By Abena Ampofoa AsareNovember 30, 2023
That bird is wise.
Look. Its beak, back turned, picks
For the present, what is best from ancient eyes,
Then steps forward, on ahead
To meet the future, undeterred.
—A. W. Kayper-Mensah, “Sankofa”
IN FEBRUARY 2023, I am invited to deliver a Black History Month keynote lecture on the theme “Sankofa! Celebrating the African Diaspora.” In a time when publishers defensively create multiple versions of textbooks and primary school classroom libraries are hidden beneath brown paper, marking Black History Month is a deliberate and necessary act of optimism. As I stand at the podium, over two million school-age children contend with a governor seeking to hack a path from Tallahassee, Florida, to Washington, DC, by demonizing children’s books, curriculum, and educators. In my local school board races—as in national congressional contests—would-be politicians chase office by disinheriting Black histories. High school teachers fear they will lose their jobs for describing the suffering of African descendants on North American soil. For some of us, speaking openly about the US government’s history of violence is illegal; for more of us, it is increasingly taboo.
This frontal assault on knowledge that centers the dispossessed is not new. As Robin D. G. Kelley explains in The New York Review of Books, the “long war on Black Studies” reaches back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Then, laws forced illiteracy on African descendants on US soil, both enslaved and free. After slavery’s abolition, state efforts to contain Black scholars and scholarship continued with Jim Crow’s separate and unequal education allotments. Even though the Civil Rights Movement insisted that schools must be transformed if the United States would fulfill its promise, educational inequality thrives today, undisturbed by our national embrace of diversity rhetoric. Black children systematically receive less funding, instruction, and opportunity in a country where, according to the US Supreme Court, racism has been erased by the passage of time.
Today, Black history is publicly discredited as a source of division: a minefield that must be approached gingerly, regulated tightly, seized as holy ground, or avoided entirely. Chief Justice John Roberts strikes down university admissions policies that acknowledge past racial violence, proclaiming that these imperil the American dream of equal protection. African American stories of struggle, death, rebirth, and perseverance are shrouded in controversy, cast as threats to a fragile US democracy. Accordingly, a new federally funded K–12 social studies curriculum promises to produce “reflective patriotism” without ignoring difficult pasts. The Tennessee legislature insists that students should be taught “‘the exceptionalism of our nation,’ not things that ‘inherently divide’ people.” After a year, the Tennessee teacher’s union sues, claiming the bill is “incoherent,” makes a teacher’s task “impossible,” and has already degraded the quality of public education. Even if Florida governor Ron DeSantis never enters the Oval Office, the damage has been done.
After all, knowledge of the past is power. In a 1922 issue of Southern Workman, seminal African American historian Carter G. Woodson—founder of Negro History Week, which later became Black History Month—identified the importance of historical consciousness in giving Black people in the United States a political berth. Wrote Woodson: “We expect to send out from time to time books written for the express purpose of showing you that you have a history, a record, behind you. If you are unable to demonstrate to the world that you have this record, the world […] will say to you, ‘Who are you, anyway?’” Still, not every story builds up the self or adds ballast to the communal we. While searching for “usable pasts,” eventually we meet with narratives that cast us and our heroes as victims or villains; we find stories that spill beyond what is justifiable. Supposedly, “history” is primarily an arena for seeking power, a narrative “written by victors.” We narrate the past to conquer our rivals; we hear the past to determine who has been vanquished. In this nationalist fugue, the moment we stumble upon the failures and cruelties in our own past, we are trapped. The violence that suffuses our modern condition must be fiercely denied, intently buried, or rigorously forgotten; it is irreconcilable.
Sankɔfa, the Akan (Ghana/Côte d’Ivoire/Togo) wisdom image of a bird facing backward with feet pointing forward, holding a precious seed/egg in its mouth, suggests that we might work with the past—including its violence—in ways that elude the imperatives of 21st century US politics. Sankɔfa carries a message for our pockmarked modernity: whatever troubles and suffering have come before, we might gaze upon them. Take. And step forward.
