Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-59b7f5684b-qn7h5 Total loading time: 0.269 Render date: 2022-10-05T03:48:07.766Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "displayNetworkTab": true, "displayNetworkMapGraph": false, "useSa": true } hasContentIssue true

Plantation, Archive, Stage: Trans(post)colonial Intimations in Katherine Dunham’s L’Ag’ya and Little Black Sambo

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2015

Ananya Jahanara Kabir*
King’s College London


This article assesses the African American dancer and intellectual Katherine Dunham’s vision and legacy for a performative history of the Black Atlantic by examining two of her early choreographic works, L’Agya and Little Black Sambo. From little-known archival materials and her published writings, I reconstruct the genesis of these works in her fieldwork in the French Caribbean as well as in the phantasm of the Plantation. Through the emotional relationships between Africa, “Africa,” and African diasporic expressive life that emerge, I excavate a hidden history for the modern subject as formed through not only the displacements generated by colonialism and slavery, but also unexpected new regimes of pleasure that were their historical consequences. The resulting imaginative and kinetic expressions that conflate colonial and postcolonial temporalities enable me to posit the limits and possibilities of “trans(post)colonial collaborations” within Dunham’s repertoire as well as for the horizon of the present.

© Cambridge University Press 2015 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Archival research for this essay was conducted through funding provided by an ERC Advanced Research Grant for the project “Modern Moves.” An early version was also presented at the Imperial and World History Seminar of the Institute of Historical Research, University of London; I thank Richard Drayton for facilitating this occasion. Thanks also to Elina Djebbari for help transcribing some of the Creole and French lyrics in the Dunham papers, and to the staff of the Morris Special Collections at the Southern Illinois University Library.


1 See the timeline of Dunham’s life provided by the Library of Congress: (Accessed February 10, 2015). Léopold Senghor, poet, philosopher, cocreator of the concept of “négritude” and first president of Senegal, was a close friend of Dunham’s since their first meeting in Paris in the 1940s: see Aschenbrenner, Joyce, Katherine Dunham: Dancing a Life (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002)Google Scholar, 117. On the First Festival of Negro Arts, see Ficquet, Éloi and Gallimardet, Lorraine, “‘On ne peut nier longtemps l’art nègre’: Enjeux du colloque et de l’exposition du Premier Festival mondial des arts nègres de Dakar en 1966,Gradhiva 10 (2009), 134155 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The festival is little discussed in Anglophone scholarship, but see Dunham, Katherine, “Address Delivered at the Dakar Festival of Negro Arts,Kaiso!: Writings by and about Katherine Dunham, eds.,” Katherine Dunham, Vèvè A. Clark, and Sara East Johnson (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 412417 Google Scholar.

2 Dunham, Katherine, Island Possessed (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1969)Google Scholar.

3 See Melville Herskovits’s early work, e.g. The Myth of the Negro Past (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990; first published 1941). After Dunham returned from her fieldwork, she switched to studying under Robert Redfield at the University of Chicago.

4 Dunham, , Island Possessed, 117140 Google Scholar. This account, which takes up its seventh chapter, concludes the first of the book’s two sections.

5 Osumare, Halifu, “Dancing the Black Atlantic: Katherine Dunham’s Research-to-Performance Method,” AmeriQuests 7.2 (2010): 112 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 1. See also Manning, Susan, “Modern Dance, Negro Dance and Katherine Dunham,” Textual Practice 15.3 (2001): 487505 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 495–96.

6 Johnson, Sara E., The Fear of French Negroes: Transcolonial Collaboration in the Revolutionary Americas (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2012)Google Scholar, 139. In a recent anthology of “Black Performance Theory,” there is only one mention of Dunham’s work—within the larger context of discussing African-derived spirituality in the work of African American concert dancers: see Paris, Carl, “Reading ‘Spirit’ and the Dancing Body in the Choreography of Ronald K. Brown and Reggie Wilson,” in Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez, eds., Black Performance Theory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), pp.99–114Google Scholar, at 102.

