ESSENCE MAGAZINE/ The Color Red

The Voice of Red

© Chester Higgins Jr.

Red is today's power color! It’s dramatic, provocative and seductive, and it commands your attention. Red fabric shimmers against deep black skin like fire glowing in the night.

My mother was well acquainted with the awesome power of red. In fact, she understood its mysterious force so well that she wanted to protect me from it. From as far as I can remember, she declared her everlasting enmity for the color. "It's too loud and too ethnic," she’d say. As a child, I was not allowed to wear a single piece of clothing that was solid red!

I grew up puzzled and annoyed by my mother's inexplicable campaign to discredit the color red, but her influence left its mark on me. It wasn’t until I was 27 years old that I finally broke free of her prohibition. It happened in Africa.

My fifth trip to the continent brought me to Ethiopia, where a meeting of the Organization of African Unity promised an opportunity to photograph the African heads of state. One day, as I waited at the Addis Ababa airport for a glimpse of arriving dignitaries, my attention was pulled from the action around the arriving airplanes to a group of men making their way across the tarmac. I could sense the power of one man in particular before I could even see him. Although he was a person of such small stature that he was dwarfed by the others alongside him, something about his aura so profoundly moved me that I lowered the camera from my eyes so I could have a better look. It was only after he passed me that I learned I had been in the presence of His Majesty Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia.

That seconds-long encounter set me on a quest to discover all I could about His Majesty and his country. Among the smorgasbord of new knowledge I devoured over the course of years was a story about the pageantry in Haile Selassie's palace. The Emperor, I was told, held court while standing on a red cushion at the foot of his throne.

That did it for me. My conflicted feelings about the color red vanished. I began wearing red socks and continue to do so in honor of His Majesty. Eventually I would be seen sporting solid shirts, sweaters, jackets, hats, scarves, belts, and even red, according to my mood. From then on I never gave much thought to my mother’s crusade against red.

Not until recently, anyway. A year after her death in 1994, I traveled to southwest Alabama for a family. Surrounded by my relatives, I was blessed with hearing story after story about the woman who raised me. At some point I brought up the subject of my mother’s curious hatred of the color red. For a moment everyone in the room fell silent and stared at me. "You mean you don't know?" someone finally asked.

Red, I was told, had altered our family history. For us, it meant the difference between slavery and freedom. My great-great-grandfather, as the story goes, had just reached puberty and was alone in the African forest performing the initiation rituals demanded by his village. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a distant red banner that stood out against the green backdrop, and he became distracted. When he went to investigate, his life – as well as the lives of all of his descendants – was changed forever. The banner belonged to a band of slave hunters, who seized this strong young man and shipped him across the Atlantic to the Americas. In spite of numerous attempts to escape, he remained until he was finally able to free himself by joining the victorious Union Army during the Civil War.

To this day, I don’t understand why my mother never shared this rich family legend. But I do understand her strong feelings about wearing such a bold color. When I was growing up in the Deep South, a black boy had to be careful not to call too much attention to himself. My mother‘s protective instincts were working overtime, and for that I'm grateful.

But today I reclaim red, and all the loudness, boldness, and ethnicity it evokes. I see it reflected in each of the flags of the countries of Africa. It’s the color associated with the ancient kingdoms of Nubia and Kush, and the powerful West African deity of thunder and lightening, Shango. Red saturates our African culture and is woven throughout the stories that make up our legacy. For me, it represents a bridge to my past.

 
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