Clyde W. Ford Bibliography:
The Hero with an African Face: Mythic Wisdom of Traditional Africa
We Can All Get Along: 50 Steps You Can Take to Help End Racism
Where Healing Waters Meet: Touching Mind and Emotion Through the Body
Compassionate Touch: The Body's Role in Healing and Recovery
When you put Africa into the mix -- and Africa has this tremendous contribution -- and you still see the similarities there, it really confirms the belief that at the deepest layers of who we are we have a lot more in common.
"By conservative estimates," writes Clyde W. Ford in Hero with an African Face, "thirty to sixty million Africans were captured as slaves during the African slave trade." It is almost too staggering a number to contemplate. Thirty to sixty million men, women and children taken from their homes and all of the people and things they knew and held dear. How, Ford wondered, did a people deal with this loss of their loved ones? How, he asked -- when perhaps no one ever had before -- did those left behind reconcile themselves to these tremendous losses?
The 47-year-old son of New York is a healer of mind and spirit who now lives in northern Washington state. He is a doctor of chiropractic medicine, a leader in the field of somatic psychology, and a scholar who has taught at Columbia and Western Washington Universities. Ford knows about the steps the human mind takes when it's bent towards healing.
"I went to my friends in the academic community and I said, 'Okay: I have this hypothesis. My hypothesis is that, in traditional societies, myths were used to heal long-standing trauma. So if that's the case, where are the myths about slavery? About African societies who dealt with slavery as this horrendous trauma.'"
To Ford's surprise, though his friends thought his hypothesis was a good one, no one had ever heard or read anything that backed it up.
Some time later, while researching on a different subject, Ford stumbled across the myth that would -- in many ways -- become the cornerstone for his new book. It was from the Congo and explained how the people torn from their families were heroes, "on an adventure not necessarily of their own choosing: as many hero adventures are. But a hero adventure where they would travel to this deserted barren land and would suffer these horrendous trials and tasks," and "eventually they would be looked upon favorably by the gods and goddesses again as the heroes were in their midst and they would establish a new civilization ultimately to return. It just blew me away. It really was a very moving moment to realize that this culture had interpreted slavery in this very empowering way."
Clyde W. Ford believes in heroes. The heroes, not only of African myths, but that live in each of us always.
Linda Richards: I've got to tell you that I enjoyed your book very much. It seems to me that it's an important book: one that will be around for generations.
Clyde W. Ford: It's interesting that you should say that, because I think that's one of the reasons Bantam was interested in this book: they felt that it would be around for a while. It was written for several different audiences. The African American audience, obviously. The new age audience. And a college audience as well. It was interesting trying to write a book that would speak to all of those audiences and do justice without excluding any of them in the process.
There's one thing about the book that I think is especially wonderful: it speaks to a lot of the things that I believe about people and our differences and similarities. The cultural differences, the color differences, the differences of gender are so trivial compared to the commonalties. And you speak to that a lot.
The problem with world mythology is that Africa has so often been excluded. So you don't get the opportunity to throw everyone into the mix to find just what it is you're talking about. When you put Africa into the mix -- and Africa has this tremendous contribution -- and you still see the similarities there, it really confirms the belief that at the deepest layers of who we are we have a lot more in common. Including the way we tell our stories. More in common than we have differences between us.
For me the other exciting thing was to find that some of these myths are perhaps 30,000 years old. To see that was really mind-boggling. To be able to, with some certainty, date those myths. Because, as I've said in the book, there are images on rock walls that related to myths. So you can radio carbon date the images and do the science to tell you how old these things are.
Will creationists have a problem with some of the concepts in the book?
Oh, definitely. Fundamentalists will. I think more enlightened Christians can rejoice in the fact that the mythology of Christianity shares commonalties with the mythologies of other cultures. Of course -- and I say it in the book -- some of Christianity would like to believe that their myths are the founding myths for everybody. But it just doesn't happen that way. As it turns out, because we do share commonalties as human beings, our creation myths are going to come up pretty darn similar. So you're going to get myths of virgin birth. Myths of death and resurrection and myths of the flood and the ark and myths of the world savior. All of those themes. You're going to get symbols like the cross, which have nothing to do with Christianity. Even the Garden of Eden type myths. Where the creator god or goddess is coming down and saying to the first man and woman, 'Go ahead and use everything you find on the earth, and eat all the fruits: but there's that fruit over there on that tree? Don't eat the fruit.' And in one of those creation myths it's even a red fruit: it isn't an apple. But it's a red fruit. So, yes: you're going to find those commonalties.
So what's that about?
