Sunday, February 19, 2012

Katherine Dunham, Rihanna, and Politics of the Collective

Eartha Kitt with Dunham dance group
By Danielle Hall

Entertainment is one of the most notable spaces that African Americans and black women especially, have been able to enter and break down barriers. So if African Americans dominate popular culture, one has to wonder why that space is sometimes characterized as “anti-intellectual” among white scholars, and high profile black women artists are labeled as “Rihanna and those hoochies”?

First, no matter what is meant in such a statement, black women are automatically implied. The word “hoochie” in and of itself is coded, and like “urban” or “ghetto,” it is an expression that society is most likely to link to black women, which perpetuates the sentiment of isolation and otherness.

Rihanna performing
This is not to say that misogynist rap, provocative dancing, or images of sex, drugs, and violence, among black women and women of color in general, as seen in the media, are not problematic. However, drawing such conclusions about pop culture purports a visceral elitism and patriarchy, among black and white scholars, that yet permeates the academy.

Completely dismissing popular culture by artists such as Rihanna should remind us that simply focusing on “respectable” narratives and aspects of black history and culture can be counterproductive. As Kali N. Gross states “it implies that the experiences and practices of the masses of African Americans are not worthy of our attention.”

Katherine Dunham was able to be both artist and intellectual. As an international icon throughout the 1940s and 50s, Dunham faced similar challenges that confront many black women today. She was sometimes slighted for being too “sultry.” Although she was highly educated, she was often not taken as seriously in the field of anthropology because much of her work took place outside of the academy.

The connections between Katherine Dunham and Rihanna lay in the blend of Caribbean rhythms and movements. Dunham traveled throughout the Caribbean (namely Jamaica, Trinidad, Martinique, and Haiti) to study African roots in dance and brought those elements back to American and international stages. Although I wouldn’t consider Rihanna an intellectual in the way that I view Dunham as one, I can’t negate her Barbadian heritage and her ability to transmit vital aspects of Afro-Caribbean culture in both her music and dance.

In our Black Studies program, we have been emphasizing the importance of the collective a lot lately, not only as it pertains to knowledge building and group solidarity, but particularly creating a space for sisterhood among young collegiate black women. If no one else values our work and our worth, we have to learn how to value each other.

Gross, Kali N. “Examining the Politics of Respectability in African American Studies,” Almanac. Volume 43 Number 28, April 1, 1997.
Danielle Hall is a program coordinator and contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE.  

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