The New York Times Sunday Magazine/ December 27, 1992

A Father’s Rite

 

© Chester Higgins Jr.

 

I took my son to Africa. For three weeks my 20-year-old son and I explored the past and present of our people in Egypt and Ethiopia. I wanted him to see what I regard as the land of his heritage; I wanted him to experience the ecstasy I felt on my first visit to Africa when I was in my 20’s.

I had envisioned a kid of rite of passage for my son; what transpired between us became a turning point–in our relationship, for me as his father and I hope for him as well.

Being a father seems to require skills never taught to me. Throughout my son’s 20 years and my daughter’s 22 years, I have often felt as is I were in a boat slipping along the water in a dark night without a lamp or a lighthouse to guide me. I felt like an imposter. I was reared by my stepfather, a distant man, and at 19 I sought out my biological father, whom I had never known. Those experiences made me determined to take the role of a father seriously.

When my son was 9 years old and my daughter was 11, their mother and I divorced, and it nearly sank the already adrift boat. With divorce often comes anger, a welter of conflicting feelings and much pain for everybody. New York State court-restricted visitations for a father can reduce his relationship with his children to that of an uncle. Having been deprived of my own father, I was determined to maintain as much contact with my children as the law would allow.

For my 15th trip to Africa, in July, to photograph the reinterment of His Majesty Haile Selassie on what would have been his 100th birthday, I decided to ask my son, Damani, to come along as my assistant. Damani, who has locked his hair, shares my love of His Majesty and of raggae, the music of the Rastafarians who worship Selassie. I added to our itinerary a stopover in Egypt so that my son could also see the pyramids, temples and tombs of our ancestors.

Haile Selassie’s reinterment was postponed by the new Ethiopian regime about two weeks before we were to arrive. Though deeply disappointed, neither Damani nor I considered canceling our trip, nor did the thousands of Rastafarians who annually gather for Selassie’s birthday. While we were in Ethiopia, my son in his locks blended into the local population; his enthusiasm for this venerable African country warmed my heart. On a four-day trip to visit the ancient sacred city of Lalibala, where in the 12th century, churches were hewn out of the surrounding mountains, I had a dream. In my dream, I saw two men, one older and one younger, facing one another against a backdrop of temples and pyramids. The father was speaking as he anointed the head of his son.

I became enamored of the possibility of enacting a ceremony with my son in Africa. For the next six days I privately wondered what words to use in such a ceremony. Gradually the words came to me. By the time we arrived in Cairo, I was ready. I told my son that there was a ceremony that I wanted to perform with him in the tombs at Luxor, Egypt. His eyes shone with anticipation. But I wondered if he would still be receptive after my next statement. In the dream I remembered that the son was anointed, as it were, with a dry substance. I took this to mean powder rather than oil was used. But what powder? I ruled out ground herbs and flowers, and finally settled on sand. Sand represents the Sahara, and sand also contains the remains of the ancient people of Pharaonic Egypt. That made metaphysical sense to me, but in the real world, young adults or almost anybody for that matter, are disinclined to have sand poured on their hair.

"I will need sand to anoint your head," I told my son.

"Sand?" he asked, hesitantly. "How much?"

"Just a little; you can put some in a film canister," I said hastily. We both knew a 35-millimeter film canister wouldn’t hold much sand. "Take the canister and find sand you feel special about and I’ll use that."

Once he was in control of the amount of sand and where it would come from, he decided to take some from the desert in the shadow of the pyramids in Cairo. Days later, when we reached Luxor, he collected more from around the remains of the Temple of Karnak–one of the largest, oldest stone temples in the world.

The next afternoon we sailed across the Nile to Thebes and to the Valley of the Kings, a basin formed by towering mountains. From the heavenly perch of the ancient Egyptian gods, the valley resembles a huge bowl to which there is one narrow entrance, flanked by more tall peaks. The tomb of the Pharoahs are hewn into the lower parts of the mountains that form the basin. Inside each tomb, 12 foot-square passageways lead down several thousand feet into the solid rock. The scene that greets modern-day visitors to these sacred chambers is astonishing: Ornately painted walls reveal images of animals, people and scenes that were part of the real and imaginary lives of Pharaonic Egyptians. It was here, inside one of the tombs of an 18th Dynasty Pharoah, that I decided to perform the ceremony revealed to me in my dream in Ethiopia.

In front of an enormous wall painting of Osiris, the god of resurrection, my son and I faced each other. I poured the sand he had collected into the palm of my left hand, and with my right, I anointed the top of his head with this sand. Looking into his eyes, I said:

"I, your father, anoint the crown of your head with the soil of Africa. This piece of earth is a symbol of the lives of your ancestors. It is a bonding of their lives to yours. Like your father, you, too, are African. We are Africans, not because we were born in Africa, but because Africa was born in us. Look around you and behold us in our greatness. Greatness is an African possibility; you can make it yours. Just as the great ones before you have, by their deeds, placed their names on history, so can you by your deeds place your name on tomorrow…So here, in the company of those great ones who have waited patiently for your visit–you are loved, you are encouraged. Our faces shine toward yours. Go forward; may you live long, may you prosper and have health."

We hugged each other, engoying the specialness of the moment. Leaving him alone inside the tomb to mediate, I walked back toward the light and waited for him outside on the valley floor.

Here in the land of our ancient fathers, in the tomb of one of the great fathers of the ancient Egyptian empire, my perception of what it means to be a father was unalterably expanded and enhanced.

 
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