Matter and Memory

There has been a lot written, tweeted, and argued recently about the place of statues and monuments in cities throughout the world. The arguments made by young scholars at elite British universities and citizens in American cities highlights the emotional, political, cultural, and imaginative power these objects hold. In Eastern Europe, particularly former state socialist countries, the debates over socialist era monuments have been part of life since 1991. In some cases, the argument about trying to erase history by removing socialist era monuments echoes the attempts of the state socialist regimes who erased history both materially and immaterially. This included new construction of monuments, roads, and plazas, and the renaming of existing places, rewriting educational material, and mass cultural programmes.

 

In Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria after the end of Todor Zhikov’s regime in 1991 the mausoleum built for Georgi Dimitrov, the founder of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, was demolished in 1999. The area next to the city park in the centre of Sofia where the mausoleum stood remains empty with many plans about what to do with the space nearly twenty years later. Anthropological and geographical studies of Central and Eastern Europe have highlighted the multitude of experiences in the years following the collapse of state socialism across the region. The role of memory is a central part of post-socialist experiences. Creed (1998, 1999) has drawn attention to the ways that socialist memories are used to propose questions of the post-socialist present, emphasising the power of ritual to inform understanding of political and economic changes in everyday activities. Light and Young (2014) argue, through their study of residents contesting the renaming of socialist-era squares and boulevards in Romania, that everyday habits and memory remain stable despite rupture.

 

On July 28th 2017 the socialist era monument “1300 years of Bulgaria” in Sofia was demolished after several years of plans, legal actions, and protests and counter protests. The monument was unfinished at the time state socialism ended in the country and was in a serve state of disrepair. The decision to remove the monument was taken by the Sofia Municipal Council in 2014. However, the decision was repeatedly challenged in court by the monument’s sculptor Valentin Starchev. As part of the controversy around the monument have been efforts to restore the original monument to the Bulgarian army that the socialist regime replaced with ‘1300 years of Bulgaria’. In 2014, a group of 1,400 activists gathered together and organised a petition to restore the earlier Known Warrior Memorial for the 1st and 6th Infantry Regiments. The plans to restore the Known Warrior Memorial comes at a time when charges of erasing history are levelled at anyone disagreeing with monuments. However, in Sofia this memorial will stand in the shadow of the National Palace of Culture built in 1981 by Todor Zhikov’s socialist regime. At least here the relationship between different histories and regimes will be in constant conversation about the past and possible futures.

 

 

Site of the Monument of 1300 years of Bulgaria in Sofia. The former monument and the view towards the National Palace of culture.

Images courtesy of Anna Plyushteva and Desire&Subtext

 

References

Creed G (1998) Domesticating Revolution: From Socialist Reform to Ambivalent Transition in a Bulgarian Village . University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.

Creed G (1999) Deconstructing socialism in Bulgaria. In: Burawoy M and Verdery K (eds) Uncertain Transition: Ethnographies of Change in the Postsocialist World. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 223–243.

Light D and Young C (2013) Urban space, political identity and the unwanted legacies of statesocialism: Bucharest’s problematic Centru Civic in the post-socialist era. Nationalities Papers41(4): 515–535.

Light D and Young C (2014) Habit, memory, and the persistence of socialist-era street names in postsocialist Bucharest, Romania. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104(3): 668– 685.

Advertisements

Dividing Lines: a mapping exercise by Sarah Sims

As many of us gear up for teaching in the upcoming (or already upon us) academic year, I wanted to share a mapping exercise. This exercise asks students to consider how their lived experiences dialogue with internal and official maps of the city they live in and engage with conceptions and urban practices of segregation, division, and equity.

I learned of this exercise from Sarah Sims, K-12 Programs Manager at the Missouri History Museum. Sims facilitates teacher professional development, guides museum educators, and leads workshops such as “Summer Teacher Institute about Civil Rights” and “Community as Classroom: Place-Based Education for Social Justice.” I met Sims when my “Urban Ethnography in St. Louis” class toured the museum’s #1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis exhibit (which runs through April 15, 2018). We then used this mapping exercise in a subsequent week.

