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Pilgrimage to the Past Volume 53 Number 1, January/February 2000
Text and Photographs by Chester Higgins, Jr.

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Members of the St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn hold a sunrise seaside ritual at Far Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York. This ritual is the culmination of a week-long celebration that addresses issues of enslavement and self-hate among the people of African descent. (© Chester Higgins Jr.)

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 had written their own stories, just as Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and Ethiopia's Haile Selassie were writing theirs.

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 those with whom I had grown up.

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 twelfth-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 holy sanctuaries. In Egypt itself, I documented, in dozens of trips through its many layers of civilization, similarities with Ethiopian and other African cultures, most recently exploring connections with the Asante kingdom in modern-day Ghana. The death of the Asante king last year and the installation of his successor afforded me a rare glimpse into the customs of this ancient monarchy, whose people honor traditions emanating from ancient Egypt. Both kingships claim divine origin from the sun and their kings possess multipart souls. Both worship ancestors and practice similar elaborate, protracted rituals surrounding death and mourning.

Chester Higgins, Jr., is author of Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa (Bantam, 1994). His Elder Grace, The Nobility of Aging will be published later this year by Bullfinch.

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© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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