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#3427: Katherine Dunham: A second letter from Carrier

From: Ray Carrier <raycadien@hotmail.com>

TO: Walter Isaacson - Managing Editor - TIME Magazine

Dear Sir:

	As an international consultant who has always been interested in both 
history and current events, I read with great interest your recent feature 
profiling the 20 most influential Leaders and Revolutionaries of the past 
hundred years. I also noted that you intend to feature in a future issue 
individuals who you judge to have been the most influential Artists and 
Entertainers during the past century.   I wish to bring to your attention a 
very special person who I feel greatly privileged to know, whose 
contributions, in my opinion, have not been sufficiently recognized, but 
whose accomplishments should qualify her to be listed in this category of 
prestigious personalities.

	This giant of a lady I am referring to is Katherine Dunham, who is 
unfortunately less well known to the younger generations than she should be, 
but who in her prime was renowned internationally during the 40s, 50s and 
60s as a dancer, choreographer, and director of the largest dance troupe in 
the USA.  It is not only because she was a fantastically talented 
entertainer whose career spanned more than 50 years that she merits being 
considered as one of the most influential Artists and Entertainers of the 
20th century, but more especially because of her major accomplishments in 
being a trail-blazer in helping to break down the racial barriers which were 
obstructing blacks in the performing arts from advancing and gaining the 
recognition, not to mention financial rewards, that their talents should 
have more readily provided.

	Katherine Dunham was one of the pioneers who opened up and paved the way 
for black entertainers to follow, first on Broadway, then in the movies of 
Hollywood in the early 1940s.  A few years later, in 1947, she was one of 
the first entertainers featured in Los Vegas when it was opened as an 
entertainment center.  Without any financial subsidies from the US 
government (which were regularly granted to similar less-recognized American 
troupes of white performers), she managed to sustain for almost a quarter of 
a century her troupe of as many as 40 dancers and musicians on tours on all 
the major continents, performing in front of packed audiences in 57 
different countries.

	Anna Kisselgoff, a scholar of dance, in 1972 called Dunham ‘the major 
pioneer in Black theatrical dance' and ‘ahead of her time.'  She goes on to 
state that ‘Before the concepts of ‘negritude' and ‘third world' were 
articulated, Miss Dunham - backed up by her academic studies of anthropology 
- had expressed in her own way the cultural ties of Black people 
everywhere.'  When she began her professional dancing in the early 1930s 
(one of her first breaks was as a performer and choreographer for the 
Chicago World's Fair in 1934), black dance in America was not considered 
respectable.  Dr. Melville Herskovitts, the pioneer anthropologist who 
founded the first university program of African studies in the USA, would 
write in 1941 that ‘In the United States, pure African dancing is almost 
entirely lacking.'

	Another scholar (Blauner, 1970) would point out that ‘unlike other ethnic 
groups, blacks did not arrive with one cultural identity which survived or 
faded, as the case may be.  They were socially fragmented, and to a great 
extent, culturally stripped.'  In view of this, Katherine Dunham ‘was 
consciously and systematically creating a new image for Afro-American dance 
through her scholarship and through innovation in dance techniques.‘  (Joyce 

		A recent article in the Washington Post notes that, ‘Dunham, an 
anthropologist as well as a dancer and choreographer, delved into the 
folkloric practices of the African diaspora to forge her stylized and widely 
copied technique.  In introducing authentic African dance move- ments to her 
company and audiences, Dunham - perhaps more than any other choreographer of 
the time - exploded the possibilities of modern dance expression.  A fusion 
of forms - ballet, modern dance and African dance - is central to her 
Caribbean-derived "Choros" of 1943, performed to Brazilian music." (Sarah 
Kaufman, May 10, 1998)   A European critic would write in 1948 that ‘There 
is no doubt that Katherine Dunham and her dancers ... believe in the value 
of their own culture, arts and tradition as a medium of artistic expression 
and they refuse to pander to the audience.'

	It can be concluded from this that, more than anyone else, by far, 
Katherine Dunham was responsible for changing these negative attitudes about 
dance among blacks themselves, and at the same time, for eliminating 
prejudices about black dancing styles among whites.  In my personal opinion, 
this played a major role in changing social behavior universally, such that 
today even us white folks have finally been able to get rid of and be freed 
from many of our inhibitions and feelings of being ‘uptight' that were 
formerly so pervasive within our culture, and we can now be comfortable 
about getting up to let loose and ‘do our own thing' when we dance 
free-style on disco dance floors.