Having students map, I have a found, provides an inquiry-based awareness of maps as constructed representations of place and space. Who constructs maps and what information is used to make “official” maps, such as google maps, atlas maps, or government-used maps? What information do maps include and exclude? How does one’s own experience in place contribute to internalized views of space? In what ways are maps engines of segregation, dispossession, and division? In what ways might maps be used for equitable outcomes for vulnerable and marginalized communities? These are some questions my students considered before, during, and after they constructed their own maps.

Maps by students Eddie Campell and Dylan Bassett

For this exercise, you’ll need:

-1 sheet of paper per student (larger sizes like 11” by 17” are ideal, and 8.5” by 11” will work)

-7 colored pens/pencils/crayons highlighters per student (or have students share). The following, per student, is ideal:
1 black permanent marker
1 brown pencil, crayon, or pen
1 green pencil, crayon, or pen
1 purple pencil, crayon, or pen
1 blue pencil, crayon, or pen
1 red pencil crayon, or pen
1 yellow/orange pencil, crayon, pen, or highlighter

-(if possible, but not necessary as you can narrate directions), access to AV to present the following steps in slides

Sims’s exercise begins with a slide called “Dividing Lines,” which gives an overview of the significance of this exercise. She writes:

In this activity we will consider maps of our communities
-Not as we see them on google maps, or government maps, or other such official maps.
-But how we internalize the spaces of our community in our minds and memories, and how we live and move in those spaces.
-And how these internal/lived maps contribute to how we conceptualize, talk about, and  compartmentalize our communities.

Next, she frames the exercise:

-You’ll all make your own map
-Fill in as much as you can
-Be as detailed as you can
-We will add different components to our maps in a certain order, so please follow the steps
-This is not an artistic competition!

The seven steps are as follows – they are framed for St. Louis but applicable to any city. Make sure to give time, about 3 to 5 minutes, for each step.

Step 1: City (Black)

“Draw the shape of St. Louis.”

Note: I showed my students a slide of St. Louis to help them draw the shape of the city.

Step 2: Neighborhoods (Brown)

“Fill in as many of the different neighborhoods in the city (or county) as you can.”

“Don’t worry about their exact shape just get the neighborhoods with their spatial relationships to each other as you remember them.”

Step 3: Movement (Green)

“Draw/label the major routes you take to move throughout the city (or county).”

“This could include ways you get to work, to recreational events, to run errands, how you move around your place of residence.”

Step 4: Landmarks (Purple)

“Draw/label the important landmarks and places.”

“Think about what the Travel Chanel would highlight in St. Louis, or what a tourist would want to see.”

Step 5: Favorite Places (Blue)

“Draw/label the places that are important to you: places you go to all the time, and/or places you would recommend an out-of-towner should visit.”

Step 6: Explicit Dividing Lines (Red)

“Draw/label major dividing lines within the city and county that serve to separate areas/groups of people/places/etc. Think about the dividing lines that you hear about on the news, read about online or in books, and/or have experienced.”

Step 7: Implicit Dividing Lines (Yellow/Orange)

“Look at your map and lightly shade in the areas that are mostly blank.”

***

After completing this mapping exercise, I asked my students to lie out all maps in a line, and observe them together.

Maps by students Bemnet Tesfaye and Sarah Small

Then we engaged the following questions, borrowed from Sims’s exercise:

  • What stands out to you as you view our maps together?
  • What things are similar about all of our maps?
  • Are there intersections between how we remember the map of our city/community and how we interact with our city/community?
  • What explicit or implicit biases are visible in our maps?
  • What are the implications of our internal/lived maps on our role as students and urban ethnographers at Washington University?