7 Daniel, Yvonne, Dancing Wisdom: Embodied Knowledge in Haitian Vodou, Cuban Yoruba, and Bahian Candomblé (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

8 Burt, Ramsay, “Hospitality and Translation in Katherine Dunham’s L'Ag’Ya,Proceedings [of the] Twenty-Sixth Annual Conference, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland, June 26–29, 2003 (Birmingham: AL: Society of Dance History Scholars, 2003), 811 Google Scholar, at 8.

9 As reminisced a peer: “As we drudged away at the university, condemned by lack of artistic talent and beauty to become academics, we did not look at her with envy but with admiration, not only for her professional skill but also for being able to parlay a year of successful fieldwork in anthropology on a Rosenwald grant into the launching of a stage career.” (St. Clair Drake, “Honoring Katherine Dunham, 26th May 1976,” Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al, 572–77, at 575). On her fieldwork experiences (both personal and intellectual), apart from the candid yet guarded accounts of Island Possessed, see Dunham, Katherine, Katherine Dunham’s Journey to Accompong (Westport, CT: Negro Universities Press, 1971)Google Scholar. For Dunham’s struggles during the Depression, see her essay, “Survival: Chicago after the Caribbean,” Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 85–125, and Box 2 (Correspondence) of the Dunham Papers held in Southern Illinois University. On Dunham and the male anthropologists, see Katherine Dunham, “The Anthropological Approach to the Dance,” Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 508–13, at 509.

10 There is no mention of Little Black Sambo in the list of choreographed works prepared by Dunham herself for Appendix 1, Dunham et al., ed., Kaiso, 633–37, although at least one performance of this piece did take place in Chicago on August 29, 1938. See the review in The Chicago Defender, September 3, 1938, 19.

11 See Accessed February 10, 2015, for details of the archive’s holdings.

12 I visited Port-au-Prince, Haiti, during November 2013 to attend the Association of Haitian Studies’ annual conference and conduct research into social dance practices in Haiti.

13 See the project website at Accessed February 10, 2015.

14 Hartman, Saidiya, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)Google Scholar, 7, 21.

15 Roach, Joseph, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996)Google Scholar, 24.

16 See Kabir, Ananya Jahanara, “Oceans, Cities, Islands: Sites and Routes of Afro-Diasporic Rhythm Cultures,” Atlantic Studies 11.1 (2014): 106124 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s famous declaration, “the unity is submarine,” see his “Caribbean Man in Space and Time,” Savacou 11.12 (1975): 1–11, at 7.

17 Taylor, Diana, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 An approach I already formulated in Ananya Jahanara Kabir, “Reading Between the Lines: Whitley Stokes, Scribbles, and the Scholarly Apparatus,” The Tripartite Life of Whitley Stokes (1830–1909) ed. Paul Russell (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011), 78–97.

19 Aschenbrenner, Katherine Dunham, 49.

20 Ibid.

21 For more on the structure of L’Ag’ya, see Clark, VèVè A., “Katherine Dunham’s Tropical Revue,Black American Literature Forum 16.4 (1982), 147152 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Thompson, Robert Farris, “Black Martial Arts of the Caribbean,” Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas 20.37 (1987): 4447 Google Scholar.

23 Smith, Cecil, “Federal Dance Project Gives First Program,” Chicago Tribune, January 28, 1938 Google Scholar.

24 Buckle, Richard, ed. Katherine Dunham, her Dancers, Singers, Musicians (London: Ballet Publications, 1949)Google Scholar, x.

25 Alan S. Kriegsman, “Ailey Does Dunham,” Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 595–97.

26 Aschenbrenner, Katherine Dunham, 114–15.

27 See Manning, “Negro Dance.”

28 Stinson, Eugene, “Music Views, Some Dancing,” Chicago Daily News, February 3, 1938 Google Scholar. Cited in Aschenbrenner, Katherine Dunham, 114.

30 Aschenbrenner, Katherine Dunham, 117: “The costumes of ‘L’Ag’Ya,’ though imaginatively conceived by Pratt, included authentic hats, designs, and materials she had brought back from the Caribbean.”