	One scholar of the arts, Harold Cruse, wrote in 1964 that ‘The American 
performing arts are socially predicated on a culturally pluralistic 
tradition.  Any report that discusses the future of theatre, dance, music in 
America must also discuss the race question, for it is precisely the race 
factor in American history that created American theatre, dance and music.'  
  All students of the history of the arts are well aware that Katherine 
Dunham ‘functioned as a catalyst and creative force in many aspects of 
American cultural and artistic life' in the historical process of developing 
Afro-American performing arts with emphasis on the dance, within the ‘social 
and political climate of a country in which a high degree of overt and 
covert racism was always present.'  ‘Her early and life-long search for 
meaning and artistic values for black people, as well as for all peoples, 
has motivated, created opportunities for, and launched careers for 
generations of young black artists ... Afro-American dance was usually in 
the avant-garde of modern dance,' and ‘Dunham's entire career spans the 
period of the emergence of Afro- American dance as a serious art.'  
(Aschenbrenner, 1980)

	Another black writer (Arthur Todd) in 1962 described her as a pioneer in 
establishing   Afro-American dance as ‘one of our national treasures.'  
Regarding her impact and effect he wrote: ‘The rise of American Negro dance 
commenced ... when Katherine Dunham and her company sky-rocketed into the 
Windsor Theatre in New York, from Chicago, in 1940, and made an indelible 
stamp on the dance world...  Miss Dunham opened the doors that made possible 
the rapid upswing of this dance for the present generation.'  Another writer 
would appraise her success in the following words: ‘The development of black 
dance as an art without sacrificing the elemental characteristics is a mark 
of the genius and dedication of its exponents.'

	Anthropologist St. Clair Drake would write that ‘The deep strain of 
Puritanism in American life that tended to turn sexuality into prurient 
interest was a constraint that serious black performers had to break 
through.  By means of skilled choreography, Katherine Dunham was able to 
convey to her audiences that sexuality as expressed in some aspects of 
African and New World black tradition has symbolic meanings relevant to 
fertility as well as to sexual satisfaction, and that ostensibly erotic 
dancing can be cherished for the sheer joy of the bodily movement and 
display of dancing skill...  Her dance encompasses over a forty-year time 
span, during which the attitudes of commentators to an unfamiliar art form 
underwent a substantial change.'

	Among her many accomplishments was the development of what is called the 
Dunham Technique for training in dance, which won international acclaim.   
‘As a result of her (anthropological) research (in the Caribbean, primarily 
in Haiti) Dunham distinguished three processes involving the African 
background of Black folk dance in the Western hemisphere.  They are: the 
incorporation of African religious dance into new ritual behaviors;  the 
secularization of African religious dance; and the interaction of African 
secular dance with European secular dance.  Utilizing her gift for 
choreography, Dunham began the creation of compositions reflecting the 
varieties of Black folk dance she had studied.  In order to train dancers to 
perform these works, Dunham developed a dance pedagogy based on Black dance 
in its Caribbean manifestation.  This pedagogic vocabulary, Dunham 
technique, has been widely taught under many names.'  (Richard Long, 1983)

	Even though they did not give credit to Katherine Dunham, many dance 
schools taught Dunham technique, and choreographers plagiarized parts of her 
works .  The late great Alvin Ailey (who in an interview just a short time 
before his death a few years ago stated that he first became interested in 
dance as a professional career after having seen a performance of Katherine 
Dunham's troupe as a young teenager of 14) called the Dunham technique ‘the 
closest thing to a unified Afro-American dance existing.'