Upcoming Conference

A conference on tourism and cities will take place in Kitzbuhl, Austria in September. For details on “Fernweh und Stadt.Tourismus als städtisches Phänomen,” visit the following website: http://www.stadtgeschichtsforschung.at/

Programm

Fernweh und Stadt. Tourismus als städtisches Phänomen

Kitzbühel, 27.–29. September 2017

Organisation: Ferdinand Opll/Martin Scheutz/Wido Sieberer

Tagungsräumlichkeiten: Rathaus der Stadt Kitzbühel / Saal „Hahnenkamm“ (3. Obergeschoß, Lift vorhanden), Hinterstadt 20, 6370 Kitzbühel

27. September 2017
9.00
Begrüßung durch die Tagungsleitung und den Österreichischen Arbeitskreis für Stadtgeschichtsforschung

Eröffnung
9.20–10.00
Tourismusgeschichte. Aufrisse eines Forschungsfeldes
Hasso Spode, Berlin

Sektion 1: Vorformen der Tourismus
Vorsitzender: Andreas Weigl, Wien
10.00–10.30
Reiseziel Jerusalem. Pilgerfahrt und Tourismus im späten Mittelalter
Folker Reichert, Stuttgart
10.30–11.00
Kavalierstouren – Die Grand Tour des frühneuzeitlichen Adels
Katrin Keller, Wien
11.00–11.30
Sommerfrische – Entstehung eines bürgerlichen Rituals als Sehnsucht nach antiurbanen Sinnesreizen
Peter Payer, Wien
11.30–12.00: Gesamtdiskussion der Referate

Mittagspause 12.00–14.00

Sektion 2: Organisationsformen des städtischen Tourismus
Vorsitzender: Ferdinand Opll, Perchtoldsdorf
14.00–14.30
Der Beginn der organisierten Reise – das Reisebüro als städtische Einrichtung
Martin Scheutz
14.30–15.00
Urbane Gastronomie als Angebotsfaktor im Tourismus
Andreas Weigl, Wien
15.00–15.30
Tourismus im Zeichen faschistischer Propaganda
Sascha Howind, Frankfurt/Main
15.30–16.00: Gesamtdiskussion der Referate

Kaffeepause 16.00–16.30

16.30–18.30: Exkursion durch Kitzbühel – Tourismusgeschichte und ihre Realien (Treffpunkt Rathaus Kitzbühel vor dem Saal „Hahnenkamm“)

28. September 2017
Sektion 3: Wissensvermittlung und Werbung für Reiseziele
Vorsitzender: Martin Scheutz, Wien
9.00–9.30
Im Schatten der Metropole: Salzburg und Graz in Reiseführern des 19. Jahrhunderts
Harald Tersch, Wien
9.30–10.00
Das Reiseziel auf der Litfass-Säule: Plakate als Werbeträger
Bernhard Denscher, Wien
10.00–10.30
Reisen im Kopf. Stadtansichten und Panoramen als Medien von Information und Vergnügen
Ferdinand Opll, Perchtoldsdorf
10.30–11.00: Gesamtdiskussion der Referate

Kaffeepause 11.00–11.30

Mittagspause (bis 15.00)

Sektion 4: Maßnahmen zur Attraktivitätssteigerung im Bereich des städtischen Tourismus
Vorsitzender: Nikolaus Reisinger, Graz
15.00–15.30
Die Festivalstadt
Jan Hein Furnee, Nimwegen
15.30–16.00
Die Stadt als Schauplatz großer Sportereignisse
Noyan Dinçkal, Siegen
16.00–16.30
(Selbst-)Bildnisse der Stadt Linz – Ansichtskarten für den Tourismus
Walter Schuster, Linz
16.30–17.00: Gesamtdiskussion der Referate

18.00: Abendvortrag mit Empfang der Stadt
Vorsitzender: Andreas Weigl, Wien
Die politisch-wirtschaftliche Bedeutung des Tourismus für die österreichischen Städte
Thomas Weninger, Wien, Österreichischer Städtebund
Meran und der Tourismus: Chancen und Gefahren durch eine Massenbewegung
Paul Rösch, Meran
mit anschließender Diskussion

