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talking with Dr. Clyde W. Ford about
the unsung heritage of African mythology

by D. Patrick Miller


“What myth are you living?”

The famed psychologist Carl Jung asked this question to remind people that the patterns of their daily lives are more deeply rooted in the “collective unconscious” than they may realize. As Clyde W. Ford points out in his book The Hero with an African Face: Mythic Wisdom of Traditional Africa, African-Americans face a special challenge in recognizing the myths they are living. If they turn only to Western traditions to find out what it means to be black, for instance, they find a predominance of legends that tell of white gods triumphing over black devils.

“So much of the history of the West is embodied in this simple but devastating mythology that pits people with white skins against those with dark skins,” says Ford “— a cultural mythology that plagues us to this very day.” But the African traditions behind the word black tell stories not of monochromatic devils but of many kinds of people: the people of the mountains of the west, the people of the dream time, the people of the seeded earth, the people of immeasurable radiance. Ford answers Jung’s question by saying that he is now living the “reclaimed mythology of black” — and his book offers that profound reclamation for the benefit of all readers.

Besides being a scholar who has taught Swahili at Columbia University and African American history at Western Washington University, Dr. Ford is a chiropractor and leader in somatic psychology who has previously written books on physical and emotional healing and racial harmony. A past editor of Marilyn Ferguson’s Brain Mind Bulletin, Ford is the founding director of the Institute of African Mythology. He has traveled widely in Africa where he pursued some of the original research for The Hero With an African Face. His work is pathbreaking in part because, as Ford discovered to his surprise and dismay, the leading Western mythologist of modern times chose to overlook the rich traditions of the African continent.

Your book is both an homage and a challenge to the legacy of the scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell, who once dismissed African mythology as “mumbo-jumbo from the Congo” and otherwise hardly mentioned it in his volumes of research and commentary. Could you say a little about your mixed feelings in following Campbell’s footsteps into new scholarly territory?
FORD: In writing the book I woke up on alternate days blessing or cursing Joseph Campbell. On the days that I cursed him, it was because I could hardly believe a man with his scholarship and intellect had ignored and ridiculed the tremendous contribution of African mythology and sacred wisdom. On the days that I blessed him, it was for the model of mythic understanding that he presented to us. And also because if he had included Africa in his studies, I wouldn't have had this niche to explore! For me personally, the opportunity to explore this terrain — as opposed to reading someone else’s exploration — was a very powerful undertaking that I wouldn’t give up for anything in the world.

Is it possible that Campbell’s incomplete perspective had to do with African mythology having less of a written record than an oral tradition?
FORD: Some scholars have suggested that, but it’s not really true. In the 1890s, Swedish researcher Karl Laman went into the Congo and taught the natives there the art of ethnography and scholarly research, then sent them out to document their myths and sacred wisdom. This resulted in a treasure trove of written material on African traditions that was certainly within Campbell’s grasp if he wanted to find it.

Your book points out that African mythology covers all the same themes of the better known Greco-Roman tradition: death and resurrection, the hero’s journey, legends of creation, and so on. Are there any new themes, or different ways of presenting them, offered by African traditions?
FORD: There is a different take on the tradition of the hero. In Western culture the hero is seen as someone who is exceptional; he or she does amazing things that leave you saying, “Wow, I can't believe anyone could do that.” In African culture, there is more of an expectation that certain people will lead exceptional lives for the purpose of reinvigorating society. In that sense, the hero is more expected and accepted as part of everyday life, and not seen as so rare and different from the rest of us. There’s a saying in West Africa: “The hero is welcomed when the times are most troubled.” So when society is troubled, somebody is supposed to emerge and lead society through its trials and tribulations. The hero doesn’t do things just to amaze us, but for the purpose of bringing society back into balance.

Although the figure of the shaman is universal across all cultures, your book seems to suggest that the shaman perhaps occupies a more central place of honor in African traditions.
FORD: It’s not that the shaman as an individual is more important, but that in many African cultures shamanic work is participated in by almost everyone, instead of being reserved for special individuals. In the Southern African traditions especially, shamanic journeying is something that everyone does, not just one person. So there’s a democratization of shamanic powers that characterizes the African tradition, although I’d hesitate to say that Africa is the only place one would find that.

So the difference is that a shaman is seen less as a healer with special powers than as someone who leads everyone into greater powers.
FORD: You can’t label Africa as one uniform culture, because it’s a huge continent of many cultures. But in some African traditions, the shamanic experience is so democratized that there isn’t even a recognition of a single individual as a leader. The experience itself is captured by the entire group. This distinguishes the African tradition from those of both the West and East. The typical Oriental view of the spiritual journey is of the group led by the teacher; as a journeyer one is sublimating individual aspirations and goals for the sake of the group. In the West, it’s the individual's spiritual quest that is generally elevated above the group.

In Africa I think there’s a more balanced relationship between the two sides of spiritual experience. There’s an African saying: I am because we are. We are because I am. In other words the individual implicates the group, and the group implicates the individual.

