KATHERINE DUNHAM HAD BEEN PREPARED to die. Instead, at 8:10 P.M. on the evening of March 18, the 82-year-old grande dame of dance leaned forward in the bedroom of her redbrick home in East St. Louis, Ill., and took a small sip of homemade chicken soup. For Dunham, it was the end of a 47-day hunger strike she had prayed would help change U.S. policy toward refugees from Haiti, a country whose rhythm and spirit inspired her art. Now she was abandoning that tactic at the urging of deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who asked her to return with him to Haiti as soon as the improving political climate there permits. “My purpose in this work has been fulfilled,” said Dunham. “This torch now passes to other hands.”
Only two days earlier, subsisting on cranberry juice, water and Tibetan tea, she refused the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s offer to take up the fast for her. “This isn’t just about Haiti,” she said. “It’s about America. This country doesn’t feel that Haitians are human. And America treats East St. Louis the way it does Haitians.” Outside, smoke from a tire fire curled into the air. The East St. Louis fire department has the resources to deal only with major blazes; small fires are left to smolder in this desolate city of 40,000, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
Dunham is tormented by the plight of some 16,000 people who fled Haiti by sea to Florida after Aristide’s democratic government was toppled by a military coup on Sept. 30. Having defined them as economic rather than political refugees and therefore not eligible for asylum, the U.S. government has been sending almost all the boat people back to Haiti from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where they have been living in detention camps. Three days into her fast, Dunham wrote to President Bush. The response, from National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, she says, “fell far short of relieving my deep and urgent concerns.” Now, however, she is hopeful that democracy may be restored in Haiti and that the refugees may be able to return without reprisal.
Dunham’s hunger strike could have been the coda to an astonishing career. She grew up in Glen Ellyn, Ill., the daughter of a dry cleaner and his wife. As an anthropology graduate student at the University of Chicago, Dunham first formed her deep ties to Haiti in 1935, when she visited on a fellowship to study West Indian dance and rituals. A few years later she established the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, founding along with it the idea that black dance, incorporating African and Caribbean rhythms, belonged on the American stage.
An international movie and cabaret career followed, with Dunham using sets and costumes designed by her husband, John Thomas Pratt, who died in 1986. (The couple adopted a daughter, Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, now 44, who flew from Rome to be at her mother’s side during her fast.) In the ’60s, Dunham left the stage and in 1967 moved to East St. Louis to set up the Performing Arts Training Center, introducing urban youths to aspects of African culture. (Track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Warrington and Reginald Hudlin, producers of the movie House Party, are among the program’s progeny.)
On March 16, President Aristide spoke to a crowd of 200 well-wishers across the street from Dunham’s house. “We came to bring her love,” he said. “Katherine Dunham is a very, very, very great woman.” To Dunham he said, “We want you alive.” In the end, that was her choice as well.
NINA BURLEIGH and MARY HARRISON in East St. Louis