The sankɔfa bird comes to us from the adinkra tradition, a collection of pictorial images used to preserve, share, and amplify essential cultural wisdom. As part of Ghana’s visual landscape, these ordered curves and lines adorn architecture, textiles, and cloth. Wherever they are found, adinkra communicate. They are, as literature scholar Sylvie Kandé explained in 1998, “visual clues” with aesthetic, cultural, and philosophical relevance. As public art, cultural icons, and symbolic language, adinkra transmit messages and meaning.
One warning: Adinkra elude simple translation. The introduction to a collection of verse entitled Sankofa: Adinkra Poems (1976) by Ghanaian poet A. W. Kayper-Mensah offers a cautionary note:
One of the problems one faces in explaining our indigenous symbols and thought forms in a foreign language such as English is just how to begin. […] [W]hen a brief explanation of the symbol is attempted, one sometimes ends up with a literal translation of the symbol, and this is not helpful at all.
Adinkra’s expansive meanings are reflected in both form and function. Adinkra are mundane designs ubiquitous in Ghanaian public spaces: they adorn the seemingly ever-present plastic gye nyame chairs and are found on household implements and furniture. They are also high-value textiles created from artisan-made stencils dipped in ink extracted from the bark of the badie shrub (Bridelia ferruginea) and are inscribed on ritual objects including goldweights, linguist staffs, and other royal paraphernalia. The origin of the name, adinkra, is subject to multiple accounts, all of which are associated with mourning. Legal scholar Boatema Boateng synthesizes historical references and etymologies to relate adinkra as the profound wisdom accompanying death—“the parting or send-off message or intelligence that the soul carries to and from God.” Accordingly, we approach the meaning of adinkra obliquely, through proverbs—a mode of rhetorical flourishing where, as Ghanaian scholar Kwesi Yankah explained in 1989, those in the know use the property of “indirection” to garnish, illuminate, and add potency to speech communication.
One interpretation of sankɔfa, the directive to “go back and fetch it!” explained as a call to “remember your past!” has gained prominence within North American and Caribbean African diasporic thought in the late 20th century. Within transatlantic slavery’s scattering and gathering, this translation of sankɔfa flourishes as an authentic cultural insight aligned with Black diasporic experiences. For peoples surviving the denigration of their ancestral names, language, cosmologies, foods, and folkways, the directive to retrieve from the past is a message of self-regard, political power, and wholeness.
The sankɔfa bird is also a visual guide to history’s push and pull. It offers a vision of how to deal with all—both the painful and the transcendent—that has been bequeathed to us. Sankɔfa’s head and gaze are famously turned backward toward the past, while its feet face forward toward the future. Its body, fixed in the present, contorts, illuminating our accountability to these multiple and overlapping temporalities. With this, sankɔfa reflects a fundamental principle of Ghanaian cosmology: we depend on our ancestors, even as we are destined to become ancestors.
The prominence of what has come before—that which draws the sankɔfa bird’s gaze—is a principle within adinkra tradition and beyond it. However, sankɔfa does not just warn us to heed our predecessors; it is a portrait of graceful movement. As Ghanaian poet Kofi Anyidoho explains in his 2003 essay “The Back Without Which There Is No Front,” the dynamic relationship between “the past and present-future-time” is also fundamental in Ewe (Ghana/Togo) cosmology and rhetoric. It is lodged in the Ewe proverb that “it is onto old ropes that new ones are woven,” and it is transmitted in the story of the Ewe people’s backward march to freedom. We are not helpless, caught within the past’s gravity. The sankɔfa bird encourages us to recognize that there is still a seed to be chosen, a step to be taken. There is power in our swiveling, and facing, and picking.
Mpanyinfoɔ sε: wo were fi na wo sankɔfa a yennkyiri.
A word from the elders: it is never too late to go back and fetch what is precious.
Each semester, I ask my undergraduate students about the value of studying history. Enterprising students offer some version of George Santayana’s aphorism: those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. In this, they echo the dominant US philosophy of history: we learn about the past so that we may avoid its worst excesses.
