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As a New York Times photographer, Higgins has taken glorious, one-of-a-kind pictures of people from all walks of life and covered grim disasters and history-making events. Throughout his career, Higgins has also pursued a more personal ...
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As a New York Times photographer, Higgins has taken glorious, one-of-a-kind pictures of people from all walks of life and covered grim disasters and history-making events. Throughout his career, Higgins has also pursued a more personal mission: in unforgettable photographs, he has documented the history and lives of people of African American and African descent. ECHO OF THE SPIRIT is Higgins’s most personal work to date. In photographs rich in spirit and memory and a simple but elegant text, he focuses on the significant people and events of his own life, from his days as a boyhood preacher in New Brockton, Alabama, where he was reared by his mother and stepfather, to his first encounters with the works of great photographers during his student years, to his emergence as a highly respected and much admired photojournalist. There are images and memories of his favorite great uncle, Forth, who died at the age of 107, and of his aunt Shug, a masterful quilt maker. He pays tribute to his mentors—P. H. Polk, Cornell Capa, Gordon Parks, Romare Bearden, and Arthur Rothenstein at Look magazine—describing their lessons and their influence on his work. Higgins’s extraordinary ability to get to the spirit of things—the essence of what makes people and places come alive, makes them interesting, beautiful, or ugly—resonates throughout ECHO OF THE SPIRIT. It is a remarkable look at a creative life and the cultural history that shaped it.
The New York Times on ELDER GRACE: The Nobility of Aging
“His portraits are calculated to appeal… By lavishing attention on his subjects and by seeking to apprehend what he calls their ‘shine,’ or inner light, he captures qualities that continue to make them physically attractive into late age: humor, elegance and dignity. He sums these up in the single word ‘grace.”
The Los Angeles Times on FEELING THE SPIRIT
“On page after page the photographer, lyrical and celebratory, disappears into his subjects. And he pulls us along with him… the images repeatedly grow into icons.”
Chosen by the Spirit
My first understanding of spirituality came through my grandfather, the Reverend Warren Smith. He was a Southern Baptist minister who built and pastored three churches in rural Coffee County, Alabama. An unassuming man, he was gregarious, attentive, and smart, with a welcoming smile and a kind word for everybody.
When I was nine, in 1955, my life, however ordinary it may have seemed up until then, was irrevocably changed. I went from being a naughty kid to being a serious holy "man" who preached at different churches and recruited members into the Southern Baptist Church. My peers became wary of me, while adults sought my blessing.
One night I was asleep when, at about 3 a.m., a low, constant sound within my head awakened me. I opened my eyes and saw a supernaturally bright light coming from the wall diagonally across from my bed. This was not a dream; dreams happen while one sleeps. I sat up. I squinted, searching the strange light. Over six feet in diameter, it pulsated, radiating from its center. It was strange and new, but it held no fear for me.
As I studied the light, the center cleared, revealing the image of a man draped in a garment as in ancient times. It was standing with eyes closed and hands held palms up at waist level. After a moment, its eyes opened--light brown eyes that looked at me with an intensity I had never known before. It began to walk very slowly toward me with those outstretched hands. The room rattled with crackling energy. Who was this being coming toward me? Could it be an alien? But my spirit assured me it was safe.
When the figure was less thansix feet from me, the sounds of tinkling gave way to a voice: "I want you." Then terror took over. My own screaming voice filled my ears. Death was coming for me. I didn't want to die. I screamed louder.
Four adults burst into my room. My mother was first to reach me; over her shoulder my father appeared, and next to him my grandparents. Someone pulled the chain of the light fixture suspended from the ceiling.
In that instant of exploding electric light, the supernatural brilliance and the man disappeared. I saw four people at my side; I felt the hands of my mother, but I continued to scream uncontrollably. Was I dying and was this the moment of death, or were these faces around me real, part of the world of the living?
Their continuing questions about my "nightmare" assured me I was not dead, and I became calmer. I recounted what I had seen, how the air rattled with energy and what the man had said and done.
Everyone except my grandfather, Reverend Smith, was baffled. He was certain I had just had a vision calling me to the ministry.
A man of average height, stout, balding, and clean-shaven except for hair growing out of his ears--that's how I remember my grandfather. He was an accomplished tailor, the owner of our dry-cleaning business in New Brockton, Alabama, as well as the minister of three churches. A ready smile matched his cheerful disposition. Everyone loved him, and he loved them.
