Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham Helped to Create the Afonso Arinos Law on Racial Discrimination in Brazil

In 1950, while visiting Brazil, Dunham and her group were refused rooms at a first-class hotel in São Paulo, the Hotel Esplanada, frequented by many American businessmen. Understanding that the fact was due to racial discrimination, she made sure the incident was publicized. The incident was widely discussed in the Brazilian press and became a hot political issue. In response, the Afonso Arinos law was passed in 1951 that made racial discrimination in public places a felony in Brazil.

The Afonso Arinos Law sought to punish racial discrimination by redefining racist practice as a crime rather than just a misdemeanor.  It made discrimination based on race or colour in public establishments, education and employment a criminal offence punishable by a jail term or fine Under the new constitution it went further, denying bail to those convicted of racial or colour prejudice, and stipulating prison sentences. Brazil is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All-Racial Discrimination. 

Afonso Arinos was a writer. In the 19th century, Afonso Arinos de Melo Franco was recognized as one of the most influential intellectuals of his time. His work is part of Brazils’ most prestigious literature and contains a strong message of social criticism.

[RESOURCE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Dunham#The_Afonso_Arinos_Law_in_Brazil]

Jean-Léon Destiné (March 26, 1918 – January 22, 2013)

Haitian-born American dancer and choreographer. He was born in Saint-Marc and moved to the United States with the dance company of Lina Mathon-Blanchet in the early 1940s. He later studied at Howard University. His work, becoming well known in the 1940s, often addressed Haiti’s history of resisting colonialism and slavery. He also danced with Katherine Dunham’s company and founded a national dance company in Haiti in the late 1940s. Destiné is known as the father of Haitian professional dance. (Wikipedia)

Portrait of dancer and choreographer Jean-Leon Destine. Printed on front: “Louis Melancon.”

  • Courtesy of the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts, Detroit Public Library

Katherine Dunham, circa 1940s. Ms. Dunham formed Ballet Nègre, one of the first black ballet companies in America in 1930, long before she was famous. She once said of her work, “I admit that a strong sociological purpose motivates my work and that there is a real drive in my purpose to present good looking, talented, clean, healthy-minded and healthy bodied young American Negroes in a repertoire of dance mimes and sketches.“ Photo: Corbis.


being in the field of anthropology, all of the historical issues stand out significantly to me. moreover, they aren’t just of the past. they’re still quite alive and thriving today. anthropology started by colonial powers who, in the process of taking over the planet, needed people to go out in communities and get as much information about them in order to best and most effectively conquer them. the Nuer (or Naath), for example in southern Sudan, kept the British at bay well after the surrounding communities had been colonized. they sent E.E. Evans-Prichard in to get the low-down, and they were in time (with his help), colonized as well. this is how anthropology began, and for me it’s highly problematic. even now, anthropologists still continue to work in association with western militaries and corporations. 

i hope to be an anthropologist, in the spirit of Pearl Primus, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katherine Dunham, who unlike the majority of anthropologists (past or present), sought to actually live and be a part of their studies. Hurston, it has been said, was initiated into Vodun around 5 times - each time in a different community, within a different tradition and emerging each time with a different perspective for knowledge to share with others but also for her own personal experience. Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham not only studied the different types of African dance on the continent and in the diaspora, but started their own dance troupes and educated the world on African diaspora practices and “survivals”. Kamari Clarke, an anthropology professor, remarked in one of her books that anthropologists should start studying colonial powers just as much as they do the colonized peoples. and as opposed to going to another (seemingly) remote village in Africa or Papua New Guinea or South America, she’s researched international law and written a book on why all those tried in International court tribunals have largely been Africans.

it is no coincidence that these are all Black women. our perspectives are bound to bring a change in an overwhelmingly white, western, middle/upper class male dominated field. this practice of going to another rural village, imposing on their lives, taking a bunch of pictures of them and giving them nothing in exchange for contributing to your studies, books, promotions, etc. is not something i wish to be a part of. it’s bout time to end it altogether. 

June 22, 2016

Today In History

‘Katherine Dunham, dancer and choreographer, was born in Joliet, IL, on this date June 22, 1909. In the 1940’s, Dunham formed a dance company that toured 60 countries, founded a dance school, and authored books about the dance techniques she taught.’

(photo: Katherine Dunham)

- CARTER Magazine