29. September 2017

Sektion 5: Tourismus und dessen wirtschaftsgeschichtliche Bedeutung für die Städte
Vorsitzender: Lukas Morscher, Innsbruck
9.00–9.30
Der Tourismus als wichtiges Element der wirtschaftlichen Bilanz von Städten?
Peter Eigner, Wien
9.30–10.00
Die Messestadt – die Messe als Tourismusfaktor
Heidrun Homburg, Freiburg/Br.
10.00–10.30
Natur und Kur – Bad Orb und Bad Homburg und der Frankfurter Tourismus vor dem ersten Weltkrieg/vor 1914
Holger Gräf/Andrea Pühringer, Grünberg
10.30–11.00
Die Gams und die Stadt in den Alpen – Stadt und Tourismus am Beispiel von Kitzbühel
Wido Sieberer, Kitzbühel
Gesamtdiskussion 11.00–11.30

Kaffeepause 11.30–12.00

12.00–13.00: Schlussdiskussion mit einem Impulsreferat von Dieter Kramer (Wien)

Eine Anmeldung zur Tagung ist nicht erforderlich.

JUCS 4.1-2 double issue now published!

Volume 4 Issue 1-2
Cover Date: July 2017

Contents
SPECIAL SECTION: CITIES IN THE LUSO-HISPANIC WORLD
Edited by Araceli Masterson-Algar and Stephen Luis Vilaseca
Through the Looking Glass: Windows to ‘Cities in the Luso-Hispanic World’
Authors: Araceli Masterson-Algar And Stephen Luis Vilaseca
Page Start: 3
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

Pharmakopolis: Cesário Verde’s Lisbon
Authors: Charles Rice-Davis
Page Start: 13
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

Rehoused but unhomed: The effects of Portugal’s Special Rehousing Program as represented in Pedro Costa’s Juventude em Marcha
Authors: Emily Knudson-Vilaseca
Page Start: 31
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

‘La Callejera’: Streetwalks through Minas Gerais in Autran Dourado’s Uma vida em segredo (1964)
Authors: Araceli Masterson-Algar
Page Start: 49
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

Giving visibility to urban change in Rio de Janeiro through digital audio-visual culture: A Brazilian webdocumentary project and its circulation
Authors: Tori Holmes
Page Start: 63
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

Haptic film spaces and the rhythms of everyday life in São Paulo in Lina Chamie’s A via láctea
Authors: Andrew C. Rajca
Page Start: 87
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

Noise, soundscape and heritage: Sound cartographies and urban segregation in twenty-first-century Mexico City
Authors: Natalia Bieletto-Bueno
Page Start: 107
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

Contested urban heritage: Discourses of meaning and ownership of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain
Authors: Brian Rosa And Jaime Jover-Báez
Page Start: 127
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

Urban fortunes: Spatializing the community of money in Alex de la Iglesia’s La comunidad
Authors: Malcolm A. Compitello
Page Start: 155
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

The irresistible outside: Innocence, desire and transgression in a Brazilian urban utopia
Authors: Matthew A. Richmond
Page Start: 177
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

Edward Soja’s postmetropolis: A contemporary urban phenomenon as seen in Latin American cinema
Authors: Andrea Franco
Page Start: 187
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

Digital Barcelona: An interdisciplinary urban cultural studies digital project
Authors: Benjamin Fraser And Camille Kresz And Irina Swain
Page Start: 195
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

SPECIAL SECTION: IMAGINING GROUND ZERO
Edited by Huma Mohibullah and Martin Lund
Introduction: Imagining Ground Zero
Authors: Huma Mohibullah And Martin Lund
Page Start: 207
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

No safe spaces: Notes on the National September 11 Museum
Authors: Laura Frost
Page Start: 221
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

‘Every day is 9/11!’: Re-constructing Ground Zero in three US comics
Authors: Martin Lund
Page Start: 241
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

Sacred space: Muslim and Arab belonging at Ground Zero
Authors: Huma Mohibullah
Page Start: 263
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

Frozen thought: Physical representations of power and the rebuilding of Ground Zero
Authors: Katherine C. Donahue
Page Start: 283
View Header/AbstractPurchase PDF

The City of Tomorrow…Today

I recently attended an event in San Francisco sponsored by Ford Motor Company called ‘The City of Tomorrow’, focusing on the future of urban mobility.

http://fordcityoftomorrow.com/

Topics included driverless technology, such as recreational driverless cars, delivery and public transit. Speakers from the public and private sectors as well as academia moderated discussions on the implications of this new technology and some positive, and potentially troubling outcomes. Since Ford is bullish on driverless technology, the overall spin was a positive one – though critical questions from the audience were addressed (such as the potential mass unemployment that automation might induce). Millions of jobs depend on ‘driving’, from delivery and logistics to taxis and other services. Speakers discussed the positive benefits – time saving; cleaner air; fewer accidents; less sprawl; less congestion, and a public realm free of parking lots and exhaust. But there were also questions like, ‘will people walk less, if their car will drive them places? Will this lead to more, rather than less, obesity?’. Different speakers had different angles.

