Into Africa: The Search for African Identity

American Legacy Magazine

by Chester Higgins Jr.

Forty-five years ago, fingering through the pages of my mother's encyclopedias, I made a discovery that has gnawed at my consciousness ever since. The picture of a doll, a Ushabti, as I discovered years later, in the image of a black child jumped off the page. I was born and raised in rural, southeastern Alabama, 38 miles from Dothan, and in the mid-1950s, there were no black dolls. The one in the encyclopedia was from the past, the distant past, a figurine from an ancient Egyptian tomb.

I was struck by the familiarity of the features. Here, to me, at the age of 10, was evidence of the existence of black people in a place and time of which I had no knowledge. I recognized something African about the doll, though the captions gave no such indication.

In my teenage years, I discovered photographs of modern-day African people in the magazines my mother read. Lucky for me, she was a schoolteacher, who subscribed to Life, Look, Time, Newsweek and Ebony. I was startled to recognize a remarkable similarity in these contemporary African faces to many of my Alabama relatives.

When I became a student at Tuskegee University, I finally got to meet people from Africa. Through my friendships with African students, I came to appreciate the promise of Africa -- a continent about which I had no clear understanding. I began to read the works of Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and Ethiopia's Haile Selassie, among others.

Still, Africa both fascinated and frightened me, and I couldn't let go of a lingering fear that Africa was indeed "primitive"; a fashionable adjective that appeared two or three times in just about every article published on the subject in the popular press in the 1950s and 1960s. Amazingly, a simple African tale, recounted by a professor of Industrial Relations, inspired a profound moment of recognition and launched a lifelong mission. In this tale a father who read to his young son a story about a hunter, who stalks and kills a lion, the king of the jungle. "Why", asks the son, "doesn't the lion triumph and kill the man. He is stronger and has sharp claws and teeth." "The lion will win" responds the father, "when he writes his own story."

;Having attended segregated schools in the South, I appreciated how effectively my schoolteacher mother and other black educators had cobbled together, mostly by dint of their own research, threads of our African American past. They fleshed out and balanced our school curriculum, giving us our own heroes and martyrs. We learned early about Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. They were writing their own stories, just as Nkrumah and Selassie were writing theirs.

Africa and Africans had always been interpreted to us by Europeans. I wanted to see and hear Continental Africans for myself thereby dismissing all of the European intermediaries whose interpretations have held the unabridged story of Africa hostage to European propaganda.

Years later, when I first set foot in Africa, I was full of anticipation. Finally, I was to discover for myself the parallel black reality I had long nourished in my imagination. I was exhilarated at suddenly finding myself in the majority. On that first trip, I began a lifelong study of the mannerisms, culture, and traditions of African people; mirror images of the people of my childhood.

During the next three decades, I used my camera to see Africa beyond the skewed prism of colonialism and to discover for myself the vast monumental evidence of past civilizations. My first trips to East Africa brought me face to face with Ethiopia’s 12th century rock-hewn Christian churches. Employing a technology, similar to that used by ancient Egyptians at the temple at Abu Simbel, Ethiopians extracted stone from a mountain to create a holy sanctuary. In Egypt itself, I documented, in dozens of trips through its many layers of civilization, religious similarities with Ethiopian and other African cultures, most recently exploring connections with the royal Asante kingdom in modern-day Ghana.

As in Ancient Egypt the leadership of the Asante nation is a reflection of the cosmos. The Queen mother represents the moon in the night sky. In Ancient Egypt, Heaven was a African woman who was seen in the night sky looming over the planet. She would embrace the setting Sun in her arms and consume the Sun at sunset in her mouth. During the night the Sun would travel through her body while twinkling light would shine through her dress of many holes forming the stars. She would give birth in the morning revealing the Sun once again for another sunrise.

In Ghana, the Queenmother is the Moon of the night and the King or Asantehene is the Sun of the day. The regularity of the Sun and Moon is determined by the Creator. The significance of this belief means that the earthy kingdom of the Asante would be in lock step with the natural and heavenly kingdom of the Creator.

The death of the Asante king two years ago and the installation of his successor offered me a rare glimpse into the customs of this ancient monarchy whose people honor traditions emanating from ancient Egypt. I knew that the death of the Asanthehene, or king, and the ensuing rituals of mourning could provide an exceptional opportunity to see spiritual enactments that outsiders rarely encounter. This fit perfectly into a larger work that has consumed me for a decade or more on the African beginnings of religious thought and its subsequent influence on the rest of the world’s spiritual development. I knew it was important to document this great event.

However, in order to gain access to photograph these Asante practices, normally forbidden to outsiders, I knew I would need excellent introductions. I turned to a group of Ghanaian friends for advice and guidance. They directed me to a man who had assisted me previously to make many trips to Africa between 1971 and 1975 on charter flights he organized between New York and Accra, Ghana. Once again he came to my aid and helped me make contacts with the people who controlled access to the upcoming Asante burial and coronation.

Following his advice, I made initial contact through trans-Atlantic telephone calls and written correspondence. I made gifts of my book, Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa, so that the Asante Council of Chiefs could appreciate my approach and deep respect for ancient African culture. I read and researched everything I could find, including numerous out-of print volumes, on Asante culture. Knowledge is, in fact, power. I found that by understanding what rites and rituals were to take place gave me even greater access. Today this access has grown increasingly deeper and broader as a result of the personal relationships I have been privileged to enjoy over the four trips I made throughout the year-long burial and coronation ceremonies held in Kumasi, Ghana.

I am indeed privileged to be helping to forge a modern-day bridge between Africans and African Americans. The ancient bridge of our collective memory was severed hundreds of years ago with the institution of slavery. Today, it is up to us to re-establish our cultural birthright. I believe that the more we learn about and experience our Africanness, the more we will be able to re-construct and fully appreciate our own individual human potential.

Chester Higgins Jr., is a staff photographer for The New York Times and author of five books including Feeling The Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa (Bantam 1994). His latest book, Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging (Bulfinch 2000) has become a travelling exhibition circulated by Elder Grace can be seen at The Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham, Al- November 1- December 31, 2001; University of Delaware, University Gallery, January - March 2002; Tubman African American Museum, Macon, Georgia, August - September 30, 2002).

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