	In fact, ‘Today, it is safe to say, there is no American black dancer who 
has not been influenced by the Dunham technique, unless he or he works 
entirely within a classical genre; and the future of dance in America is 
presently being strongly influenced by Afro-American dancers and 
choreographers.'  (Joyce Aschenbrenner)    Of the black artists who have had 
success as dancers in ballet: Arthur Mitchell, Janet Collins (3 years 
leading ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera); Louis Johnson - who formed 
his own ballet company; Carmen de Lavallade of American Ballet Theatre; 
Christian Holder of Robert Joffrey Ballet - all studied and taught with 

	In 1945 she opened the Dunham School of Dance and Theatre in New York, 
(using box office receipts, not grants or subsidies to provide seed money, 
demonstrating her success on stage at the time)  which had an initial 
enrolment of 350 students.  In 1947 it was expanded and granted a charter as 
the Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts.  The curriculum included 
courses in dance, drama and cultural studies,.  Schools inspired by it later 
opened in Paris, Stockholm and Rome by dancers trained by Ms. Dunham.  Her 
alumni included among others, Eartha Kitt (who as a teenager won scholarship 
to her school and became one of her dancers), Marlon Brando, James Dean, 
Jose Ferrar, Jennifer Jones, Shelly Winters and Doris Duke.

	In her Book of the Dance, Agnes De Mille described Katherine Dunham as ‘a 
consummate artist - the first person to organize a Negro troupe of concert 
caliber ... to set the example by founding a school, training dancers and 
offering sustained opportunity for performance under dignified conditions.'

  	What is less known is that she was not just an entertainer (she will turn 
89 in June), but that she is an anthropologist/ethnologist/author/university 
professor and humanitarian.   She was a practicing social scientist, and in 
1935-36 had traveled widely in the Caribbean, particularly in Haiti, as a 
researcher conducting a comparative study of dance, which was sponsored by 
the Rosenwald and Guggenheim Foundations.  Her mentors for this project were 
Dr. Robert Redfield from the University of Chicago, an anthropologist known 
for his interest in folk and peasant societies (acculturation) and his 
contributions in anthropological theory, and Dr. Melville Heskovitts of 
Northwestern University.  She later completed studies for a master's degree 
in anthropology, with emphasis on dance and its relation to culture, from 
the prestigious University of Chicago, and in 1939, submitted her thesis 
entitled "Dances of Haiti: Their Social Organization, Classification, Form 
and Function."  She was offered a Rockefeller Grant for graduate work, but 
elected instead to dance professionally.

	In January 1941 she gave a lecture demonstrations of her findings on the 
function of dance in Caribbean society at Yale University, and later 
regularly was a guest lecturer at the University of Chicago, UCLA and the 
Royal Anthropological Institute in London, among many  others.  In 1976 she 
was the Artist-in-Residence/Lecturer on Afro-American Studies at the 
University of California, Berkeley.  Earlier, in 1967, she had accepted a 
permanent position as a professor of Dance Anthropology (for anthropology 
and dance students) at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, IL, and 
began developing a cultural arts center, the Performing Arts Training Center 
in East St. Louis (where she still resides).  Through the years she has 
published numerous articles about dance, and was the author of several 
autobiographical books, including Island Possessed.  As an appreciation of 
her acceptance in scholastic circles, the famous anthropologist Claude 
Levi-Strauss, among other famous scholars, wrote the introduction to one of 
her works.

	British dance critic Richard Buckle would describe Dunham's work as ‘a 
disconcerting mixture of anthropological research, invented choreography in 
various styles; of satire; traditional tunes an flash orchestrations, 
would-be realistic and fantastically-styled costumes, meticulous planning 
and spontaneous verve ...  Successful and entertaining.'  One writer, James 
Grey, commented that ‘Katherine Dunham, in her most serious composition has 
made skillful and beautiful dramatizations of just such materials as 
anthropologists like Bronislav Malinowski and Margaret Mead have analyzed in 
their sober books.'

	   The following is a brief summary of Katherine Dunham's career.

	While still a student at the University of Chicago, she studied ballet and 
modern dance with Madame Ludmilla Speranzev and became associated with Ruth 
Page and Mark Turbyfill of the Chicago Opera Company.  With their help, in 
1930 (when she was only 21) she was able to rent a studio and to teach 
dancing, and her students became known as the Ballet Negre.  The pupils of 
this school formed the core of the Negro Dance Group which 3 years later 
appeared for 2 weeks at the Abraham Lincoln Center.  The same year she 
performed with the Chicago Civic Opera and then danced at the Chicago 
World's Fair.