Until his death, Grandaddy's guiding hand helped chisel the milestones of my life. He interpreted the vision that had snatched my sleep, certain that it had been a call to the ministry. Indeed, I preached from the pulpit for over a decade in Alabama.
Grandaddy gave me my first driving lesson, when I was eight years old. He did this even though I had forced his car off the road during a hard rain a year or so earlier. I was sitting next to him in the front passenger seat when the car skidded on a patch of mud. We were sliding downhill across the road. Watching him fight with the steering wheel, I thought my grandfather must be having a heart attack, so I grabbed the wheel to straighten us out. Abruptly the car left the road, and we landed in a ditch. No one was hurt, and after his initial shock my grandfather was more amused than angry.
It was Grandaddy who taught me how to knot a suit tie. I stood in front of the mirror working the tie as he sat at his sewing machine making clothes in his dry-cleaning shop, while my father worked the presser. After watching numerous tie-tying failures, my grandfather stood up. "Let me help you" was all he said. Untangling the tie, he explained the knotting sequence while he guided my hands on the fabric. And then he let me do it by myself. I remember touching the precious knot before trying to retrace the steps he had just shown me. I looked in the mirror and then at him for reassurance and, when necessary, direction. It took a few tries, but I got it. Thrilled, I strutted around the shop displaying this knot of my own making. Grandaddy gave me his congratulations, laughing with pleasure. Then he went back to his work.
It wasn't until I became an adult that I discovered that this gentle man, whose strength was always there for me, had been a staunch pioneer for the improvement of the lives of all African Americans. He had withstood racial slurs and threats and had even had his house burned down during his struggles to secure voting rights and schooling for African Americans in Coffee County.
Before 1928, powerful landowners were able to mandate that only white children would be educated in the county. My grandfather, Reverend Smith, petitioned the county board of education to pay teachers' salaries if he provided the land and the building for our school. They agreed, and he converted our Masonic Lodge to accommodate five classes on two floors. The nearby Collins Chapel A.M.E. Church served the overflow. Grandaddy headed the search committee that found the first teacher, Mr. Paul Anthony Youngblood.
The county school board soon donated to New Brockton an abandoned school building in another part of the county. It was up to our community to move it. My grandfather, with help from other school trustees, organized the community to salvage the lumber and straighten nails from this old building. Two carpenters, Mr. Milton Yelverton and Mr. Les Flowers, were hired to organize and instruct all the volunteers. This band of dedicated citizens constructed our first school on land owned by my grandfather.
In the 1930s, voting was still very much a rich man's sport in rural Jim Crow Alabama. To vote, you had to own property or, failing that, pay a poll tax every time you voted. Along with other African American landowners, my grandfather took folks by the carload to the polls on voting day and paid their tax so their voices could be heard.
My grandfather's genuine and positive spirit proved to be a powerful and inspirational catalyst for change.
In the Spirit of King
We lived on the edge. Growing from childhood to young adulthood as an African American in the state of Alabama had its moments of joy and times of terror. Forced to live separately, black people could find happiness and solace only among themselves. In our own company, a certain element of normalcy was enjoyed. In the company of whites, however, uncertainty and tension filled each moment. Tension could turn to terror instantly. It was like being in a cage with a rattlesnake and not knowing when the snake would attack. There was the ever-present possibility of instant death by white criminal behavior, protected by the privilege of skin color. The very presence of a white person among us held the possibility of being killed.
Our ability to express ourselves freely could invite revenge from the local white people. Control over our lives was limited to our own barbershops, funeral homes, churches, and schools. Jim Crow laws locked us out of public accommodations and prohibited free expression. Poll taxes, civics tests, and threats restricted and eliminated voting privileges. We were visible punching bags.
Life shared with fellow blacks was precious as we found the protected space to enjoy ourselves. In the Bible, many found the peace to face adversity and, if necessary, death itself.
In this environment, the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. in the late 1950s and early 1960s brought us hope that things could change for the better. Dr. King stood and spoke directly to the powerful politicians in our state and aired their dirty laundry in public--before their eyes and the eyes of the nation. In his sermons, he judged whites as equals and declared them guilty of racial terrorism.
In the twentieth century there had been no one to rally the terrorized black population of Alabama, and Dr. King took up the cause. Whenever he was on radio or television, every black person would listen. At the sight of him or the sound of his voice, some would fall on their knees or raise their arms to the sky. A lord of deliverance had come. Finally God had sent a Moses to be among us and bring His people out of the bowels of white civilization.
