Q&A with Hannah Durkin, author of “Josephine Baker and Katherine Dunham”

Hannah Durkin is a lecturer in literature and film at Newcastle University. She is a coeditor of Visualising Slavery: Art Across the African Diaspora. She recently answered some questions about her new book, Josephine Baker and Katherine Dunham: Dances in Literature and Cinema.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

Josephine Baker and Katherine Dunham were incredible artists, intellectuals and activists who enjoyed international fame at a time when the publishing and entertainment industries afforded few opportunities to Black women. Yet Dunham is perhaps not as well remembered as she should be, and Baker is too frequently dismissed as a novelty entertainer. I wanted to challenge such cultural misremembering by highlighting their vital contributions, as Black women, to transatlantic literature and cinema.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

If I’ve achieved anything with this book, it’s all thanks to two sets of people:

  1. I was really fortunate be able to draw on the work of some fantastic historians and dance historians whose determined efforts have helped to keep alive Baker and Dunham’s legacies.
  2. Closer to home, I’ve been surrounded by amazing artist-activists and academics from whom I’ve learned so much and who have given me absolutely incredible support.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

Perhaps how different were midcentury Hollywood and European cinema in the opportunities that they afforded to Black artists. As I acknowledge in this book, Baker was the first Black woman to star in a mainstream film and the narrative of one of Dunham’s films was framed around her company. Depressingly, these achievements could only occur outside of the U.S. because of racist codes and narratives that were in place in Hollywood until well into the Civil Rights era and beyond.

I was also struck by how much Baker and Dunham made of their film opportunities. On the screen, they claimed the right to stardom while at the same time retaining some artistic autonomy and sometimes even shaping their films’ aesthetics.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

That a film’s author isn’t just an invariably white, male director, and that dance can be an important form of screen authorship.

And the perception that Baker’s performance style was an assemblage of ‘exotic’ dance steps when in fact all of her movements came from the African American stage. My book foregrounds Baker and Dunham’s work on the page and screen to privilege their intellectual and artistic voices and to highlight their place within a wider tradition of Black Atlantic dance.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope that readers will appreciate the struggles that Baker and Dunham endured as midcentury Black women artists, but also come away with a broader understanding of their achievements. Baker and Dunham were the first well-known African American women to write multivolume accounts of their lives and their books document the intellectual and psychological underpinnings of their art. Equally, their screen careers expand our understanding of African American film history by revealing key moments of Black female stardom and authorship in midcentury cinema.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I’m a huge fan of female-led films and TV shows. Right now, I’m watching Killing Eve for fun. I’ve also just been introduced to The Good Fight and am about to revisit Orange is the New Black because I happen to have graduate students who are writing about them. But I’m happy to watch such shows for work!

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