In the Cradle of Humanity
Copyright by Chester Higgins Jr.
I was raised in the Deep South, in Alabama, in a little country village of 800 people before the time of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement when certain institutions and everyday activities were still off-limits to members of my community. Like most children in the United States in the 1950s and 60s, I believed that African Americans had little in common with Africans on the continent of Africaespecially with those portrayed on the one television show about Africa that I religiously watched hoping for enlightenment; these "Africans" were the childlike creatures created as supporting roles to Tarzan. In my grammar school history classes, I was equally frustrated. The only scraps of information I was offered about Africa concerned wild animals, European explorations and the slave trade.
But I was lucky. My mother was a school teacher and I loved escaping into her books. In one in particularI suspect it must have been some sort of encyclopediaI came across an image of an ancient Egyptian figurine depicting a child. There before me representing the most sophisticated culture in the world was a person with African features just like mine, in direct contradiction to everything I was being taught, consciously and unconsciously, by my society.
I still carry that image in my head today. As I grew up and began to notice newspapers and TV reports, it helped me discount the negative portrayal of African Americans in the American media at a time when virtually the only African Americans who captured media attention were those who had broken the law.
The restrictive laws and social taboos that molded the lives of African Americans in the Deep South in the 1940s and 50s forced members of this minority community to develop a parallel society to serve and protect their own. In my home town, New Brockton, we developed our own businesses and insurance companies, our own schools, universities, hospitals and our own entertainment. My father and grandfather, who was also a minister, owned a dry cleaning business. Our family, because of the family business, my grandfather's church and my mother's role in the local school, was very much in the center of social activities. My parents' friends included middle class professionals and farmers alike. Throughout grammar and high school I socialized exclusively with African Americans and was accepted into an Alabama university, Tuskegee Universityone of the first African American institutions of higher learning, founded in 1881.
At Tuskegee in the 1960s, I found myself in the midst of the political turmoil of the era. Eagerly I joined student marches and registration campaigns to enable my people to vote. As a student I saw the white political hegemony of the local county successfully challenged and the first black sheriff elected, at the same time that Dr. Martin Luther King inspired all with his Selma to Montgomery march.
Also at Tuskegee, I came upon a man, who changed my life. P.H. Polk, a giant among photographers, was quietly recording moments of African American life. It was his imagesof people just like those I had grown up around and respected all my lifethat influenced me to take up photography along with my courses in the liberal arts. With photography, I discovered a way to document the many wonderful dimensions of African Americans in my hometown and at the university.
My interest in photography drew me to New York City, our media capital. I began publishing books of photography on African American lifeon women, men and families. At the same time I started freelancing for Look, Life and finally took a staff job with The New York Times. But my curiosity about Africa had yet to be satisfied. I decided to travel there to see for myself if I, a Diasporan African, had anything in common with Continentals.
I will never forget that first trip to Africa and the wonderful sense of liberation it unleashed. I found myself identifying with the majority culture and for the first time in my life feeling free of the yoke of racism. In Africa I saw myself positively reflected in the eyes of those I encountered.
I came searching for social interactions and soon began to discover cultural and political nuances that marked us both. In the United States, we had just become enfranchised almost 100 years after emancipation from slavery because of our determination to be politically represented. On the continent, I saw newly independent nations rising from the ruins of colonialism and taking back their right to self-determination. These were heady days for me as an American of the Civil Rights era and a Pan Africanist.
In 1973, I made my first trip to Ethiopia during the 10th anniversary meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa. Coming to make pictures of African heads of state, I found myself shuttling back and forth to the airport. I stood with other photographers to record arrivals, the reception the heads of state received from the Emperor His Majesty Haile Selassie and the deliberations. This was my first take on African politics and it was set against the backdrop of an economic drama brought on by the Yom Kippur War and a fourfold increase in the price of oil products. I encountered General Gowon of Nigeria who after leading a protracted civil war against the breakaway state of Biafra was on his way to exile in London. I saw General Idi Amin of Uganda who, having sabotaged the East African economic community, would later be defeated by the troops of Tanzania. Qhadaffi and Sadat, who seemed to me to be claiming to be Africans for the first time, came that year to enlist African countries to join their campaign to isolate Israel. I remember they called for the breaking off of diplomatic and economic ties with Israel. African nations were looking for relief from the disastrous effects of the oil price hikes on their fragile economies. It seemed to me that the absence of Said Barre of Somalia spoke of the skirmishes of that country with Ethiopia over Ogaden. As a first time observer to political intrigue, I was impressed with how His Majesty brought a sense of focus to the proceedings.
Seeing this experienced leader in difficult situations, I became filled with respect and awe for his presence and regal bearing. He had a quality that was otherworldly; he seemed to me to be earthly and spiritual all at the same time. Emperor Selassie became an important political figure for me and I sensed other African heads of state looked to him as well as the political father of Africa. He symbolized for me a nation of people who refused to be colonized or dispossessed.
I have been back to Ethiopia five times since that first trip in 1973 and each time I am impressed by these ancient people who have ruled themselves since the dawn of time. I have enjoyed discovering some of the countryside of Ethiopiathe people, their food, the culture and the awesome history reflected in the magnificent churches, especially those at Lalibela, and the tombs of Menelik and Taitu.
Between 1975 and 1990, I didn't return at all. Waiting for the civil war to end, I concentrated on collecting rare books about the country and Emperor Selassie. As I pursued my research, my knowledge deepened about Ethiopian history and the evolution there of religious and political institutions. My interest in Ethiopia, coupled with the hard times caused by the war which forced many citizens to emigrate to the United States, has brought me in contact with many members of the expatriate and refugee community living here. From them I have been given much first-hand information about the culture they love. During this period I was pleased to sponsor two young Ethiopian students to this country so that they could pursue their medical studies.
Although I began my career in photography to document the life and times of African Americans, since my first trip to the continent of Africa, my life mission has expanded. Although it is overwhelming, it is a mission I enjoydocumenting the life and times of African people worldwide. As I go forward on my lifelong journey to discover the meaning of my Africanness, I keep coming back to the themes of African antiquityto Ethiopia and its millennia-old history. The more I discover, the more I know there is still to discover...