Katherine Dunham: The Artist as Activist During World War II

Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) was a world-renowned choreographer who broke many barriers of race and gender, most notably as an African American woman whose dance company toured the United States, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Australia for several decades. In Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (Oxford, 2017), author Joanna Dee Das argues Dunham was more than a dancer; she was an intellectual and activist committed to using dance to fight for racial justice. At the same time, Dunham struggled to balance these social justice goals with her artistic career, financial needs, and personal desires. The following excerpt is the introduction to Chapter Four, which explores how Dunham navigated the growing expectations of celebrity during World War II.

In December 1944, Helen Vail of Windham, New York wrote Katherine Dunham a letter brimming with disappointment. Vail had recently attended her hit show, Tropical Revue, and was dismayed that “sex, sex, sex,” most often in “vulgar” form, had emerged as the dominant theme of the evening. In her opinion, Dunham had pandered to the worst stereotypes about black hypersexuality and promiscuity instead of committing herself to positive representation. Vail, who was white, claimed that she observed African Americans in the audience reacting as she had, with “varying expressions of hurt and shock and downright shame” on their faces. She concluded, “There are no two ways about it; you are an important member of your race…what you do will either help or hinder.”

Vail was not alone in scrutinizing Dunham’s actions for evidence of her contribution to the fight for racial equality. Over the course of the early 1940s, Dunham became a national race representative. Her appearances on Broadway, in Hollywood films, and on cross-country tours, coupled with the explosion of a national black press, made her a celebrity. She was charged with representing not only her race, but also her gender, placing her at the center of debates about what constituted the proper expression of a black woman’s sexuality. During World War II, Dunham’s aesthetics-as-politics approach was often reduced to a highly subjective and ever-shifting litmus test: did she represent African Americans (especially women) in a positive light?

“Representation” as a concept gained increasing prominence during World War II. The new global situation, in which the United States had a clear interest in disavowing Nazi Party rhetoric about creating a master race, provided an opening for African Americans to protest segregation and discrimination. US government officials and civic leaders preached tolerance and equality as inherently American values and thus were forced to become more responsive to pressure from civil rights organizations. Once the United States officially declared war in December 1941, black political leaders called for a “Double V” campaign: victory against fascism abroad and victory against racism at home. Central to the fight was the question of representation. As the war began to generate jobs for men and women from all sectors of society, the Popular Front language of economic rights gave way to a moral rhetoric about racism. While many on the political left continued to argue that racism was part of the worldwide exploitation of nonwhite peoples, a more mainstream belief emerged that racism was “aberrant Americanism.” The United States government explained away racism as an individualistic psychological issue that would end once ignorance abated. According to this logic, if white Americans saw racial minorities on stage and screen as smart, accomplished, and talented people, prejudice would eventually disappear.

For a black celebrity, the societal demand to represent the race spilled beyond the footlights and into daily life. During World War II, Dunham was a fixture not just on the arts page but also on the gossip page and the front page. Her decision to marry John Pratt, her white costume and set designer, had ramifications for how people perceived her commitment to racial justice. She also began to take decisive action against segregation. Whereas in May 1941 she had insisted to reporters that she was not political, her experiences with intense racism on national tours and in Hollywood from 1941 to 1943 galvanized her to protest existing conditions, turning her into an activist in a more traditional sense. She was strategic with her choices, adapting her methods to new situations. Sometimes she embraced the rhetoric of integration, while at other times she spoke of the need to create a strong African diasporic community. In press interviews she explained racism as a problem of individual prejudice; in private correspondence, she noted the structural inequalities that embedded racism deeply in American society. She was duly recognized at the time for her activism, if generally not by historians since.

Offstage, Dunham’s actions—such as suing a hotel for racial discrimination—were clearly understood. Onstage, what counted as activism was much more ambiguous, as she had to navigate changing contours of what constituted a positive or acceptable representation of black people, and particularly black womanhood. The sexual objectification of the black female body had been a cornerstone of anti-black racism for centuries. Laden with knowledge of this history, civil rights leaders in the early 1940s demanded conformity to middle-class gender respectability norms. Dunham also had to contend with a changing artistic climate, one in which dance critics and fellow artists who increasingly favored abstraction in concert dance began to discount her productions as pure entertainment.

For financial, political, and artistic reasons, Dunham at first refused to conform to respectability discourse or the trend toward abstraction. As someone who employed over twenty full-time dancers as well as musicians, stage managers, and administrative personnel, she did not have the range of choices that a solo performer might. Keeping dozens of people on payroll was itself a political act at a time when there was a dearth of jobs for black artists. With an awareness of the bottom line, she acquiesced to her producer Sol Hurok’s demands to make her revue more of a spectacular, multi-sensorial experience. But there was also agency in Dunham’s choices. Independently of Hurok, she grew bolder in bringing what she called “folk dominions” of expression to the stage, including more explicit performances of sexuality. On a deeper level, she embraced dance as a means to express the erotic—in Audre Lorde’s sense of the term—as a form of power. Rather than constantly recalibrate her shows to conform what counted as positive representation du jour, she pursued freedom of individual artistry. She created her own complex vision of the black world on the stage, depicting a range of cultures, situations, interpersonal conflicts, and personalities from scoundrels to saints and everything in between. She rejected simple ideas of good or bad images, even if her audiences could not always see past that binary model.

When Dunham did make a decisive artistic shift to appease activists and critics with her show Carib Song (1945), she received equal criticism. Her experience of encountering opposition at every turn was later echoed by Frantz Fanon, who recounted in his book Black Skin, White Masks (1952) that every tactic he tried to combat white supremacist ideas about blackness ended in failure. Nonetheless, Dunham refused to give up. Her efforts to balance competing demands have reverberated throughout the decades and into the twenty-first century, where parallel figures such as Beyoncé have been the subject of similar controversies about the intersection of black female sexuality, obligation to represent the race, political activism, personal artistic freedom, and commercial success.

Reprinted with permission from Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora, by Joanna Dee Das, published by Oxford University Press. © Joanna Dee Das, 2017.

Joanna Dee Das, who received her PhD in History from Columbia University, is an assistant professor of dance at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on the intersection of race, politics, and performance in the United States and the African Diaspora. She has published an article on Dunham’s activism in East St. Louis for the Journal of Urban History and has an essay on Dunham’s contributions to the decolonization movement forthcoming in Thomas F. DeFrantz’s edited anthology Dancing the African Diaspora (Duke). She has two new research projects in the works. The first examines the symbolic and political uses of African dance in American musical theater from the 1890s to the present. The second is a cultural history of Branson, Missouri, one of the United States’ most popular tourist destinations.