But all speakers agreed on one thing: these changes are underway, not hypothetical. Tomorrow is today. 

One of the speakers was Ford C.E.O. James Hackett, who discussed Ford’s future vision to the roughly 600 attendees (a mix of industry types, city planners and mobility policy officials, and the odd academic like myself). The overall feel was rather utopian, with futurist quotes and slogans about inclusivity, participation and just outcomes.

20170817_10535720170817_102927

I found the event chillingly timely, given the comparisons to the Ford pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, New York. That fair’s concept was ‘The World of Tomorrow’, and Ford presented a model ‘City of Tomorrow’ with ‘Roads of Tomorrow’, showcasing the emerging trend of superhighways and modernist-sprawling urban forms.

Ford Pavilion ‘Roads of Tomorrow’ at 1939 World’s Fair, New York

Then, as now, society was at the cusp of exciting, yet dramatic technological changes that would re-shape and reconfigure cities and urban life. More darkly, I was reminded that now, as was the case then, we are at time of rising authoritarianism and rising right-wing and left-wing social movements. The many other parallels to draw between 1939 and today are well documented in current popular discussions.

As we now know, the ‘tomorrow’ after 1939 was not utopian, but extremely dystopian, with the world descending into war, and right-wing hysteria leading to the invention of industrial-scale genocide. War aside, we also now know that Ford’s vision for a personal-car based urban world of mass suburbanization, which seemed like a good future at the time, was fundamentally unsustainable. The deliberate destruction of public transit systems (in the USA, a process that was pushed by Ford and its suppliers); the stretching of cities into highway-clogged agglomerations, and the dispersal of jobs into far-flung locations has resulted in a host of problems, from fossil-fuel related climate change to the structural poverty, obesity, and social alienation endemic to sprawl. Sprawl has been blamed for everything from the current socio-cultural divides that are tearing apart America’s political fabric, to the housing bubble that caused the 2008-2009 financial crisis. ‘The City on the Highway’, as Peter Hall outlined (in his book ‘Cities of Tomorrow’, 1988) is fundamentally a segregated and dysfunctional urban form.

Once again, Ford is promising a vision of the future. Once again, we await tomorrow, today, with optimism and a tinge of fearful apprehension.

Geographies of Katherine Dunham’s Dance Activism: an interview with Joanna Dee Das

In 1930s Chicago, she choreographed for Run, Little Chillun, the first black show to take place in the city’s downtown Loop theater district, and brought dance to the city’s New Negro Movement. In 1940s Kansas City, Louisville, and Baltimore, she—a black choreographer—confronted and challenged racist laws often while performing to all-white audiences. In the 1950s, she choreographed Southland, an “anti-lynching dance drama” (12); her company performed the work in Santiago, Chile and Paris, France, but never—due to State Department pressure—in the United States (in fact, the FBI kept files on her for two decades). When she danced abroad in places like San Paulo, Brazil, she was often both refused hotel rooms and applauded for her choreography. In the 1960s, she traveled to and lived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and Dakar, Senegal, engaging with local—and black diasporic—aesthetics and politics. In 1967, she moved to East St. Louis where she opened the Performing Arts Training Center, bringing dance to thousands for the rest of the 20th century.

The life of Katherine Dunham (1909 – 2006), choreographer and activist, was in many ways a life of dance urbanism and dance geography. Dunham choreographed works in dialogue with the aesthetics and sociality of, and against racism that, permeated cities where she traveled, choreographed, and lived. But how? How did her choreography engage with the 20th century development of cities?