31 Ibid., 114–15.

32 In the words of one of her principal dancers, Vanoye Aitkens: “the hardest, not the most difficult, but the most demanding would have been years of doing L’Ag’ya. L’Ag’ya is three acts, and I had a great response because of that fight at the end. It had to look realistic. I didn’t look forward to the death scene because I’m there, getting my last breath. I perspired like a dog, and winter, summer, spring, or fall, I had pools of water—even in Columbia in freezing weather. That was really burdensome and there was no one else to do that part except me. Do you understand? No one, ever. I had no understudy.” (VèVè A. Clark, “On Stage with the Dunham Company: An interview with Vanoye Aitkens,” Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 274–87, at 283); Julie Robinson Belafonte, wife of Harry, principal dancer of Dunham Company in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, said she loved dancing in L’Ag’ya’s zombie scene (VèVè A. Clark, “An Anthropological Band of Beings: An Interview with Julie Robinson Belafonte,” Ibid., 364–81, at 374).

33 Clark, “On Stage,” in Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 244.

34 Cyrille, Dominique O., “The Politics of Quadrille Performance in Nineteenth-Century Martinique,” Dance Research Journal (2006): 4360 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for an overview of the Afro-diasporic transformation of European set dances including those mentioned in this notebook—the mazurka, the polka, and the beguine, see Szwed, John F. and Marks, Morton, “The Afro-American Transformation of European Set Dances and Dance Suites,” Dance Research Journal (1988): 2936 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 For a useful discussion of the “bele” (from the French “bel air”; Creole spellings vary, as Dunham’s own jottings illustrate), see Johnson, , Fear of French Negroes, 149155 Google Scholar.

36 Dunham, “Survival,” Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 97.

37 Aschenbrenner, Katherine Dunham, 63–64.

38 Dunham, “Dunham Technique Prospectus,” Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 529–35, at 534.

39 See Box 48 (Manuscripts) of the Dunham Papers. Where necessary, I have inserted translations into English within square brackets.

40 See Dunham, “Survival,” Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 113. “These stories…were the first to be published in Esquire either by a woman or by a black writer.” (Aschenbrenner, Katherine Dunham, 107). “Les Pêcheurs,” later titled “Promenade to the Ocean,” also appeared in Esquire.

42 Ibid.

43 Dunham, “Survival,” Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 97.

44 Dunham, “L’Ag’ya,” Box 48, The Dunham Papers. The version published in Esquire is reproduced as “L’Ag’ya of Martinique,” in Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 201–07.

45 Dunham, “Les Pêcheurs,” Box 48, The Dunham Papers.

46 Dunham, “Survival,” Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 97.

47 Dunham, “Les Pêcheurs.”

48 Dunham, “Survival,” Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 99.

49 On syncopation and African music, see Agawu, Kofi, Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions (New York and London: Routledge, 2014), 5597 Google Scholar.

50 Bhabha, Homi, “Sly Civility,The Location of Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), 132144 Google Scholar; Mbembé, Achille and Rendall, Steven, “African Modes of Self-Writing,” Public Culture 14.1 (2002): 239273 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the psychological implications of sumptuary codes under slavery, see Roach, Joseph, “Sweating Blood: Intangible Heritage and Reclaimed Labor in Caribbean New Orleans,” Performance Research 13.4 (2008): 140148 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

51 Taussig, Michael, Mimesis and Alterity (New York and London: Routledge, 1993)Google Scholar, 21.

52 James, C. L. R., The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 2001)Google Scholar, 19.

53 Ibid., 14–19.

54 On Afro-diasporic kinetic resistance, see Fryer, Peter, Rhythms of Resistance: African Heritage Music in Brazil (London: Pluto Press, 2000)Google Scholar, on maroons, see now Roberts, Neil, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

55 Dunham, “L’Ag’ya,” Box 48 (Manuscripts), The Dunham Papers.

56 For an excellent reconstruction of this moment, see Burt, “Hospitality,” 10.

57 Note the illustration of a stylized pitchfork on the cover of the 1999 album Madjoumbe by the Martinican roots music group Malavoi. Thanks to John Armstrong for this information (personal communication, September 2014).

