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Cut & Paste: Would dancer Katherine Dunham have joined Black Lives Matter? Historian says yes

Before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, before Freedom Riders headed to segregated bus stations, before Martin Luther King Jr. led his first march, there was Katherine Dunham.

The dancer and choreographer stood up to discrimination as far back as 1944. She railed against a system in which hotels wouldn’t book her and theaters wouldn’t let her black and white fans sit together, according to Washington University professor Joanna Dee Das. Das has written a book about the legendary artist and activist who lived in East St. Louis off and on starting in the mid'60s. The book, “Katherine Dunham:  Dance and the African Diaspora,” is set for release early next year.

In our latest Cut & Paste podcast, we talk with Das, along with St. Louis choreographer Keith Tyrone Williams, a master teacher of the Dunham method, about Dunham’s place in history — and where her activism might have led her today.

Here’s a little of what you’ll hear in the podcast:

  • Williams on Dunham’s protests a decade before the Civil Rights movement: “Quite bold and quite courageous at that given time.”
  • Das on Dunham’s silent but creative protest against having to perform in a segregated theater: “She has a sign, attached to her backside that says, ‘For Whites Only.’”
  • Das about how she believes Dunham would be working for social justice today, if she were still alive: “I think a lot about Black Lives Matter as I’m writing this book.”
Cut & Paste

Look for new Cut & Paste (#cutpastestl) podcastsevery few weeks on our website. You can also view all previous podcasts focusing on a diverse collection of visual and performing artists, and subscribe to Cut & Paste through this link.

Follow Willis and Nancy on Twitter: @WillisRArnoldand @NancyFowlerSTL

Please help St. Louis Public Radio find artists to feature on Cut & Paste. Tell us which artists and cultural themes deserve a closer look.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.