	In 1937 she first went to New York where she performed at the YWHA, which 
was well received, and the next year performed L'Ag ‘Ya, based on her 
research in Martinique, at the Federal Theatre in Chicago.  In 1939 she 
returned to New York where she was dance director for Pins and Needles for 
the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union at the New York Labor Stage. 
  Later she performed Tropic and Le Jazz Hot at the Windsor Theatre in 
Broadway, where she and her group were highly acclaimed.

	She was then invited to join the cast of the Broadway production of Cabin 
in the Sky with Ethel Waters.  This was Georges Balanchine's first venture 
into a Broadway production (she also worked with Martha Graham during this 
period) and it proved to be an enormous success.  Commenting about it in the 
New York Times, famed critic John Martin wrote that ‘throughout the evening 
Miss Dunham's chief business is to sizzle ... she is one hundred per cent 
seductress ... (her) very talents are innately lyric rather bumptious.'  It 
closed in New York in February 1941 after 156 performances.  Dunham and 
Company traveled with the show as it toured first in Boston, then in 
Toronto.  When the show closed in Canada, its next stop was Detroit.  Dunham 
continued with the show for the next four months while it played in 
Pittsburg, Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles and San 

	The next year she starred in Star Spangled Rhythm, a Warner Brothers color 
film devoted to the company, it was one of the first war-time movies 
designed to maintain morale among American soldiers.  Another dance movie 
produced in 1943, Stormy Weather, was her best known film and was also a 
great hit.  After this she began to tour the United States in impresario Sol 
Hurok's Tropical Review.   ‘During the course of the tour, Dunham and the 
troupe had recurrent problems with racial discrimination, leading her to a 
posture of militancy which was to characterize her subsequent career.' 

	In Boston in 1944, her Revue was banned although it was well received by 
audiences, causing newspaper critics to complain that this action was ‘too 
close to outmoded Puritanism and cultural witchburning for comfort.'  The 
censors were complaining about Rites de Passage, ‘one of her most enduring 
works', about which Langston Hughes wrote that ‘Rather than being 
discriminated against, the Revue should have gained official praise for 
handling subjects legitimate to the dance, which might have been made 
offensive by less talented artists, in a delicate and delightful manner.'  
They did so because ‘Dunham technique involves a different way of presenting 
and of ‘feeling' the human body than that to which they were accustomed, and 
they felt bound to reject its message.  As the bastion of conservatism, 
these social arbitors were at the same time harbingers of a new creative 
impulse in American dance, stemming from Afro- American cultural expression 
in which human sexuality and other human traits were shown in different and 
positive terms, growing out of African and Caribbean religious conceptions.  
They grasped the implications of this perception of human potential, and 
they sensed its opposition to   the ‘protestant ethic' as well as to 
religious dogmas.'  ‘A reviewer for the Boston Herald Tribuneregarded Dunham 
as an "unconventional star" because she did not usurp the limelight": this 
despite the buildup in the popular media, which profits by the creation of 

	Beginning in 1947, she began to tour first in Mexico, then in Europe with 
Caribbean Rhapsody.  ‘The impact of Dunham's company on Europe was 
comparable to that which Josephine Baker had made in the 1920s.  The opening 
of Caribbean Rhapsody in London in 1948 was welcomed as bringing something 
new and necessary to the drab English post-war scene, still characterized by 
rationing and power shortages.  The vivacity, the colorful costuming, and 
what was perceived as the panache of the primitive were all applauded.' 

	‘The tour was a grand success, and newspapers proclaimed that Katherine 
Dunham was sweeping Europe in a wave of popularity greater than that of 
Isadorra Duncan thirty years earlier.  She also influenced hat styles on the 
continent as well as spring fashion collections, featuring the Dunham line 
and Caribbean Rhapsody, and the Chiroteque Française made a bronze cast of 
her feet for a museum of important personalities.'  (Like so many other 
great black artists, she was always more favorably appreciated in Europe 
than in her own country, an unfortunate trend caused by the rampant racism 
that prevailed during that period in the USA.)

