Katherine Dunham always used her body to express herself, so in February 1992 when she disagreed with U.S. policy towards Haiti she used it to protest.
At age 82 she starved herself. Dunham’s fast for Haiti is this week’s Throwback Thursday.
“There is no point in fasting unless it accomplishes something,” Dunham said on Feb. 12, 1992, at her home in East St. Louis. “I hope it won’t go on for three or six months, but I’m well prepared to fast.”
For 47 days the world-renowned dancer, choreographer, anthropologist and humanitarian consumed only water and cranberry juice to protest the ouster of Haiti’s first democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s decision to detain or deport many of the 16,000 Haitian refugees who fled the coup on Sept. 30, 1991. The elderly woman fasted against her doctor’s advice and through a hospitalization that came a little more than two weeks into her protest.
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Her ties to the Caribbean nation were strong, dating back to 1935 when she went there to study dance on a Roosevelt Fellowship. She owned an estate there in addition to making East St. Louis her home for more than 30 years.
“People have asked me why East St. Louis and people have asked me why Haiti. I’ve decided that most people think of these two places as the ends of the world and that there is no point of my being there. Well I think that’s just why I should be there. I’ve always been periodically militant, activist and strongly against social injustice,” Dunham said.
Aristide, Jesse Jackson and the woman who would unseat U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon, Carol Mosely Braun, all visited Dunham at her home on Day 46 to ask her to end her fast. She refused, saying her goals were not yet realized.
But Day 47 was the end. Aristide asked Dunham to accompany him back to Haiti, so she resumed eating to build strength for the trip.
Dunham in 1999 moved to New York City, which is where she died in her sleep on May 21, 2006, at age 96. She considered East St. Louis her adopted hometown and had plans to permanently return before her 97th birthday celebration.
Her 35-acre estate in Port-au-Prince is a botanical garden and her East St. Louis home is a museum, but both have been troubled as a result of the poverty surrounding them. Her costumes, artwork and much of what she collected as a choreographer and anthropologist is now housed at the Missouri History Museum.