Editor’s note: This essay, one of five in a line-up, complements the theme of this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), ‘Mean Streets: Viewing the Divided City Through the Lens of Film and Television,’ presented Nov. 11-13 at the Missouri History Museum. Find a full schedule of this year’s SLIFF offerings here.
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The first misunderstanding between me and my husband about our new home arose when we sat down to change our address. It was July 2016, and we had just moved from Philadelphia to St. Louis. I was moving back after an absence of 15 years, returning to a place where I had spent my entire childhood; in contrast, my husband had grown up in New Jersey and had lived his adult life thus far in the Northeast. I glanced over at his laptop as he typed our new address on Amazon’s Account Information page. “Why are you putting down Clayton?” I asked. “We live in St. Louis.”
“We live in Clayton,” he responded. “We do not live in the city of St. Louis.”
“True, Clayton is our municipality,” I said. “But we all live in St. Louis. The US Postal Service even prefers that everyone writes St. Louis.” He looked at me strangely. “I have never heard of something like this,” he said.
Almost two years earlier, in August 2014, I had experienced a similar disconnect. I was in the midst of transitioning to a new job at Stanford University when the shooting of Michael Brown occurred. National and international news exploded with photographs, videos, and commentary about the protests that followed. For me, Brown’s death was a St. Louis story. For the nation, it had happened in Ferguson. In fact, “Ferguson” stood in for the entire sequence of events that ricocheted after the shooting and even symbolized a new phase in the long Black Freedom Struggle that began centuries ago. Like many other universities across the country, Stanford quickly arranged an event about Ferguson, which I attended that October. When activist, rapper, and St. Louisan Tef Poe took the microphone to explain the context of the protests, I finally felt confirmation that my way of thinking was not completely in error. He began, “You see, in St. Louis—and you have to understand, Ferguson is St. Louis…”
The paradox of our divided city is that Brown’s death occurred simultaneously in Ferguson and in St. Louis. Ferguson has its own specific story and technically lies outside the city limits, but its story is inextricably intertwined with a metropolitan story. St. Louis is a city surrounded by a county that shares its name, a county divided into a bewildering number of municipalities. Urban development, guided by legally-sanctioned, racist housing policies and districting regulations, fractured the region yet tied the fate of those fractured parts to each other.
What can suture those fractures and help us see St. Louis as a whole? As I think about the new documentary film about the stepping team at the Riverview Gardens High School, Gentlemen of Vision, I think about the power of the arts to reach across divides and to express possibilities for new futures. Specifically, my mind turns to choreographer, dancer, educator, scholar, and activist Katherine Dunham. As an African-American woman, Dunham broke several barriers of race and gender during her 30-year performing career from the early 1930s to the early 1960s. She founded what many considered to be the first black dance company in the United States and was also an accomplished anthropologist with a degree from the University of Chicago. Her choreography fused African diasporic dances that she had learned during her ethnographic research in the Caribbean with ballet and modern dance techniques. She toured six continents, appeared in Hollywood films such as Stormy Weather, and performed in several successful Broadway shows. Through her choreography, she created a vision of the African diaspora on the stage, showing the connections among communities in Cuba, Brazil, the United States, and Africa.
When her dance company folded in 1964, Dunham transitioned from performance to education. A unique opportunity came from her brother-in-law, Davis Pratt, who taught at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He arranged to have Dunham choreograph a production of Faust for SIU students, with the intention that she would stay on to start a dance program. Instead of staying in Carbondale, however, she turned her sights to another southern Illinois city over 100 miles away: East St. Louis.
The city seemed ripe for a change. Deindustrialization had devastated East St. Louis after World War II. Dozens of factories closed, leaving many residents unemployed. Financing for schools, sanitation, and other public services declined throughout the 1950s. In 1959, the only movie theater in town closed. In addition to the economic turmoil, federal housing policies that supported discriminatory lending practices for mortgages contributed to the flight of white, middle-class residents. City government, including the police force, remained notoriously corrupt. Older black residents focused on church and family as sources of community strength, but a younger generation began to protest against the entrenched racism and lack of opportunity.
To anyone who asked, Dunham repeated a consistent message: training in the performing arts prepared people to face life’s problems. Too often, she felt, individuals wandered through life unaware of how the world worked and how they fit into it.