	‘Richard Buckle, later to become well known as a ballet historian and 
critic, produced a handsome book, Katherine Dunham: Her Dancers, Singers, 
Musicians...  His introductory essay managed to be at once laudatory and 
patronizing: "To some Katherine Dunham will be more interesting as a 
sociological that as an artistic phenomenon.  It comes as a shock to learn 
that a Negro should successfully run the largest unsubsidized company of 
dancers in the United States ... that her company of magnificent dancers and 
musicians should have met with the success it has and that herself as 
explorer, thinker, inventor, organizer, and dancer should have reached so 
high a place in the estimation of the world, has done more than a million 
pamphlets could for the service of her people."

	‘The reception of Dunham and her company in Paris and elsewhere on the 
Continent was as enthusiastic as it had been in England...  The Dunham 
troupe, in the course of world-wide travels in the following decade, was to 
become the best-known American dance company in the world.' (Long) Regarding 
her tour in Paris, Boris Vian, French critic and jazz musician would write 
in a 1950 revue, ‘There is the great Katherine ... who has known how to 
combine with infinite talent, choreographic and ethnographical science, 
elements of authentic folklore, transposed through art, her very real 
‘presence' and taste for colors, materials, jewels and attitude, that only 
belongs to people of her race.'

	In 1949, she appeared in the first hour-long American Spectaculars 
televised by NBC, followed by television spectaculars on BBC in London, 
Paris, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Sidney (Australia), Mexico and Germany.  
Later, in 1978, a special about her entitled Divine Drumbeatswas featured in 
the PBS Dance in America series, and 2 years later the Dunham group 
completed the filming of Rites de Passage for the same series, and was shown 
as a special entitled Katherine Dunham and her People,

	The years from 1950 to 1957 included tours of South America (she was a 
house guest of Evita Peron in Argentina), Europe, North Africa, Canada, 
Australia, New Zealand, the Far East and the United States, when she was not 
involved in directing choreographies for several movies.  In retrospect, it 
can be concluded that ‘Dunham's company, supported by means of extensive 
tours throughout the USA, Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Far East, 
has been a nucleus of influence radiating into black communities throughout 
the world.' (Aschenbrenner) ‘The overall achievement of creating and 
maintaining what became a major cultural institution, totally without 
subsidy, has few parallels in dance history.'  (Long)

	‘While she was recognized as "unofficially" representing US cultural life 
in her foreign tours, she was given very little assistance of any kind by 
the State Department.  Her group performed Southland - a ballet dramatizing 
a lynching - in Santiago, Chile, despite the strong opposition expressed by 
the State Department to this performance.  As a result, she experienced 
"difficulties" on her tours which were apparent reminders of her precarious 

	‘While the State Department subsidized other less well-known groups, it 
refused to support the Dunham company (even when entertaining the army 
troops) although it took credit for them as "unofficial artistic and 
cultural representatives."  The State Department repeatedly scheduled 
performances of their subsidized groups in conflict with those of the Dunham 
company; they invited ambassadors and other officials to these performances, 
despite the protests of officials and recommendations that Dunham's company 
be supported.'

	In 1966 she was appointed by the US government as Technical Cultural 
Advisor to the President of Senegal for the first Pan-African World Festival 
of the Negro Arts.  After it was over, President Senghor complimented her in 
stating that her company had ‘caused a cultural revolution that paralleled 
their political and economic revolutions.'

	Over the years spanning her career she received a great many awards in 
recognition of her unique contributions to the advancement of black dance.  
This included being conferred  over a dozen honorary doctorates from 
universities (particularly those for women) not only in the USA, but abroad 
as well.  ‘In 1968, Katherine Dunham belatedly received the Dance Magazine 
award, which represents considerable recognition by the ‘art establishment' 
Then, ‘on January 15, 1979, she was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Music 
Award for her contribution to the performing arts and her humanitarian work. 
  On that occasion at Carnegie Hall, three generations of Dunham dancers  
performed dances from her various productions throughout the years.'  Among 
the numerous awards she received, perhaps the most important was the Kennedy 
Center Honors Award presented to her by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 (she 
was the only woman awarded that year, the others included Frank Sinatra and 
Jimmy Stewart).