All creation myths are about: what's the mystery before birth into the world? What's the mystery before the manifest world? In the manifest world what you see are dualities. You see man and woman. You see good and evil. You see dark and light. Prior to that is just the unanimity where there aren't those separations. So the creation myth is about taking the bite of the apple which is symbolic of stepping into the world of duality. In the Christian version, when the apple was bitten Adam and Eve recognized their sexuality: their difference. And the sexual difference is a kind of shorthand for all of the differences that exist in the world that we inhabit. So creation mythology talks about how do you get from the one before the world, into the many of the world. And at the end of the creation mythology there's always the scene of how do you get back to the one again? So it's often a conflagration: a flood or a fire. But the whole meaning of it is, what happens after you die? Where do go after that? What does the world dissolve into? So that's the deeper meaning behind all of those myths.
But the commonalties in all of them: is that like a collective unconscious thing ?
Yes: collective unconscious. Jung talked about that and you can see the basis because regardless of where you live or your socio-economic status, you're born through the physical body of your mother. You experience a childhood; you experience a maturation process where at some point you have to go beyond being a totally dependent being to becoming a self-responsible being; to bringing other beings into the world through life; to eventually dying. That's a story everybody shares. We all share going through the light world of day, into the dream world of the dark at night and all of what that implies. So from all of these common experiences, you might expect that we'd get common stories about what they mean.
I hope a lot of people hear that message.
I think that's an important message that we can get from comparative mythology. It's that at the deepest level the stories about who we are and about how we bring meaning into our lives are really the same. They're the same across the ages. The stories can apply to modern life and ought to. Not that we should go back to previous times, but the essential truths there are truths that span times and ages and places.
You've taught a fair amount. Are you teaching right now?
Right now, I'm not. I'm on sabbatical from just about everything I'm doing except the book. I've been in and out of the university environment. I find that often it's a little too restrictive and so I'm what is called in the business an 'independent scholar'. Or an unaffiliated scholar.
Cool: that sounds more fun!
It is more fun. And it's also a lot harder to make a living.
I understand you live in Bellingham, Washington. Are you from there originally?
I'm from New York City. I've lived in Washington for 10 years. And I haven't lived in New York for 20 years.
Do you like living in Washington?
I love it. When I found this area, I found home. I'm an outdoors person and I've kayaked on the west coast of Vancouver Island and in Clayquot Sound, and the Inside Passage. I'm a boater so I've boated a lot in the San Juan Islands and the Gulf Islands. I feel most at home out here. I just love it. I love nature. I live on the water. There's eagles and cougars right there: it's great. Coming from New York City where most of the animals walked on two legs: it's a very different environment. I love it.
And it's friendly.
Yes: friendly. And it's also inspiring as an author.
Tell me about your other books.
This is my fourth book. Well, actually my fifth because I have another one in progress at the moment. I've just finished a children's book that's an adaptation of some of the myths. My other writing has been based on my training as a chiropractor and psychotherapist so it's about the healing culture: body and mind healing. The book that got the most publicity was a book on things people could do to help end racism, and we took that on the Oprah Winfrey show four or five years ago.
What was that book called?
It was called We Can All Get Along: 50 Steps You Can Take to End Racism.
So this is a very different kind of book. On the other hand, though, this is one of the steps!
I'm glad that you were able to pick that up. It's so related to everything else I've written. As a healer. As a chiropractor. As a psyschotherapist. If you believe that individuals can heal, you have to believe that groups of people can heal. And one of the things that I know about individual healing is that you can denote the point in time where the person is on their healing journey by the stories they tell. Early on in the process people generally tell victimization stories. At a certain point in that process, the people that recover most successfully have switched the story from victimization to empowerment: 'Yes it happened to me, but if this illness or injury hadn't stopped me, I would have gone my whole life without ever smelling the roses.' When you hear that from a person you know they're on the road to recovery.
So the question is, where are those social stories? Where are those for groups of people that are working with trauma and dealing with racism and dealing with homophobia and even dealing with environmental issues? When do you switch from victimization to empowerment? Well, I got the idea several years ago that in traditional societies mythology was the social story that helped people switch from victimization to empowerment. As it turned out, that's really true. So that's really where the source ideas for the book came from. Myths are what help people switch from victimization stories to empowerment stories.
One thing in the book that I found very powerful were the myths that a certain tribe of people created about the slaves that were taken away.
That was one of the key stories. I went to my friends in the academic community and I said, 'Okay: I have this hypothesis. My hypothesis is that, in traditional societies, myths were used to heal long-standing trauma. So if that's the case, where are the myths about slavery? About African societies who dealt with slavery as this horrendous trauma? Families where their kids and their wives and their husbands were just ripped from their midst.' And everybody said, 'God: that's a great idea! But I've never heard of those myths.'