Dunham first applied to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) for a grant to open a “Cultural Enrichment Center” in 1965. To anyone who asked, Dunham repeated a consistent message: training in the performing arts prepared people to face life’s problems. Too often, she felt, individuals wandered through life unaware of how the world worked and how they fit into it. They lacked understanding of humankind’s basic emotional and spiritual needs, which included connecting with the divine, communicating with others across racial, ethnic, linguistic, class, or gender differences, and releasing emotional energy through music and dance. Without such artistic channels for catharsis, individuals were “badly equipped” for the “problems of living.” Dunham believed that African Americans had a particularly difficult time breaking out of their social position as an oppressed minority in the United States. Nowhere was this truer than in East St. Louis. Dunham commented to a local paper, “I look on East St. Louis as a sort of outpost in the world” and told the reporter that East St. Louis’s main problem was its “isolation”—even though the city was less than a half-mile drive across a bridge to St. Louis. Her solution was to radically reframe how East St. Louisans saw themselves: not as residents of an impoverished industrial cross-border appendage of St. Louis, but rather as a part of a global majority of people of color with a rich cultural legacy. Therefore, she would focus her Center on the cultural practices of the African diaspora.
Dunham commented to a local paper, “I look on East St. Louis as a sort of outpost in the world” and told the reporter that East St. Louis’s main problem was its “isolation”—even though the city was less than a half-mile drive across a bridge to St. Louis. Her solution was to radically reframe how East St. Louisans saw themselves: not as residents of an impoverished industrial cross-border appendage of St. Louis, but rather as a part of a global majority of people of color with a rich cultural legacy.
Dunham’s 1965 application was denied. The OEO, a relatively new part of the federal government, still felt uncertain about how, exactly, the arts could alleviate poverty. Two years later, however, the government changed its tune. The Watts Rebellion in August 1965, the riots in Cleveland, San Francisco, and Chicago in the summer of 1966, and the growing number of youth signing on to Stokely Carmichael’s declaration of Black Power signaled that existing federal programs in America’s urban centers were not working. The government was now willing to give Dunham’s program a chance. In June 1967, with funds from the St. Clair County OEO branch and SIU, Dunham opened the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC). It offered free classes in Primitive Rhythms, Dunham Technique, Introductory Percussion, Advanced Percussion, Music Evaluation, Film Evaluation, and Anatomy of Motion, taught by quality professionals, including several of Dunham’s former company members.
Dunham expertly spoke multiple languages at once to gain support for PATC. To East St. Louis youth, she spoke of Black Power and Africentric education; she attended meetings of various militant groups and offered both financial and emotional support. Most importantly, she lived right on 10th Street in East St. Louis itself instead of commuting from across the river. To government and non-profit agencies, she spoke the language of liberal integration. She assured officials that the main goal of her program was to “help build communication across the white/black, rich/poor divisions of our society.” In 1968, the Rockefeller Foundation gave Dunham a $100,000 grant, stating that PATC was “an important experiment in determining the extent to which the arts can help to solve the social problems of the urban ghettos.” She could bring together different constituencies often in opposition.
Within a year of opening PATC, Dunham founded the PATC Performing Company, recognizing that performance opportunities gave students concrete goals. She choreographed new dances to reflect the lives of her students. One dance was Ode to Taylor Jones, which eulogized a young political activist from East St. Louis who had recently died in a car accident. In Taylor Jones, the chorus sang lines such as, “Ol’ white power’s given out/While Black has just begun” and “Taylor Jones was never bought/In life or after never caught/All they could find in that last hour/Was one small button/‘Black Power.’” By penning these lyrics, Dunham demonstrated that she understood and respected the concerns of black youth.
Dunham’s 1965 application was denied. … The Watts Rebellion in August 1965, the riots in Cleveland, San Francisco, and Chicago in the summer of 1966, and the growing number of youth signing on to Stokely Carmichael’s declaration of Black Power signaled that existing federal programs in America’s urban centers were not working. The government was now willing to give Dunham’s program a chance.
Taylor Jones also reminded East St. Louisans of their connection to a wider world. The opening speech commented on Jones’ importance for “human rights,” linking his political activities to revolutionary movements across the globe. At one point, the musicians began playing Haitian rhythms that invoked the loas (spirits in the Haitian religion of Vodou) who signify death. In response to the drums, the dancers expressed grief through ritualized Haitian movement. Taylor Jones both addressed a topic of deep personal relevance and introduced audiences to other African diasporic cultural traditions surrounding death. This dance was not the only way Dunham encouraged intercultural communication at PATC. Between 1968 and 1970, she hired drummers Zakariyah Diouf and Mor Thiam of Senegal, sculptor Paul Osifo of Nigeria, dramatist Muthal Naidoo of South Africa, and anthropologist Ena Campbell of Jamaica to teach. Dunham empowered her students by connecting them to a broader world.
The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968 was an important test for PATC. King’s murder triggered riots across the country, and the unrest spread to East St. Louis. One of Dunham’s students, age 13, purchased two .22 rifles. Shootings and the launching of hand grenades occurred routinely on the streets outside her house. In an effort to stop the violence, she became directly involved with militant groups to channel their energies into the arts and redirected PATC funds to support them. She asked, for example, that one $3,000 fee paid to the Performing Company be sent to the Black Liberators Bail Bond Fund. She also arranged for the Performing Company to put on a benefit performance at the Gateway Theater in St. Louis to help needy families of East St. Louis. Emory Link, professor of Urban Studies at SIU, told the Rockefeller Foundation, “‘Thank God for Katherine Dunham—she has been the one who so far staved off disaster.”