58 Dunham, “Survival,” Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 97.

59 The Chicago Defender, September 3, 1938, 19.

60 I use this sense of the “graphic” after Fred Moten’s articulation of the dialectic between the “graphic” and the “kinetic” as illuminating African American aesthetics. See his In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

61 Box 48 (Manuscripts), The Dunham Papers.

62 Hay, Elizabeth, Sambo Sahib: The Story of Little Black Sambo and Helen Bannerman (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1981), 2427 Google Scholar. Many editions of Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo exist. For this essay, I used a number of early editions published successively from 1899 onward.

63 Yuill, Phyllis J., Little Black Sambo: A Closer Look (New York: Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1976), 48 Google Scholar, at 7.

64 Hartman, Saidiya, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in 19th c America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)Google Scholar, 31, n. 49.

65 A history reappropriated by Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972); see the discussion by Barbara Browning, Infectious Rhythm: Metaphors of Contagion and the Spread of African Culture (New York: Routledge, 1998), 12, 13, and passim.

66 Hay, , Sambo Sahib, 155175 Google Scholar.

67 Yuill, , Little Black Sambo, 9 Google Scholar.

68 Hughes, Langston, “Books and the Negro Child,Children’s Library Yearbook 4 (1932), 108110 Google Scholar. For the history of Little Black Sambo’s North American reception, see Yuill, , Little Black Sambo, 43 Google Scholar, and also Hay, , Sambo Sahib, 153159 Google Scholar. For the friendship between Dunham and Hughes, see Aschenbrenner, Katherine Dunham, 25.

69 Jodi Van Der Horn-Gibson, “Dismantling Americana: Sambo, Shirley Graham, and African Nationalism,” American Popular Culture 7.1 (2008). Accessible at Accessed February 10, 2015.

70 Yuill, , Little Black Sambo, 12 Google Scholar.

71 Van der Horn-Gibson, “Dismantling Americana” (n.p.).

72 Dunham, “Little Black Sambo,” Box 48 (Manuscripts), The Dunham Papers.

73 The Spectator, Deccember 2, 1899, quoted in Hay, Sambo Sahib, 28.

74 Hay, , Sambo Sahib, 29 Google Scholar.

75 Ibid., illustration 44.

76 Banham spent a part of her childhood in Madeira, though. See Hay, , Sambo Sahib, 47 Google Scholar.

77 See Chaudhary, Zahid R., Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

78 Mbembe, Achille, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15.1 (2003): 1140 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

79 Benítez-Rojo, Antonio, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean in Postmodern Perspective (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997)Google Scholar, 85.

80 Benítez-Rojo, , Repeating Island, 106 Google Scholar.

81 All quotes are from Dunham, “Little Black Sambo,” Box 48 (Manuscripts), The Dunham Papers.

82 The “coolie” is a transnational economic migrant of South Asian origin whose labor was physical. For a philosophical recapture of this originally derogatory term, see Torabully, Khal and Carter, Marina, Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora (New York: Anthem Books, 2002)Google Scholar.

83 Johnson, , Fear of French Negroes, 144 Google Scholar.

84 Ibid., 123.

85 Ibid., 143.

86 Ibid., 123; Browning, Infectious Rhythms.

87 Best explicated in Dunham, “The Negro Dance,” The Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes, eds. Sterling A. Brown, Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses Lee (New York: Dryden Press, 1941), 990–1000. Also reproduced in Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 217–27.

88 Dunham, “Survival,” Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 98.

89 Ibid., 98.

90 See Aschenbrenner, Katherine Dunham, 105–37; VèVè A. Clark, “Designing Dunham: John Pratt’s Method in Costume and Décor: an Interview with John Pratt,” Kaiso, eds. Dunham et al., 208–10.

91 This process is already visible in the work of Dunham’s student, the Trinidadian dancer Geoffrey Holder, particularly his masterpiece of 1974 created for the Dance Theater of Harlem, Dougla (a Hindustani term that in the Caribbean indicates the offspring of Indian and African heritage parents).

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Plantation, Archive, Stage: Trans(post)colonial Intimations in Katherine Dunham’s L’Ag’ya and Little Black Sambo
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Plantation, Archive, Stage: Trans(post)colonial Intimations in Katherine Dunham’s L’Ag’ya and Little Black Sambo
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Plantation, Archive, Stage: Trans(post)colonial Intimations in Katherine Dunham’s L’Ag’ya and Little Black Sambo
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *