Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Friday, March 5, 2010

Katherine Dunham, High Priestess of Dance

International Women's Day

“A lioness does not need to roar to keep the crowd in awe.” (Africa)

Katherine Dunham

As a child who yearned to be a dancer, I was familiar with Katherine Dunham and her School of Cultural Arts. Eartha Kitt studied there, as well as Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando. In addition, Dunham created the Dunham Technique, a style that is currently taught in dance schools. I recently came across a newspaper photograph of Dunham teaching her style in Jamaica.

It was no wonder then that I grew up thinking Dunham was a Caribbean woman. Like fellow anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, Dunham studied African roots of Black culture. Dunham lived for several months in the Maroon community of Accompong, and experience she described in her book, “Journey to Accompong”. Her study of the African Shango led her to Martinique and Trinidad and Tobago, as a result of which she choreographed her “Shango” dance.

Dunham retained a connection with Haiti throughout her life. She researched Vodou rituals for her thesis, “Dances of Haiti, Their Social Organization, Classification, Form and Function". Dunham was also initiated as a Vodou priestess. Her close friend, Dumarsais Estime, became the President of Haiti. She remained supportive when he was overthrown and exiled to Jamaica. As recently as 1992, Dunham went on 47-day hunger strike to protest the United States foreign policy of discriminating against Haitian boat people. President Jean Bertrand Aristide recognized her principled position by awarding her Haiti’s highest honor, and by terming her “Spiritual Mother of Haiti.”

She visited Haiti for long periods of time, and in the 1940s she bought property there containing a spring that is sacred in Vodou. Dunham provided free medical services on her property for poor Haitian people. Today, despite the arid nature of most of Haiti, that property remains a mini-forest.

Dunham holds a special place in my heart for her activism, and for her refusal to comply with Jim Crow laws. She once refused to perform after she discovered that Black residents could not buy tickets for her show. One of her pieces created controversy because it dramatized the lynching of Blacks in the South. She refused to sign a Hollywood contract that would have required her darker-skinned members to be replaced.

She died in May 2006 at age 96.

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

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Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at