EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. -- Inside a neoclassical brick house with rotting wooden rafters, the president-in-exile of Haiti and America's most prominent black politician yesterday had one message for a dance legend who was in the midst of her 45th day of fasting for Haiti:
The ousted Haitian president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson later told a crowd of some 200 people outside Katherine Dunham's house that the dancer-anthropologist wouldn't listen to their earlier pleas to stop the fast, so they took a different tack.
"We spoke with our beloved Mom," Father Aristide said, grinning broadly at his new name for the 82-year-old Ms. Dunham, "to ask her to stop a few weeks ago. . . . We told her this time we want her to be alive. She wants to continue. We respect her will."
With Ms. Dunham peeking out her second-floor window, he continued: "We want her to have life. We want her to be alive. We want her to continue sharing her life with us."
On the 46th day of her fast, Ms. Dunham looked very much alive yesterday. "She's aglow," said Jonathan Demme, a friend of the dancer and a motion picture director whose latest film was "Silence of the Lambs."
"It's phenomenal. She just looks great."
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Ms. Dunham said she was honored to greet Father Aristide. But she insisted that her fast wouldn't end until the forced repatriation of Haitian boat people is halted.
More than 15,000 have set off on the perilous 700-mile journey to Florida, only to be intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard. The Bush administration says the Haitians do not face persecution if returned; human rights groups contest that.
Ms. Dunham said she was happy her fast had given people in East St. Louis a cause. "This city needs, just as Haiti does, a huge sum of money and a massive amount of help."
Mr. Jackson also made the Haiti-East St. Louis connection:
"East St. Louis!" he thundered. "The poorest city in America. Haiti! The poorest country in the hemisphere. . . . If she were eating food, the eyes of the nation would not be on East St. Louis, would not be on Haiti. . . . I look at Katherine Dunham at her bed. She's willing to die so that others may live. There is no braver witness."