I asked these and more questions of Joanna Dee Das, Assistant Professor of Dance at Washington University in St. Louis. Das’s new book Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (Oxford University Press) chronicles Dunham’s life, choreography, and engagement with anti-racism, aesthetics, and politics in 20th century U.S. and global cities.

MAHMOUD: Your book opens with an anecdote about Katherine Dunham furiously performing at a segregated theater in Louisville for a whites only audience. You write:

In Louisville, she emerged at the end of the performance wearing a sign that a company member had stolen from a segregated train car saying “For Whites Only” attached to her backside. After bowing, she turned upstage and danced a triplet step, moving her feet quickly form side to side causing the sign to swing back and forth from her hips for all to view. When the bows finished, she read a speech in which she announced that she would not return to the theater until it integrated. Her words made national headlines, and she received fan letters from across the country applauding her stance. (9)

Dunham was often booked in, and then later, refused to dance in racially segregated venues in cities such as Kansas City, Louisville, and Baltimore. How did her performances and later refusals dialogue with racism, and hope for anti-racist politics, in those cities?

DAS: So these are all urban Southern cities. Kansas City you could say is mid-west, but in a way it’s a part of the South also. She had to negotiate a tricky balance there, as these cities had growing black populations at the time, the Great Migration is still technically happening. There’s still more and more African Americans moving from the rural South to the urban South, and more and more of them want to come to her shows. So she always has to make a decision in each city, “Do I perform in a segregated venue because I want people to see my shows? Do I refuse and take a stand? What do I do?” In each place she makes kind of a different decision.

In Louisville, she decides … The first time she goes there she performs and doesn’t raise a protest, and the second time she does. She says she won’t return until the theater is integrated because there are so many African American citizens in Louisville [who] want to see her shows.

In Baltimore, she again, at first, is willing to perform in the segregated theater because she has never been there before. She says in a letter to her friend, “I think it’s important to have your audiences get to know you first before you make any strategic decisions about protesting.”

I think what she’s in dialogue with in these urban centers is a growing African American population that is interested in urban entertainments. She wants them to have access to her shows. So sometimes she decides that that access means accepting segregation, and sometimes if she’s already popular there and already well-known then she’ll take a stand. It’s a very strategic move, even though whenever people interview her she always said that she responded intuitively to injustice.

Joanna Dee Das

You chronicle Dunham’s performances abroad in South America, Europe, and West Africa. How did that work influence ideas of Americanness?

Her performances abroad made people very interested in African American life because she was one of the first performers … You have to remember when she goes to Europe in 1948, Europe is still recovering from World War II. There aren’t many people performing there, and this is for them … it’s building upon exposure of Josephine Baker in Paris, and things like that. She’s really one of the first African American performers to go abroad that people glob onto to say, “Teach us about what’s going on in America.” There’s increasing news coming out of Russia about stories of segregation and racism in the United States. So people in those urban areas in Europe and Latin America are asking her to respond to those stories and her take on those stories.

She has to walk this delicate balance: she wants to keep performing abroad, she doesn’t want the U.S. State Department to shut her down, but she also wants to speak out. She negotiates this pretty well until she decides to perform an anti-lynching ballet.

That’s Southland?

Yes, that’s Southland.

[Southland was first performed in December 1950 in Santiago, Chile. Das reveals how the State Department “pressured [the U.S. embassy in Chile] to take the dance drama off the program, arguing that it ‘clearly follows communist line propaganda and serves to create ill feeling toward the United States’” (157). Later State Department officials accused Dunham of “anti-Americanism” and censored Chiliean press coverage of the work” (160).] 

Another part of her engagement in these urban cities abroad is she connects to new parts of African diaspora. She had been to the Caribbean, but in Europe she connects to people from Africa, from the continent itself. That produces a new rich, cultural, and intellectual exchange. I think of Brent Edwards’s work about Paris as a kind of center of transnational diasporic creation. Paris is where she meets Léopold Senghor, first president of Senegal and creator of Negritude. So in Paris and in London she meets a lot of African intellectuals, and that helps enrich her understanding of the diaspora in a lot of ways.

