“Be cool nigger!” Nigger! No more nigger cops! “Have you lost your mind, I mean! How is it that you can disrespect a man’s ethnicity, when you know we’ve influenced nearly every facet of white America; from our music to our style of dress; not to mention your basic imitation of our sense of cool; walk, talk, dress, mannerisms. We enrich your very existence; all the while contributing to the Gross National Product through our achievements in corporate America. It’s these concerns that comfort me when I’m faced with the ignorant, cowardly, bitter and bigoted who have no talent, no guts; people like you who desecrate things they don’t understand; when the truth is you should say ‘thank you man’ and go on about your way. But apparently you’re incapable of doing that…So! Bang! Don’t tell me to be cool. I am cool!”
These words were derived from the film “Be Cool,” a book written by Elmore Leonard eloquently delivered in the film, by Cedric The Entertainer. This powerful monologue capsulate the historical plight of respect and recognition of African-Americans; our challenges and contributions to American society. Even during enslavement we made numerous contributions in agriculture; coupled with scientific innovations and inventions. But our history didn’t begin with enslavement or in America.
Enslavement was an encroachment on our being; arrested our development, especially African-American men. Africa is the richest continent on the planet; a place where gold, diamonds, raw materials, palm oil, artifacts and people on the African continent live and are constantly still being plagued by Europe and America greed.
The bartering system allowed everyone in the village the opportunity to exchange goods and services because everything you wanted was growing on trees, swimming or moving through the bushes. Coconuts and bananas growing on trees, cassava and yam on the ground; fish swimming in rivers, goat and bush-meat living in the woods; palm wine tappers drawing sweet wine from atop of palm trees. There was no welfare system because everyone, through the extended family system, took care of one another.
Marriages were regarded as a union between families; celebrating the naming of newborn children with drinking, eating, live music and dancing until dawn. Elders settled disputes; local governments created laws and rules for villages, towns and cities. Regional systems of banking made money available for market women and local businesses to provide goods and services to their communities. Africa was and still is basically…self-sustaining.
This powerful photograph, “Abiodun: King of the Hunters,” was shot in 1984, at the Village of Irunda in Kwara State, Nigeria. We began on this journey from Oshogbo in Oyo State. My girlfriend, Oni Abiodun said whenever her mother wanted to see her she would pound on her breast three times. Oni was a beautiful woman of 19 years; playful as a lion cub with an enormous heart for love, laughter and living. Statuesque, strong willed and pretty; a great cook, full of energy with smooth beautiful dark black skin. Her smile was a like glittered rainbow, always brightening my world. Her soft sweet kisses touched my heart like a freshly baked cupcake…with a swirl of caramel. I will always be indebted to that woman. On my second bout of malaria she was the one who nursed me back to health. Oni was of the best women of my life.
She was a creative artist living in the Twin Seven Seven Gallery along Ede Road in Oshogbo, Nigeria, working alongside senior batik artists like Bintu, Nike and her late sister Yemisi; all wives of Twins. Pen and ink masterpieces were created by Cornelius Arinju who apprenticed under Twins yet, forming a more comprehensive style of his own. On day Oni asked if I would accompany her and Cornelius to visit her parent’s residence at the Village of Irunda near Isanlu, in Kwara State. Of course I said yes!
We started out early, taking public transportation into that area of Kwara State; then boarding a taxi, arriving on the main road many miles from Irunda. The rain water had overflowed the rivers; reminding you the power of the rainy season; preventing the taxi from traveling up the side roads in the bush toward the village. In other words…we had to get out and walk.
Crossing nine rivers, passing trees hundreds of years old (providing cover where spirits would meet at night for conferences) with thousands of branches pointing towards the sky, crossing and criss-crossing in all directions, like dreadlocks flying in the wind. We smoked ganja, to keep them from harassing us as we passed by their side and finally after six hours, arriving in the Village of Irunda.
Her mother and father greeted us warmly. Oni’s father, Abiodun towered over six feet, living at least in his 60’s. His confidence held a presence of authority as he ordered food for our evening meal. Abiodun was regarded as a master-hunter; familiar with the patterns of animal movements in the woods. Knowing their habits and dwellings allowed him countless options of capture; offering fresh meat to feed his family and barter with his fellow villagers for their goods and services. Her mother on the other hand was a little reserved at my presence. We ate well; pounded yam, bush meat, egusi soup and palm wine which lead us to a good sleep.
The following day Oni took me around to meet the villagers. I didn’t pull out my camera because I knew they didn’t know me and as a guest I didn’t want to put them on the spot. Oni on the other hand wanted a photograph with her parents. Her mother refused to be photographed but her father and younger brother consented to stand before my lens.
Her father, dressed in an elegant ashoke agbada took his place on the chair while Oni and her brother proudly stood behind. He was a man she truly loved and happily talked about him almost every day. I could now see why many of the batik drawings created by her and her sister Yemisi, told of the hunter’s story. It was how they were raised.
After firing off a couple of shots, I began turning away, returning the camera in my bag. This was when her father beckoned me to photograph him alone. I almost froze! Here I was being honored by this man of regal stature; invited to a one-on-one photographic session in the middle of Kwara State. This was no longer a snapshot but an invitation to visit his soul…this was something special.
I took my time, planted my feet like a hitter at home plate, expected to drive in the winning run…at the bottom of the ninth inning. I let him get relaxed, set the sleeves of his agbada to his liking, he looked directly at me; with the pride and dignity of a thousand years as I slowly fired off two or three well composed frames. After the last shoot we looked at each other; not a word said, yet both knowing this photograph was very special.
An hour later, we were off to Oshogbo. For some reason the return journey to the main road was shorter; taking only five hours. I felt like I had just taken a spiritual drug, a feeling of euphoria; a high unlike any other…photography can do that! This also said a lot about me; that I was able to meet his presence of with my own presence of power.
In the 90’s Abiodun passed on, waiting for his daughter Yemisi who passed on in the late 90’s (Cornelius has also passed on) but Abiodun’s image will live forever. In early 2000’s this photography was one of the two selected from my portfolio by Beuford Smith of Kamoinge and placed on exhibition in “Committed to the Image: A Half Century of Black Photographers in America,” at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City and published in the accompanying coffee table book. The act of providing for our families is what men and women do. Hunting in the woods, harvesting crops in the fields are ways men take care of their families.
Abiodun is a reminder that inside us…men and women, lies the need to hunt…to survive and then to thrive; a tradition…a livelihood, trailing back to the beginning of time; whether tracking a deer in the bush or cutting a deal in a board room or local coffee shop…the objective is the same…gain ‘access’ to opportunity. This photograph should be hung next to your images of Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King; signifying our powerful presence in the world; a wonderful reminder of life before enslavement.
Howard T. Cash