	Katherine Dunham ‘has (always) expressed deep sensitivity to social 
injustice... In the Sixties, the ‘Black Power' upsurge was sweeping the 
ghettos with a wave of unplanned, disconcerting violence, she accepted the 
challenge to become directly involved with inner-city youth and to teach 
dance in such an area.  She moved from the Carbondale campus of Southern 
Illinois University, where she had been artist-in-residence, to the East St. 
Louis Center of the Edwardsville campus.  Here she would be close to the 
exploding energy of black youth and begin to apply some of the ideas she 
held about the role of dance and theatre in black communities of the USA.  
Choosing a city that, when she was a small child, had experienced one of the 
worst race riots in American history and was again devestated during the 
race protests of 1968 (she still today lives in a depressed neighborhood 
right in the middle of the ghetto), she established an integrated 
educational venture, using art as one of the methods of arousing awareness, 
of stimulating life to be thinking, observant, comparative, not automatic; 
of surpassing alienation, and of serving as a rational alternative to 
violence and genocide.' (St. Clair Drake)

	Not hesitating to take unconventional approach to solving problems, she 
reached out to meet with local gang leaders to bring them together and 
convince them to support her efforts.  On one such occasion, the local white 
police, not knowing who they were dealing with, even arrested and jailed 
her, then to their embarrassment quickly released her when the newspapers 
worldwide publicized their head-handed methods toward an 
internationally-known celebrity.
‘Through her support and aid to black youth during the troubled 1960s, she 
was able to defuse some of their more self-destructive tendencies... Her 
presence and her work in East St. Louis have produced a generation of aware 
and broadly educated young people, contributing to a resurgence of hope in 
that city as reflected in its political, as well as cultural and social 
life.'  (Aschenbrunner)

	Years earlier ‘Miss Dunham also played an important role in changing race 
relations in Brazil.  As a result of an attempt to discriminate against her 
in a hotel - out of which grew an international cause celebre - the 
government of Brazil apologized formally and announced that it had taken 
corrective action through anti-discrimination legislation.'

	Further to her lengthy stay in Haiti during the mid-30s, Miss Dunham 
regularly returned there with her troupe to recuperate from the exhaustion 
of being months on extended tours, and eventually adopted it as her second 
spiritual home.  In 1992 this remarkable woman once again demonstrated that 
she would not shirk from taking forceful and dramatic action in protestation 
against the overwhelming forces of the conventional American political 
system when confronted with what she strongly felt was social injustice.  
Shortly after the illegal coup d'etat which took place in that ill-fated 
country, in an expression of solidarity with the Haitian people, she (at the 
age of 83) began a hunger strike to protest against the Bush 
Administration's new discriminatory policy of repatriation of Haitian 
boat-people (as contrasted to treatment typically accorded to Cuban refugees 
for similar activities).

	Almost immediately afterward, members of the community and others from 
around the country who were sympathetic to her initiatives began to mount 
24-hour vigils in support of her courageous act, under the leadership of 
former comedian/political activist Dick Gregory.  Although for weeks the 
major media organizations ignored her actions, tending typically to 
disregard individuals who have the nerve to buck the system, the word 
rapidly spread throughout the country, and thousands of individuals rushed 
forward to express their solidarity with her brave initiative.  Many 
prominent social figures flocked to her bedside to pay her homage, including 
influential persons in the fields of entertainment (such as Jonathan Demme, 
director of the recent award-winning movie Philadelphia, and politics 
(including Louis Farrakhan).   Only after the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the 
deposed President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, came to her bedside and 
begged her to stop putting her life in danger in support of this cause did 
she, 47 days after she began, finally stop her fast.  Right after this, the 
ABC television network nominated Katherine Dunham as its Person of the Week 
on its News program.

	Of the numerous books which contain information about the life and career 
of this special lady, the following are especially recommended:

	-  Katherine Dunham - A Biography.  Ruth Beckford.  NY: Marcel Decker.  

	-  Katherine Dunham - Reflections on the Social and Political Contexts of 
Afro-American      Dance.  Joyce Aschenbrunner.  CORD 1980 Dance Research 
Annual XII

	- The Black Tradition in American Dance.  Richard A. Long.  NY: Rizzoli. 
1983,                  Reprinted 1990.  (Dedicated to Katherine Dunham, with 
many beautiful photos..

	Your consideration of possibly including Katherine Dunham in your magazine 
special among the group of the most influential Artists and Entertainers 
during the 20th century would be greatly appreciated.

										Raymond Carrier

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