Mistaken Identity; or, Ankh If You Love Isis

ankhI’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?

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14 responses to this post.

  1. Claudia, this is lovely–but you can’t hide the truth about your fashion choices! Malcolm X came out in 1992 (as you linked to!), and maybe Atlanta was a bit more conscious than Birmingham was at the same time, but I don’t remember seeing any of those hats until 1991 or so!

    But what could have summed up the 90’s more than an X cap (flat bill, please), and an ankh–which was so ironically worn by Neil Gaiman’s Death since her first appearance in late ’89.

    Where I grew up, too, there was a lot of Egyptian iconology used in the African-American community, as a lot of folks considered there to be a big connection between the pharaohs and Africans. Where I grew up, I think everybody knew Cleopatra was black, whether she was or not–the fact wasn’t the point, it was just the feeling . . .

    You should totally keep the ankh. I started wearing my old leather jacket after years of it sitting in a closet. I got it when I was 21. I figured once I hit mid-thirties it was okay again!

    Great post.

  2. Hi Gorjus! Whoa, you’re right about the dates! I just looked up the X-Clan video again and their records also appeared in the early 1990s, so I’ve corrected my post for accuracy. Let’s see…that would have been my last two years of high school, so that’s about right.

    Thanks for your comment. And for reminding me about Death, too (I didn’t discover Gaiman until much later, but if I had only known about Sandman in high school I would have been all over it).

  3. I wore ankhs for the same reasons you did: it connected me to a culture/ancestry I didn’t really know, it reminds me of an identity that while I cannot quite fully articulate matters to me, connected me to people I was hanging out with those years and frankly I found it beautiful and wearing it felt natural.

    How I respond or explain it varied over the years, and with the years came an acceptance, an identification I’ve felt less obliged to explain. Is wearing it akin to white kids wearing Marley shirts- maybe, except now I’m less judgmental. Today, rather than believe they are co-opting something that isn’t theirs, I assume for their own reasons they identify.

    I have a similar attitude about my locs and after reading Dreads by Francesco Mastalia and Alfonse Pagano, I stopped making assumptions about other folks’ choices. I’m not as quick to question if their motives are superficial or genuine.

    If folks are really interested in my hair or jewelery or dress, they should ask and if they don’t, ain’t no nevermind.

    I feel more at home in my skin but less connected to my environment. I hang out on the net so much because it allows me to connect with folks I really want to hang out with. It was different in the 90s, I clicked with you all in the coffeehouses, the healthful stores, bookstores and festivals. Today I get out less but the desire to connect is still there.

    Love what you do and please tell me I thanked you for the book. I was all smiles when I opened your thoughtful gift. Of course, I lost the receipt (I had every intention of sending your physical note). Thank you, Claudia.

    • So glad you responded, Susan! I want to project the kind of confidence that you express in your comment – ain’t no nevermind! – but I have to admit that I’m not quite there yet. Part of this may be that I need to become less critical of others who may be finding their own way. Including those kids with the Marley t-shirts, LOL.

      My auntie that I referenced in this post was a stickler for thank you notes (and good posture) and this is one of the things that she and I do not have in common. I hope to donate regularly so no thank yous are necessary, seriously. Just keep on doing the great work you are doing!!!

  4. Although I suspect this is just the sort of semi-answer one would expect an academic to give, I would suggest that the mere fact that you’re conscious of the multiple meanings the ankh might have and self-conscious about how those meanings relate to your own identity set you pretty dramatically apart from our Marley-loving (or Marley’s-image-loving) students. Keep it, I say!

  5. Posted by Wilhelmina Jenkins on March 20, 2009 at 12:53 PM

    I wore West African-style clothing from the end of the ’60s until, maybe, the early ’90s, when it just became impractical. Not knowing our exact ancestry has its benefits as well as its losses – we are natural pan-Africanists. We can pick and choose from the richness of the whole continent for cultural touchstones. You have so many reasons to continue to wear your Ankh. Think of how many different stories you can tell your little one when she asks why you wear it!

  6. Such great feedback Prof. Fury and Mina! Thank you! I think my daughter does have a lot to do with why I’m raising these questions now. Sometimes she plays with it around my neck and I wonder what I’ll say to her when she is old enough to ask more direct questions. There’s a lot of personal history there that is also intertwined with issues of race/racism… but that’s a subject for a whole ‘nother post. :D

  7. I came to Brooklyn in the mid-90s, and that was my first real introduction to Afrocentric folk (or folks who identified as Afrocentric). Then I went to graduate school, and learned how to problematize and theorize identity…I rejected Afrocentricity, but understood it as a phase we “all” go through as we design and perform our identity as members of the African diaspora. THEN I moved to Ohio, and met 30-somethings who were identifying as “Afrikan-centered” and that knocked me back a bit. It’s NOT a phase you go through in your 20s–all the mud and kente cloth, the cowrie-shell jewelry, the red, black, & green? I had learned to theorize around all that, yet its persistent appeal really got me thinking…and writing! I still particularly want to know why certain black nationalist movements (political, aesthetic) resonate so strongly with black women. Esp when a lot of those movements don’t seem to empower women, or rather seem to reinforce patriarchal gender relations. I HATE being called a “queen,” yet so many black women embrace the term…I think it all speaks to yearning, loss, a desire for belonging & value, and everything that was lost when our ancestors passed through that door of no return…

  8. Zetta,

    I hear you. I think we cling and adopt because we are desperate to know who we are and until you define yourself, you try on different things. And now that I’m older but not wiser, I no longer think we try on identity because we are superficial rather we sincerely are not sure who we are as individuals and collectively. The messaging is so crazy especially when you’re robbed of your history.

    Claudia, I’m really not as tolerant and inclusive as I like to be or come across. That’s the Quaker in me talking. The book I referenced though did remind me to not be so quick to judge. And if we’re talking kids, well, then I am more forgiving because it took me a long time to fit into my skin and my ideas and that was my point. Now ask me how I feel about black women with blonde hair. lol

  9. Hey Zetta, thanks for your comment: SO glad somebody came out and said it, I have always had a problem with “queen” too, but could never quite put my finger on why. It’s like when you hear about slaves named Zeus. Something doesn’t feel right there for me, though I know the idea is embraced positively by a lot of women.

    Co-sign on the black women with blonde hair, Susan!

  10. Posted by Wilhelmina Jenkins on March 21, 2009 at 7:33 PM

    That makes 3 of us on the “queen” thing! I know that originally the idea was to elevate our concept of ourselves, but I hope that we have developed to a point where we can acknowledge our ancestors as workers, hunters, farmers, craftspeople, servants and whatever else they may have been. Whatever their position, they were treated brutally and deserve our respect for surviving. No, all of our ancestors were not kings and queens! Usually, when I picture my ancestors being captured, I picture someone very much like myself.

    Not to mention, every time some brother comes out with the “queen” thing, I know that something I don’t like is sure to follow! No royalty, no pedestals, just equal treatment, thank you!

  11. Interesting post, I’ve always liked the ankh but never known much about it. I taught in Malawi for a couple of years and was always struck by how many of the students wore eg Christian crosses alongside traditional medicine charms. No ankhs though

  12. Hi Crafty Green Poet, thanks for visiting the site! My understanding is that it is not uncommon for both belief systems to co-exist – i.e. Christian crosses and traditional medicine charms – but you also raise a good point about how the lives of Africans today are quite different than some of our (my) Afrocentric re-imaginings.

  13. […] vibrant as ever. I’ve mentioned my great-aunt here before; only two months ago, I recalled the tiny Ankh necklace that she always wore as a reminder of her work abroad: Once I got older, the hieroglyph formed an […]

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