Primus, Pearl Eileen

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Primus, Pearl Eileen

(b. 29 November 1919 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad; d. 29 October 1994 in New Rochelle, New York), anthropologist, lecturer, teacher, dancer, choreographer, and storyteller who pioneered the art of dance as a “social instrument” to promote multicultural harmony.

Primus’s parents, Edward Primus and Emily Jackson, moved to the United States in 1921, when their daughter was two years old, determined to make a better life. Primus grew up in Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York, in a traditional Trinidadian and African household. The young Primus and her two brothers were shielded from many of the societal ills prevalent in American culture. In the home, the Primus children were taught racial tolerance and ethnic pride through the inculcation of educational, religious, and cultural values. Primus once said that she had three mothers: “I have the mother where I was born, Trinidad, my Caribbean home; America, where I was educated, and primed, and sometime deeply hurt… and then there’s my mother, Africa, who polished me.”

There is considerable evidence that the importance of education, the desire to help others, and the splendor of dance are knotted throughout Primus’s life. As a young student, she excelled in academics and athletics at P.S. 94 and P.S. 136 and at Hunter High School in a program for the exceptionally gifted. In preparation for a career in medicine, she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and premedicine sciences in 1940 and a master’s in psychology in 1943, both from Hunter College. Face to face with racial prejudice and unable to get a position as a laboratory technician to support her education, she turned to dance for employment. She was disappointed but not discouraged by the educational barriers she faced. (In 1978 she finally received a doctorate in anthropology when New York University granted her permission to dance her dissertation.)

Primus’s dance career began in 1940, after she turned to the National Youth Administration looking for work. Placed without previous experience in their dance troupe, she soon demonstrated a talent that earned her a scholarship with the New Dance Group (NDG), a politically charged company in which she became the first African-American student in 1941. In February 1943 her first public concert made a strong impression at the New York City Young Men’s Hebrew Association. The nightclub Cafe Society Downtown engaged her as an entertainer in April 1943; she performed there for ten months. That year the New York Times proclaimed her the “dance debutante of the year.” A solo recital followed in April 1944, and in October, Primus headed a dance troupe that enjoyed a tenday run on Broadway. In 1944 she was asked to entertain servicemen. She was awarded a certificate of merit in September 1944 for her service of unrelenting entertainment.

Primus joined the NDG faculty in 1942. The group sought to bring dance to oppressed peoples as a voice of protest against social and political concerns of the 1940s. The NDG and Primus became important forces in modern dance. African Ceremony, Primus’s first choreographed dance, depicting a priest’s fertility rite from the Congo, was researched under her NDG scholarship, and the group’s doctrine of social consciousness encouraged Primus to express her cultural protest in an artistic manner. Strange Fruit (1943), a passionate poem about the horror of lynching by Lewis Allen, was choreographed into a dance of conflict by Primus using a lone white woman’s response as the vehicle. The influence of Langston Hughes, the “poet laureate” of black Americans and a close friend, was also evidenced in The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1943), Jim Crow Train (1943), and Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore (1979), about the horror of the church bombings in Birmingham, Alabama. The long list of dances based on jazz, blues, and spirituals is also very impressive.

In 1944 Primus traveled south to meet and live with the poor people directly affected by bigotry and oppression. Working as a migrant, traveling on Jim Crow trains, worshiping in black churches, and eating traditional southern meals, she came to identify with their problems. Later that year, in an interview for Afro-American, Primus stated that northern artists were committed to helping the southern people with “education, culture, and strength to fight for democracy.”

As a proud recipient of a Rosenwald fellowship, Primus traveled to Africa in 1948 to research the dance and artistic culture of her ancestors. She recorded her excitement in “To the Lands of Drum Throb and Dance,” an article for the Washington Star (17 December 1948), as she expressed her desire “to learn from them the basic truths of dance and life—to salvage for America the beauty, dignity and strength of a threatened culture, to bring back music, folklore, dances and to interpret them honestly for the audience.”

As a direct result of her trip to Africa, she produced a record album, Pearl Primus’ Africa (1971), consisting of legends, folktales, and proverbs of African villages expressed through song and music for the benefit of high school teachers. At the age of fifty-nine, in 1978, she was the first to introduce “dance anthropology” as a form of artistic expression in the teaching of cultural awareness. Even when Primus was not teaching, she was still a lifelong student of other cultures. In addition, she wrote many articles on dance for educators. As a consultant, she worked with the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on Arts, and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. The Integration of Visual Forms and Anthropological Content for Use in Teaching Children About Cultures and Peoples of the World (1968) was produced by Primus for the Office of Education in Washington, D.C. As an ethnologist, Primus worked with the New York University Anthropology Program; the Dance Enrichment Program at Spelman College in Atlanta, from which she received an honorary doctorate; the Newark Museum in New Jersey; and various exhibitions in New York City.

Married in 1954 to the dancer and choreographer Percival Borde, Primus was a frequent collaborator with him and other major dance figures until Borde died in 1979. They had one son, Onwin Borde, who eventually came to arrange the music for many of Primus’s dance pieces.

Heads of state, poets, educators, compeers, and dignitaries around the world recognized Primus’s achievements. In 1949 she received the Star of Africa from the government of Liberia, the highest honor of achievement given by that nation. In 1949 President Truman appointed Primus chairman of cultural activities and director of the African Center of Performing Arts. In 1991 President George Bush conferred the National Medal of Arts on Primus. Her love of dance and respect for multicultural understanding made Primus not only one of the world’s greatest dancers but also one of the greatest humanitarians.

Primus ceased performing in the 1980s but continued to teach until her death. To fight racial injustice, some social leaders sought the energy of student sit-ins and boycotts; others, the doctrine of nonviolence and politics; and others the rhyme of song and poetry. Primus chose the movements and expressions in the art of dance. For a conscientious artist, dance was first and foremost a means to promote multicultural understanding. Education rather then entertainment was always the focus of her energy. All of her themes related to social issues that strengthened racial pride for blacks and for all ethnic groups.

An interview with Pearl Primus is in the Amsterdam News (21 June 1980). An early account of her career is in Current Biography (1944). Beverly Anne Hilsman Barber, “Pearl Primus: In Search of Her Roots” (Ph.D. diss., Florida State University, 1984), and Jean Ruth Glover, “Pearl Primus: Cross-Cultural Pioneer of American Dance” (M.A. thesis, American University, 1989), are excellent resources for research. See also “Pearl Primus, Ph.D., Returns,” New York Times (18 Mar. 1979); “Pearl Primus: Spirit of the People,” Dance Magazine (Dec. 1990); “Acrobatic Anthropologist,” Negro Digest (Jan. 1948); and Julia Foulkes “Pearl in Our Midst: In Memoriam, Pearl Primus,” Dance Research Journal 27 (spring 1995): 80–82. Obituaries are in Dance magazine (Feb. 1995) and the New York Times (31 Oct. 1994).

Gloria Grant Roberson