I Have Always Been in the Arms of Africa: A Intergenerational Conversation with Dance Elder Ferne Yangyeitie Caulker on her Life and Legacy

Zakiya L. Cornish


This oral history video interview documents and archives the story of Ferne Caulker, one of the pioneers and living legends in the African Diasporan dance community in Milwaukee, and pays homage to the oral historian tradition of the ‘Griots’. In this interview, Caulker (“Mama Ferne”) shares glimpses of her story with her mentee, Zakiya L. Cornish (MFA). In their candid and compelling dialogue, they explore the beautifully complex and expansive web of impact that female icons in Black dance have had across the United States and globally. Mama Ferne recalls memories of family and culture in Sierra Leone, the unexpected and unfortunate death of her father, and the trials and tribulations of creating and sustaining a long withstanding program in higher education and professional touring company. Through her storytelling, Mama Ferne reveals that her work grew from the direct lineage of such prolific and prominent artists as Katherine Dunham, Lavinia Williams, Chief Bey, and Pearl Primus. She weaves a story of love, loss, identity, and spiritual calling to her path in dance.

Mama Ferne, a native of Sierra Leone, founded the very first African dance program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as part of the Dance Department’s BFA Degree in Choreography and Performance. She is the Artistic Executive Director of the Ko-Thi Dance Company, which has been a household name in Milwaukee for over 50 years since she founded it in 1969.

00:00 Introduction
01:56 Family history and Sierra Leone
08:29 Education and surviving cultural brutality
12:23 Understanding the connection to music and dance
13:53 Meeting with Pearl Primus
16:20 Meeting with Katherine Dunham
17:26 Time with Lavinia Williams
20:27 Learning from James Hawthorn Bey, "Chief Bey”
25:50 A letter from Alvin Ailey
28:13 University of Wisconsin Milwaukee
28:36 Racial discrimination in the dance department
29:52 Teaching beginnings in the African American studies and dance departments
34:04 Forming the African Dance track
36:32 Our battle for the Black aesthetic
39:45 Ko-Thi Dance Company
42:02 Rod Rodgers
45:55 The Juba choreography and artistic inspiration
50:30 Staying in Milwaukee
53:03 Closing life lessons

Film Interview Transcript