. Photograph by
Professor Cheikh Ndiaye, 2002. Courtesy of Professor Cheikh
Ndiaye, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures,
Union College, Schenectady, New York.