Friday, January 18, 2013

An intellectual history of Katherine Dunham

By Danielle Hall

The thesis project that I have been working on is charting an intellectual history of Katherine Dunham during the years 1928-1945. Many people are familiar with Katherine Dunham as a pioneering dancer and choreographer, but very little is known or discussed about her formative years as a student of anthropology at the University of Chicago and as a major figure of the Black Chicago Renaissance.

One of the reasons that I am working on this project is because I want to contribute to the field of African American history, but especially to the history of black women. As an African American woman and developing scholar, I feel that it’s necessary to have a project that highlights the lives and experiences of black women because too often our stories and experiences are overlooked or undocumented. Equally important to me was having a project where I could see myself in it. Even though Dunham’s experiences may have happened over fifty years ago I still find similarities between us and that’s always inspiring.

Because there has been a continued and growing interest in black women’s history especially, and black women’s intellectualism in particular, I view my project as one that contributes to the field, but extends the conversation. This is notable because typically when one talks about American intellectuals; it’s dominated by mostly white men. When we talk about black intellectuals, there’s Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Malcolm X and other black male scholars, writers and activists. To speak and acknowledge black women intellectuals has been an uncanny concept in both theory and practice.

Of course, in more recent scholarship, there’s been writings about Anna Julia Cooper, Maria Stewart, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Zora Neale Hurston to name a few. However, in my preliminary research I was drawn to Katherine Dunham because she expanded the notion of what an intellectual is, who could be considered, and the type of work that they do. Studying Dunham in this way requires me to think outside of the box—so not only am I looking at her published writings, but also her ballet programs, photos, dance and choreography as viable texts as well.

If there ever truly is a way to wrap up my work on Dunham, I always make it my goal to make 21st century connections. Sometimes I ask what would Dunham do or think about certain aspects of today’s youth and culture or I find ways to merge my research on Dunham with other interests like hip hop or basketball. This not only gives me the opportunity to be creative and offer new perspectives, but it allows me to reach a broader audience that may not be as familiar with Dunham.

Danielle Hall is a program coordinator and contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE.  

Research Projects on African American Women

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