By 1970, between 200 and 300 students took PATC classes at the main building, another 1,400 through neighborhood community centers or public schools, another 1,000 (preschoolers) through Head Start, and 200 through the Concentrated Employment Program. Ruby Streate remembers that era as one where “everyone,” from toddlers to adults, was taking a dance or drumming class at PATC. Dunham’s daughter recalled, “I cannot tell you how many times young men came up to me to say, ‘If your mother hadn’t come, I’d be dead.’” Darryl Braddix was one such young man. When he first met Dunham, he had dropped out of high school and was selling drugs. After taking classes at PATC and joining the Performing Company, he became a successful dance teacher and fireman.
In addition to shaping the lives of East St. Louis residents, the PATC, through its outreach arm of the PATC Performing Company, had an impact throughout the Midwest. The Performing Company was flooded with performance requests from K-12 schools, historically black colleges and universities, black student and cultural organizations, and other groups in multiple states during the late 1960s and early 1970s. They traveled extensively to accommodate as many of these invitations as possible. Dunham was notorious for her fearlessness. Wherever there seemed to be violence or controversy, she would take the Performing Company. Former members recall dancing in Kansas City in front of Ku Klux Klan protesters and in Cairo, Illinois, amid gun violence. They also took part in symbolically important events for the Black Arts Movement. In January 1970, for example, the Company danced at the gala opening of the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta.
Dunham was notorious for her fearlessness. Wherever there seemed to be violence or controversy, she would take the Performing Company. Former members recall dancing in Kansas City in front of Ku Klux Klan protesters and in Cairo, Illinois, amid gun violence.
Community response to these shows was overwhelmingly positive. Youth, teachers, and administrators wrote enthusiastic thank-you letters after the performances. “You pricked our consciences, stirred our complacencies and lifted our spirits in a single evening,” one woman from the now-defunct Catholic Marillac College of St. Louis wrote. “I learned a lot about African culture that I didn’t know before,” wrote a high school student. “Your organization has brought so much happiness, cultural training and education as well as entertainment to St. Louis, East St. Louis and our entire area…I often wonder what it was like before Mrs. Dunham came here and developed the center,” mused a member of the Berea Presbyterian Church.” Through its inspiring and exhilarating dancing, the Performing Company left an indelible imprint on the collective well-being of African Americans throughout the Midwest, especially in the St. Louis region.
Despite her successes, Dunham faced opposition from some funding agencies that did not understand her mission. A 1970 report from the local Model Cities Agency on PATC commented, the “larger range of characteristics that constitute Black Culture, derived from the Ghetto, from slave days and southern traditions, from the reaction to urbanization, and from poverty and deprivation may be hindrances to the goals of most Blacks for upward mobility.” The report linked black culture with a culture of poverty, implying that African American cultural traditions, far from being rich and vibrant, were pathologically detrimental. In contrast to these officials, Dunham saw education in black culture as the key to upward social mobility for East St. Louis youth. But the Model City Agency’s attitude revealed one cause of dwindling financial support for PATC as the 1970s progressed: a skepticism that culture could solve major urban problems. Indeed, PATC could not fix East St. Louis’ poverty, unemployment, and violent crime rates, which remain to this day among the highest in the country. The institution, however, improved the quality of people’s lives—not an insignificant fact. Eric Klinenberg’s study of Chicago’s 1995 heat wave suggests that social ties are significant in determining a neighborhood’s survival in times of distress. Dunham built those social ties in East St. Louis through the performing arts, extending them nationally and internationally as well. As dozens of individuals attest, she transformed their lives and their families. Warrington Hudlin, who grew up in East St. Louis, is an important case in point: because of his Africentric arts education at PATC, he felt better equipped to succeed at predominantly-white Yale University because he entered the institution confident in his own identity and culture. He is now a successful filmmaker in New York.
Furthermore, the PATC modeled the type of urban cultural policy that has buy-in from community members rather than something imposed by an outside force. In 2011, University of Pennsylvania Professor of Urban Policy Mark Stern stated that one of the strongest arguments for making the arts a part of urban policy is their potential for creating “social inclusion.” Cultural policymakers, however, must think about inclusion to what. The PATC succeeded because Dunham focused on African diasporic culture and insisted on its centrality to American culture. Rather than simply assimilating to the dominant (white) American society, PATC students would transform it through intercultural communication, creating a better world for themselves as individuals, for their city, and for the nation as a whole. Such recognition of the diverse threads that weave the fabric of urban life is essential for ensuring that residents are active participants in creating an inclusive vision of metropolitan St. Louis, healing our divided city.