I was fascinated by the African creation myth that shows a god who makes mistakes — fashioning human beings from clay while drunk on palm wine, for instance, and making deformities and flaws which the creator then regrets.
FORD: That’s the story of the god Obatala who is drunk at the point of creating human beings and inadvertently creates the infirm, the crippled, and so on. This idea is a reflection that in Africa, the separation between humanity and divinity has a different meaning than in the West. For instance, it’s not just humanity that must reach up for divinity, as in the West.

In the African tradition, the gods must come down to earth to find their humanity. That’s a metaphorical message that each of us has within us our own divinity. We need not reach for it out there, but we do need to recognize it within. In these myths where the gods make mistakes, we see divinity reflecting its humanity, and humanity reflecting its divinity. That is similar to the Eastern yin-yang symbolism of light and dark reflecting each other.

It’s the difference between worshipping a god from whom all compassion flows, and understanding that you must find compassion within yourself before you can know what’s divine. And yet, just feeling compassion doesn't make us gods.
FORD: No, but it does mean that we've found one aspect of our own divinity. When we feel or act upon compassion, then we can say we’re allowing the god of compassion to manifest in our lives. Of course we’re not referring here to a god as an individual being, but as a transcendental aspect of our own experience.

What is the relationship of the African spiritual entities known as “orishas” to the Western saints?
FORD: As slaves were taken from Africa and removed from their native cultural milieu, they were injected into a brutal system that attempted to strip from them any anchor to their past. For instance, their native spirituality was replaced with Christianity. What happened then says something marvelous about the capacity of human beings to find familiar aspects of divinity even in spiritual systems that are alien to them. When African slaves were taught Christianity, they recognized qualities in the traditional saints that were associated with the gods and goddesses (orishas) of their original cultures. So instead of Obatala, an orisha with a prominent aspect of compassion, the slaves would turn to Our Lady of Mercy.

It was as if the slaves were saying to their masters, “You don't want us to worship our gods, but you don't know what goes on inside us when we worship your saints.” There’s a spiritual statement there, and a political one too — a statement of resistance, of a revolutionary impulse within the person never to surrender their native spiritual sustenance.

The difference in worship is that for Westerners, saints are generally revered as iconic figures entirely outside the person. In the African mind, the saints would actually visit the worshipper in the same way as the orishas would have done. Visiting the person moves him or her to dance, to “speak in tongues,” or otherwise personify the divinity.

I was curious about how African legends have been translated in the West — for instance in the “Uncle Remus” tales that have been perceived by some observers as denigrating to African-Americans, while others see them as metaphorical stories of subversion and revolution.
FORD: That’s the book I intend to write after the current one: the story of what went on with African myth on this side of the Atlantic, during and after the slave trade. Any myth can be read at different levels, depending on your depth of understanding and awareness. In African myth as in the musical form of spirituals, there were always double messages. Many of the stories told in American slave culture were a primitive form of stealth technology. If you fully understood what was going on in them, you knew that a lot of valuable and subversive information was being broadcast in metaphor.

What difference would it make to African-Americans, and to the West in general, if there were a broader understanding of the heritage of African mythology?
FORD: The most important thing about myths is not that they’re just interesting stories that are fun to read. Myths talk about heroes outside ourselves in order to bring our attention to the heroes within ourselves. That’s really the point of my book. I studied these myths in part to discover the heroic aspect within myself, and I wrote the book so that others might find that heroic part within themselves. When I say “heroic” I'm not talking about rescuing somebody in trouble. I'm talking about discovering that part of ourselves which is capable of creatively engaging in life, of overcoming obstacles, of pursuing our passions and bringing our unique gifts into the world. And then the hero inspires others to do the same.

As an African-American, having a mythic tradition which reflects our historical experience allows us to become more creative in overcoming the typical obstacles we face. There is an element of healing in this process too. African-Americans have to grapple with the question: How do we deal with the awesome trauma of our past? You can’t go back and change it; rather you have to find a way to reconcile yourself with it. For me, myth is a way of coming to term with the African-American trauma that allows us to move forward powerfully, without feeling that we’re still victims of the past.


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Mythic wisdom has to change with the times as well. We can’t expect that the way wisdom was transmitted even fifty years ago is going to work today. The challenge is to bring mythic wisdom to bear on the here-and-now in a way that makes sense in the current culture. A good example is the Rites of Passage Institute, an educational group that’s attempting to find ways to bring rituals reflecting modern-day life to young people, particularly young people in the inner city.

To his credit, Joseph Campbell repeatedly emphasized the relevance of myth to our modern lives, and tried to dispense with our modern habit of equating myths with untruths.
FORD: Myths are vehicles for transmitting eternal wisdom. The variables that they deal with are the variables of our unconscious. When you deal with the unconscious, there is no such thing as objective knowledge. But there are regularities within unconscious experience that transcend culture, and myth is very good at capturing those regularities, those patterns of universal experience. And by connecting us to a deeper source, myths help us come to terms with our everyday lives in a more fruitful way.



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