Thursday, May 25, 2006

RIP Katherine Dunham: Cultural Pioneer

I'll never forget meeting Mrs. Katherine Dunham in her home in East St. Louis during college. (There was a time when I was in the devastated city nearly every weekend as part of my City Planning studies at the University of Illinois). That day we were there to help clean up her back yard, and help create a park nearby. She had arranged a BBQ for us, and when we met hers she was as warm, graceful and beautiful as anyone I had ever met.

Her contribution to anthropology and dance is indisputable. Her connection to the Afro-Latin and Caribbean diaspora was a revelation. For her endeavors, Dunham received 10 honorary doctorates, the Presidential Medal of the Arts, the Albert Schweitzer Prize at the Kennedy Center Honors, and membership in the French Legion of Honor, as well as major honors from Brazil and Haiti.

But Dunham's contribution to humanity is perhaps her greatest legacy. She talked justice everywhere she went, and was not afraid of making waves. In 1992, she embarked on a risky 47-day hunger strike in response to our country's policy on Haiti, which sent rafter back to a civil war, rather than treat them like the refugees they were. At the time Clinton was also undecided about what to do about the right-wing coup that had ousted President Aristide. When Jesse Jackson joined Dunham, Clinton finally caved and re-installed Aristide with the support of US gunboats.

The end of her life is instructive in how America treats its royalty. Working to try to get people in East St. Louis into something positive and explore culture, she set up a museum and cultural center. Soon however, Reagan arrived and funding dried up. There was a constant battle to pay her bills and generous contributions from celebrities like Harry Belefonte kept things going, albeit scaled back. She lived her last 2 decades in poverty, struggling to pay each Bill. "She didn't end up on the street though she was one step from it," Ottley said. "She has been on the edge and survived it all with dignity and grace."


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