Dunham spent nearly the last 40 years of her life in East St. Louis. How would you describe her influence in East St. Louis and the broader St. Louis metro region? Why did she choose East St. Louis?

The reality is she needed a job. Her brother-in-law worked at Southern Illinois University and said, “I can get you a job here.” She needed money. She came in 1964 to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, which is 100 miles away [from St. Louis]. She hated it. She’s used to living in these cosmopolitan urban centers: Paris, London, New York City. She fled, she went to Senegal for two years, but then she came back [in 1967]. She decided to stay because she just saw that there was a lot of need for some kind of cultural programming in the area. There was not even a movie theater in East St. Louis, the movie theater had shut down in 1959. There were very few opportunities for arts and culture. So she felt that she could make a difference.

The question about whether culture can solve systemic racism and poverty, it obviously can’t. When you look at statistics about East St. Louis, crime statistics or poverty statistics, those don’t change as a result of Dunham being here, but she changed the lives of many citizens here. People attest to the quality of their lives improving, and also helping people get out. Again, the question is, does that help the city? But it does help the citizens of that city. She helped a lot of people find a new path in life.

There is this concept I love: “performance geography.” In DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto (University of Ottawa Press 2010), Sonjah Stanley-Niiah uses performance geography:

to refer to a mapping of the material and spatial conditions of performance: entertainment and ritual in specific sites/venues, types of systems of use, the politics of their location in relation to other sites and other practices, the character of events/rituals in particular locations and the manner in which different performances and performers relate to each other within and across different cultures.

There is also the level of spatial philosophies that govern systems of use, boundaries and boundarylessness, gendered spaces, and the urban, and that form part of the rubric of performance geography. How do performances imprint themselves on space? What spatial identities do performances bear? How is the performative self to be defined in any given space? Are there distinctions to be made between the local and the global self in performance? (33)

How does this concept resonate with Dunham’s work?

I think of her performance geography as genuinely diasporic in the sense of living in the space in between. I think it would be very hard to replicate it today.

Why?

Because I think that today she would be accused of cultural appropriation. In order to give this very expansive sense of diaspora she had to choreograph so many dances that she set in places she had never been, and invoking dance forms she had never studied. At the time it was so much better than what was out there that it was totally okay, but today when … For example, I show students a piece of choreography called Batucada set in Brazil. She had not been to Brazil, she had not studied Brazilian dance. The musicians sing in Spanish instead of in Portuguese, for example. And I think that today that kind of performance would be seen as a version of cultural appropriation across national boundaries. But at the time, Dunham did it to create this broad vision and show the richness and wealth of the diaspora culturally.

Her performance geography was always trying to be as broad and inclusive as possible, and find spaces in between and celebrate the differences as well as similarities. She didn’t make each piece similar. It couldn’t be replicated in the same way today. I think the version that people do today is they do dialogic exchanges, so Urban Bush Women does a collaboration with Jant-Bi, a Senegalese dance company. They work together, they collaborate, they create what I would consider a diasporic performance through a collaborative model.

More broadly, how did Dunham’s choreography dialogue with her geographies and the politics of those geographies?  

She gets her start in Chicago, and the big thing she is doing there is bringing dance to the New Negro Movement, or the Chicago Black Renaissance. There is a growing little theater movement, there is obviously a great music scene in Chicago. This is the 1930s. As you know, kind of like Harlem Renaissance in 1920s and Chicago starts to get this creative artistic energy a little bit later coinciding with the Great Depression. So therefore it’s also slightly more explicitly political in orientation because the National Negro Congress that meets there is in dialogue with the Communist Party. There’s a little bit more of an activist bent to it explicitly. Obviously, the Harlem Renaissance is also political, but in this movement of the 1930s, out of which in the 1940s will come Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks. Dunham is bringing dance to the conversation. That’s how she is influencing Chicago urban culture.

