The New York Times Book Review
November 20, 1994


Things to Be Respected


By Eddy L. Harris


A black woman standing in the spray of a New York City fire hydrant takes relief from a hot summer's day. A black man lathered with soap sits in the Niger River to bathe.

Three black men sit on the porch of an old general store in rural Alabama and wait for something to happen, wait, in fact, for anything to happen. Four young black men sit in the shelter of a doorway and wait for the rain to stop. Two black women sit on folding chairs in the laundromat of a small Alabama town and wait for their clothes to dry.

Black people in Harlem worshipping in a Coptic church. Black people in Brazil going to make offerings to the deity of the sea. Black people at a voodoo purification ceremony in Haiti. Black people in Mali performing the ceremonial Kanaga Dance.

The black face of a child in Suriname, the black face of a child in New York City, of a woman in St. Lucia, of a man in Ethiopia.

With fabulous images like these, Chester Higgins Jr., a staff photographer at The New York Times, brings the reader into the world of Africa's children. And his photographs in Feeling the Spirit are wonderful, technically fine and evocative. The man knows how to capture a moment.

However, these images are not only about the moment, perhaps not at all. They are not designed to evoke the moment that preceded each photograph nor the one that followed, nor even perhaps to conjure a larger scene around the very moment of the photograph itself. They are instead given to us that we may clearly see the influences, both subtle and overt, of Africa on her descendants scattered throughout the world, to see the many ways Africa has endowed her children not merely with hair types and skin color but also with styles of being that can be traced back many generations to their source. Joy is hereditary.

Patience is hereditary—poverty, too, it seems, and the endless endurance of black people the world over. Something as simple as a little girl's big smile seems to have been passed on to her from Africa as much as the color of her eyes.

"Feeling the Spirit" is a beautiful book. It is a big book of photographs, all of them in black and white, all of them caught by Mr. Higgin's careful and patient eye. They are images that capture the sometimes difficult, sometimes joyous, sometimes painful, sometimes routine daily lives of black people everywhere.

Clearly, though, Mr. Higgins has not gone for the easily dramatic. Not a single photograph in Feeling the Spirit will evoke tears. That would trivialize the effect of these images by tugging at emotions, manipulating a response. Instead, as he states in his introduction, he follows the maxim of his mentor, Cornell Capa, that "the role of photography is to show...things to be appreciated and respected." And what needs here to be appreciated—admired greatly and recognized with gratitude—is the shared sameness in the lives of the descendants of Africa. What needs to be respected is the way those descendants manage to carry on despite it all.

What Chester Higgins Jr. has done is to reveal to us what we already have seen but may not know: that there is great beauty in the black world, great dignity and tremendous strength to go along with the many hardships of being black.

 

Eddy L. Harris is author of "Mississippi Solo," "Native Stranger" and "South of Haunted Dreams." He is currently working on a book about Harlem.

 
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