Then, quite by accident, I was in a library researching something totally different and came across a myth. This particular myth was from the Congo and it was about how these people ripped from their midst were really heroes on an adventure not necessarily of their own choosing: as many hero adventures are. But a hero adventure were they would travel to this deserted barren land and would suffer these horrendous trials and tasks, just as many of the heroes of this culture did in their myths. They believed that eventually they would be looked upon favorably by the gods and goddesses again and they would establish a new civilization; ultimately to return as heroes and heroines do in the myths.
It just blew me away. It really was a very moving moment to realize that this culture had interpreted slavery in this very empowering way. Not a wonderful way, because who wants to have that happen? There's every reason to believe that some slaves understood the horrors they were going through by hanging onto these myths to help them deal with it. There's every reason to believe that.
The slavery experience in the United States is something that, as a culture, still is not well dealt with. It's really not just African American's place to deal with that. We have in our history our own reckoning with that process. But the entire society needs to reckon with that. There's a marvelous effort underway this summer that I'm going to be a part of -- that comes out of the book, really. A large group of people is going to be taking a ship into the Atlantic ocean and dropping a monument to all of the souls who died in that slavery experience. It's a first step in this process of reckoning with it and coming to terms with it and dealing with it. So metaphorically it's a cycle of returning.
So what do you suppose happens when a myth becomes a reality? It must have been very difficult for them.
That's a wonderful question. I think when a myth becomes reality it's really a question of how you're going to interpret and work with that. If you can draw strength from the myth, then it can help you through the reality. I think that's the key thing. If you look at, for example the hero myth and see it as an opportunity to discover your own inner hero and heroine. To find the resources inside of yourself like the characters found in the stories. Strength and courage. Wisdom. Then you can use the very myths to get you through the reality. That's the key piece in all of this.
So the myth is as important as the truth?
No. The myth is eternal truth. Not a factual truth, but an eternal truth that deals with your inner reality.
You spoke about a duality. In the myths that I was brought up with you always get people questioning the validity of a creator who would restrict people so greatly. Do you find that as well with the African myths?
I think that type of questioning is more unique to western spirituality and mythology. Because, for whatever reason, western mythology and spirituality is really based on a morality more than it is on deeper mythic wisdom. The morality, which we all can substitute for our idea of spirituality in the west, is that we should always be seeking the good and the right. So we tend to question why a creator wouldn't create everything that was always wonderful and then there'd be no problems.
I think there's a more sophisticated view in other mythic traditions. In African mythologies for example there's one god that is drunk during a part of the creation process because he got tired and thirsty. During the time that he's drunk he creates people that have disease, are malformed or blind. After he sobers up and looks at what he's done he's filled with this deep well of grief and sadness. Out of this he develops this tremendous compassion; not as much for the people but for his own fallibility. The message there -- the metaphor -- is a very sophisticated notion about compassion for our own humanity.
You look in the west and we want all of our heroes to be good guys. When they display their humanity they have to fall. Just look at Clinton. The mythic traditions are way more sophisticated than that. So the idea is not that good is supposed to vanquish evil, but that just like Yin Yang there's kind of a balance that is established between them. That the spiritual path goes between and beyond it even. It's beyond just a simple morality play. They speak to these deeper truths.
The myths of western culture are rigid. We were told that these were historical events that happened 2000 years ago. Now science has told us that we can travel at the speed of light for three to four billion years. And if you went up you'd never get to a heaven where there are people stepping lightly and kind of looking down at the earth. If we went down we'd never get to hell; we'd still be in the known universe. So you can't have a belief that these myths are historical events.
In the more traditionally grounded cultures like the ones I write about, we're speaking metaphorically. There's no question about that. I cite instances where we know from ethnographers and anthropologists that people understood these myths as metaphors and not as fact. I think that has really been lost to the west.
We live in a global village. We live in a village where instantly I can talk to somebody in another culture. We have a view of the earth from the moon: and that was a view that was never before available to us physically. That view shows us just one little blue marble dangling in a dark space. And there are no separation lines. There are no nationalities. There are no ethnic groups: from that point of view. Now in our reality -- our terra firma -- we have not in any way realized the potential mythic import of that vision from space. But we better, or we're not going to survive on terra firma because everything is leading us in this direction of where we can't be about my group and your group and this ethnic group and that ethnic group. We need to be about the one human race. So we need the myths, and people are reaching for them in very fascinating ways. | February 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.
You can visit Clyde W. Ford's Web site.