In New York City in the 1940s she is challenging the whiteness of Broadway, not only through her shows, which are on Broadway, but also by putting her dance studio in Broadway’s theater district. Everyone expected her to put it in Harlem. She refuses. Then she is challenging what is considered the center of what you should do for your training in Broadway performance. It’s not just dancers who go to her dance studio in New York in the 1940s, it’s a lot of actors and other performers. Everyone who’s anyone in theater and dance scene. The founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Arthur Mitchell, said that it was just the “it” place to be in the late 1940s and early 1950s. So she’s really bringing in kind of Afro Caribbean culture, particularly to urban culture in New York.

A group of Katherine Dunham Dancers shown in mid-rehearsal in New York, Library of Congress, 1946

Had she gone to the Caribbean by then?

Yeah, she had gone to the Caribbean in the 30s and then went to Cuba in 1946. She’s obviously not solely responsible for bringing Cuban music to New York, but she is part of what helps popularize things that leads to the Mambo craze and things like that.

Those are the big two. Then, as we talked about, in Paris and London she’s engaging in these dialogues, then in East St Louis shes making these changes in the 60s.

Your own dance geography influences this book. You began your preface, writing:

I never met Katherine Dunham, but she shaped the course of my life. At age nine, I began to take jazz at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), a community arts center in University City, an “inner ring” suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. I had only a vague awareness that my theater, Lee Nolting, doubled as the ballet mistress for the Katherine Dunham Children’s Workshop across the river in East St. Louis. After taking a Dunham Technique class at age twelve with Lee’s husband, Darryl Braddix, I realized that many aspects of my jazz dance training, including our arm positions during warm-ups and our body-part isolations, came from Dunham Technique. … I was part of an organization with a mission to create community and challenge racial segregation” (5).

You grew up in St. Louis, lived in New York, and traveled to Haiti, Italy, and Maryland as part of writing the book. How did these urban localities, sometimes not urban, influence the writing of the book?

Well, going to Port-au-Prince, Haiti was very instructive because … I think that it might be one of the major differences between my book and previous books on Dunham is I am coming of age as a scholar at a time when there is a call for more diasporic thinking and thinking about the ways in which an American centric perspective can erase other perspectives. Going to Port-au-Prince and talking to people in Haiti, where I did a lot of interviews, was very helpful because there is a narrative from America about how important Dunham was for Haiti, how much good she did for Haiti, how wonderful she was, how much of an activist she was there, and that’s not necessarily the perspective of Haitians living there. I was clued into this by Mario Lamothe. He was the one who first told me, “You should really talk to Haitians about their perspective.” And so going to Port-au-Prince and actually talking to people of multiple generations was really helpful to see how she was perceived as an American, not always already as a fellow person of African descent. That was really helpful, and it helps give the book a slightly different frame rather than an America only frame.

Then I would say going to Carbondale, Illinois, which is where the archives were, was also very interesting because I could see why Dunham felt kind of panicky living there. It feels very rural, and it actually feels very Southern. Though Illinois technically was a free state, [southern Illinois] feels like the South, very much is the South. When I was living there for the summer, people wore Confederate flag belts. There has been documentation that there was actually slavery in Southern Illinois even though it was technically a free state. It helped me understand why Dunham at first felt kind of panicky being there. That was very helpful to understand her mentality and why East. St Louis is such a unique urban area. For anyone who hasn’t been there, it feels like it combines rural poverty with urban poverty.

What can we gain pedagogically from your book?

I’m hoping that it’s a model for how you can try to tell a broader story through one person’s life. That can always be tricky. Sometimes biography is seen as an old fashioned way of scholarship, or narrow, and I think that you can learn a lot about the nuances of a social movement or a historical question by looking at an individual person.

What might people interested in dance activism and art activism learn from Dunham’s work?

One thing they can learn is that you have a lifetime to achieve these goals. She lived at a time when the phrase self care was not around, but she engaged in a practice of knowing when to step back and let her creative spirit regenerate, and when to fully engage. There’s a point at which it gets too exhausting to fight racism and sexism every single day of your life while you’re on tour, while you’re trying to be creative, while you’re trying to find beauty in things. It can be really, really draining, and so having a generosity with yourself of finding ways to engage in activism, knowing when to give yourself time to regenerate your creative spirit, I think is something that is really important that I talk about in the book.

Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (2017) by Joanna Dee Das is available from Oxford University Press.