Dr. King's voice for equality was seconded by those of the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert. All three of these men were silenced by assassination. Images of Dr. King were displayed in revered places in the households of southern blacks. After the assassinations, there appeared a composite portrait that grew almost as popular.
Images of King, Kennedy, and Kennedy, the three Ks we blacks embraced, became silent shrines in each home, church, or place of business. These men were our friends. We loved them for what they stood for and were in mourning for our loss.
Like the rest of my people, I acknowledge the sacred presence of Dr. King's life and work in our lives. He left behind a memory, an inspiration that remains beyond his grave in our hearts. His living among us, standing up for us, inspired us all to rise up with him.
When I was a student at Tuskegee University in 1968, I photographed a local barber in his shop. He too had an image of King in his life as he carried out his daily labors. He and his customers found reassurance in the presence of this image, which triggered their memories, their hopes, their pride, and their determination to continue.
My own activism during college, marching against George Wallace at the state capital, motivated me to become a photojournalist. I took note of the pictorial coverage of the students showing up in Montgomery, advocating for equal rights--American citizens exercising our constitutional right to petition our government for change. But the news photographers represented us as thugs and potential arsonists.
I discovered firsthand that our story was being marginalized and corrupted by outsiders' version of hate. It became clear that I needed to make photographs from the inside. These images would show what outsiders couldn't--or refused to--see. Nowhere were the elements of decency, dignity, and virtuous character recorded in photographs of African Americans. These significant elements of our humanity are even today all too often beyond the reach of many outsiders who photograph people of color.
To Kiss the Memory
They came during the summer: two teenage girls with beautifully smooth brown skin, who came from Detroit with their father to my southeastern Alabama hometown. Those girls were really cute, and this was their first time out of Detroit into the South--the country. Their father had not been back home since they were born. He had come to visit his mother and have his daughters get to know their grandmother.
I had a crush on the older one. I loved sitting on her grandmother's porch, listening as her words painted pictures in my mind of a mysterious faraway place called Detroit. Their grandmother, Aunt Jessie, who lived with her sister Ola, was beside herself with glee at their visit.
Aunt Jessie was in her sixties; Aunt Ola seemed older. They lived in the house across from the Springfield Baptist Church, at the junction of the street that went to town and one that came to a dead end in what we called "the Bottom." Aunt Jessie was a favorite of all the children because she sold candy from her house. We loved her dearly. But come Sunday we made a point never to sit behind her at church. She was one of those ladies who would come to church, fill up on the Gospel, and get happy. This caused her to go into a semiunconscious state and fall backward, with all her 250 pounds, crying for the joy of living in the Spirit.
Our town--two blocks long, with ten stores, one restaurant, two gas stations, the First Baptist Church, the Piggly Wiggly Supermarket, and the post office--really was a village. Its commercial district sat at an intersection on Highway 84 where the one traffic light hung.
One day after the girls had been to the post office to mail letters to their friends back home, they stopped into the restaurant to get ice cream cones. The waitress told them that she couldn't serve them. They left, perplexed by the strange refusal. They put it out of their minds and walked down the dirt road back to their grandmother's house.
We locals knew never to go to the front door of this store. The man who owned it was a Klansman and would serve black people only at the back door. He was also the town policeman.
As the girls walked back, the policeman, accompanied by his son, caught up with them in his car as they were coming around the last curve before their grandmother's house. I had just spotted them when the two men sprang from the police car, stunned them with tear gas, and attacked them with batons. I watched from the distance in the company of a few shocked adults. The policeman and his son then threw the girls into the back of the car, drove back to town, and put them in jail.
Word spread quickly from house to house along the road. Seven older women gathered on the girls' grandmother's front lawn. They waited while someone went inside to tell Aunt Jessie and the girls' father what had happened.
Yells went up from Aunt Jessie and Aunt Ola. The father, filled with rage, ran out the door and bolted from the porch. To my surprise, old Aunt Jessie, who had never been known for moving fast, was right on his heels. Then the strangest thing happened. The women at the edge of the lawn ran toward the father and locked arms with Aunt Jessie to block him inside their circle. He kept screaming for his right to get his daughters. The women, certain the evil policeman would kill him, pleaded with him to let them handle it.