Doing the Intercontinental With ‘Dancing the Afrofuture: Hula, Hip-Hop, and the Dunham Legacy’

An American poet of my acquaintance wrote in his journal, some 60 years ago: “If the choice were freely and simply given me, whether I would rather do one thing absolute, something on the order, say, of Don Quixote, or all the Tom Swift books, I perhaps would choose the latter, on the ground that it is best to lead a busy life.”

Dr. Halifu Osumare, now 77, has led a very busy life. A dancer from her earliest years, she has performed, taught, choreographed, and built and run dance companies and community centers, and then morphed into a scholar, researcher, and activist, obtaining a master’s degree and a Ph.D. She traveled from her birthplace, in Galveston, Texas, to Oakland, California, where she founded Everybody’s Creative Arts Center/CitiCentre Dance Theatre, in 1977. She has performed in or traveled to New York, Nigeria, Brazil, Ghana (she was there when Obama was elected president), Burkina Faso, and a multitude of other places. At midlife, she decided to become a scholar and relocated to the Hawaiian Islands for doctoral studies, then got a teaching job in Toledo, Ohio — a place where she didn’t feel at home and frequently escaped from to Detroit. After returning to California, she spent 11 years living in Sacramento while teaching, writing, and running the African American and African Studies program at the University of California at Davis, before retiring in 2016 and returning to various islands to enjoy some tropical leisure. And to write more books. 

I struggled with Osumare’s newest publication because its title, Dancing the Afrofuture: Hula, Hip-Hop, and the Dunham Legacy, misrepresents its content. The book is actually a memoir, the second volume of Osumare’s life story. Part one, Dancing in Blackness: A Memoir, was published in 2018, and won a handful of awards. Osumare has also published The Hiplife in Ghana: West African Indigenization of Hip-Hop and The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves.

Osumar wound up becoming “the hip-hop professor,” revealing “to the world that African-descendant people were great contributors to world culture and indeed central to world popular culture.”

Those of a certain age may remember being taught, in public-speaking workshops, that the way to structure a presentation is to “Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, and then tell ’em what you told ‘em.” The first way you “tell ’em” is with your title, and while Osumare does engage with all the subjects mentioned in her title, the great majority of her focus is on herself and her extended family. This volume suffers from too much throat-clearing and scaffolding and not enough actual substance; it’s full of self-congratulatory data that distracts the reader from her essential story. 

Dancing in Blackness took us through Osumare’s first 40 years; the new publication picks up just as she and her first husband are flying to Hawaii, “to reinvent myself yet again.” Having already earned a master’s degree in dance ethnology, she’s applied to the doctoral program in anthropology at the University of Hawai’i, and the couple has bought a house on the Big Island. We get pages about her anxiety regarding this transition, but relatively little about the Hawaiian hula proper. She’s living on the Big Island but the university is on Oahu, so getting to class involves airplanes; we hear a lot about the parties she throws and the communities she builds wherever she settles down, which is admirable but somewhat beside the point. Osumare describes herself as a “practitioner of theory, an artist-scholar,” and is working toward developing a clear path to the “Afrofuture.” She evolved from a “young naïve Black hippie” who moved to Europe to dance, through a stint in New York, and then to teaching for 12 years at Stanford University, before “re-creating myself into an academic, all while studying and performing Hawaiian hula.” She wound up becoming “the hip-hop professor,” revealing “to the world that African-descendant people were great contributors to world culture and indeed central to world popular culture.”

Osumare recapitulates all of her accomplishments during her years living in Oakland, in New York, and on the road, staging conferences and book tours. We learn that she sees herself as “representing the continually marginalized African American modern dance called the Dunham technique.” The Dunham dancer, she declares, “must avail herself to all available dance cultures,” as Osumare herself does, working in 2001 to teach the rudiments of her newly acquired hula technique to participants at a Dunham celebration in East St. Louis. During the pandemic, she fell in love with Charmaine Warren’s excellent Zoom series, Black Dance Stories, as did I. (Much of it is available on YouTube, and someone should resurrect this undertaking for mass consumption.) 

There is interesting thinking in Dancing the Afrofuture, on the genesis of hip-hop and the reasons for its worldwide efflorescence, as well as on other topics, but the reader has to dig for nuggets in her constant autobiographical meandering. I respect Osumare’s display of gratitude toward her “ancestors,” especially the great dance anthropologist Katharine Dunham, and her enthusiastic support of her students, some of whom become her “adopted daughters.” Her primary thesis, Osumare reiterates, is “the Arc of Mutual Inspiration. The past, dialoguing with the present, points to an Afrofuture that is still unfolding.”

But this second memoir reads, I’m afraid, like a tenure file: one of those documents in which aspiring professors collect every scrap of accomplishment in an effort to convince their superiors that they’re worthy of a place on the roster. And Osumare is definitely worthy — she’s multi-talented, glamorous, and worldly in the most specific sense of the word. She’s accomplished a lot, and she’s still thinking. Her research opens doors to new communities. 

Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for the Village Voice and other publications since 1983. She runs writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, has studied many forms of dance, and has taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program.

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