I’ve been wearing a small gold Ankh necklace almost every day for the past seven years. Often the hieroglyph is mistaken for a Christian cross, but seldom do I use the opportunity to explain what the symbol conveys about who I am. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure myself.
But if I’m not able to articulate the symbol’s significance, why am I wearing it? It’s a question that I’d like to think through in this post – with the hope of getting some feedback from you good folks.
You see, as kids, Frieda and I visited a museum exhibit on Ancient Egypt and I fell in love, fascinated and fixated on the sacred history of Egyptian culture. Later at a black heritage festival in Atlanta, I was delighted to discover among the leather Africa medallions, a large brass Ankh necklace that – along with my funky fresh “X” cap – loudly broadcast my love for All Things Black. (Keep in mind, this was the early 90’s!) The symbol even graced a novelty license plate on my first car in college.
Once I got older, the hieroglyph formed an unexpected bond between me and my great aunt, an educator who lived overseas in Ghana with my uncle during the 1970s as part of a humanitarian initiative to implement new farming techniques in West Africa. The tiny Ankh necklace that she purchased decades ago during a visit to Cairo is still tucked beneath her blouse today. To her it is a cherished keepsake; for me, it is a reminder of the adventures she encountered as a black woman from the South traveling so far from home.
So when someone asks me what the symbol means, what can I say? Scholars claim that it represents eternal life for some, and for others, the sun rising over the horizon or an unbroken union between man and woman. For me it also conveys a childhood longing for a spiritual connection in Africa, something solid that I could not find in my Baptist church. And it signifies, too, my struggle to come to terms with the reality of not knowing my African ancestry. To find a new way to think about identity since I visited that Ancient Egyptian museum exhibit long ago.
Much of black American culture is based on our ability to improvise: in religion, language, food, and especially music. Up in The Bottom, this is something to be admired and cherished. But there are times when I feel uneasy about embracing a symbol that I once co-opted as a childish, romanticized fantasy of origins. Lately, I have considered putting the Ankh necklace away, since I am not sure that I have, in fact, made the emblem “my own.”
What makes my superficial gestures any different than the white suburban kids with their Bob Marley t-shirts? Or Christians at the YMCA who practice Yoga? I’m afraid that as much I enjoy the postmodern pastiche of a multicultural America, I am not as open-minded as I think when it comes to the more sacred aspects of racial belonging.
How about you? Are there certain cultural signs and symbols that you have (re)claimed as part of your personal identity? Do these symbols make you feel more at home in the world, or do you still sometimes feel as homeless as I do?