Sankɔfa, though, is not just warning. In the Akan tradition, sankɔfa is also practice, utilized in justice processes, in social situations, and as a matter of collective exhortation. In court settings, we can invoke sankɔfa to urge the accused to acknowledge their wrongdoing and thus lighten their sentence. We speak of sankɔfa to remind each other—to remind ourselves—that it can never be wrong to look backward and act. If an elder has misspoken or made some sort of error, she may mention sankɔfa as she returns to the error to fix it. Go back, return, and retrieve it. Here, setting things right is more than promising to walk different in the future. It is the moral and civic duty of the wise to reach into the past, and fetch what is needed for amelioration.
For my US undergraduate students, the past is a closed door, or at best a window that we might peer through. Either way, it is distant, separated from us by glass. What has happened has already happened and we are left with its legacy. Not so with sankɔfa—the door to the past remains ajar and we can tend to who and what came before.
Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” is also a visual rendering of complex historical time, albeit one in contrast with the sankɔfa bird. In his 1940 essay interpreting Paul Klee’s 1920 painting Angelus Novus, Benjamin, a German Jewish scholar, depicts the angel of history with staring eyes, open mouth, and wings spread. A celestial being is caught “fixedly contemplating” the piling wreckage of the past while an inexorable force propels him backward, toward a future that he can neither face nor see. This is the dilemma of living with/in history: “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise.” He hurtles forward toward a tomorrow that he cannot face, eyes fixed on the past and its mounting wreckage. The posture is one of rigid incapacitation.
Consider instead the dynamic power of the Akan sankɔfa bird, its ability to both look backward and move forward, and—crucially—to pick. In a 2017 essay, German literature scholar Susan Arndt draws out the differences between Benjamin’s angel and the sankɔfa. For Benjamin’s angel, the past is fated and static in its bulk: “Agency is all with the storm and thus the unwholesome past.” But sankɔfa communicates agency; this is a creature who “picks for the present, what is best from” the past, stepping forward all the time. These are indeed divergent pictures of historical time. One is a gale, a dilemma of immobility; the other is a flow, an arena for action.
Among the strange logics of Florida’s 2022 Individual Freedom Act (more commonly known as the Stop WOKE Act) is that Americans, particularly the youth, should be protected from the existential reckoning captured by Benjamin’s angel of history. According to the act, students and employees in Florida cannot be “subjected to” the idea that individuals, by virtue of their identity, bear responsibility for history, or “must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” because of the past, or their relationship to it. No fixed stare, open mouth, or pained helplessness for US students! Take it from Governor DeSantis: they must be blindfolded so they will not perceive the bulk of historical violence or how it rushes into the present. Of course, purporting to ban the call and response of history is an authoritarian vanity. Who dares to legislate the conscience or decide how we dance with the past?
Writing in the 1930s, Carter Woodson looked toward a future when “achievements […] now referred to as steps forward in the development of the human race may be rued tomorrow as a backward stride toward barbarism.” Woodson predicted that, in 100 years, “many of the present customs of Europeans and Americans will be ridiculed and lamented by their descendants.” As we approach Woodson’s century of distance, American youth’s ability to rue, ridicule, and lament our past is a matter of consternation and legislation. In their most cogent arguments, supporters of the Stop WOKE Act offer a political rationale for banishing difficult histories. Gazing on the past’s wreckage creates instability precisely because it compels us to act; the rubble wants to be moved. They suggest that we bury the disturbing maps to our current predicament, or else swap them for strange tales of a perfect nation inexplicably trailing blood and bodies. And so “patriotic” politicians insist that we gouge out our own eyes or, worse yet, cut the noisemaking tongues of those who will not keep silent about the past’s shadows. However, we need not remain trapped, mouths agape. Sankɔfa’s wisdom encourages us to act, to intervene at the crossroads of past-present-future time.
In her elder years, my mother, Yaa Ofobi, a retired United Methodist minister, cannot help but delve into the violence of Christianity in Africa, past and present. She cannot seem to stop speaking about the ways in which the Bible and Christianity function as artifacts of European colonialism. She does not flinch when describing how Christianity, once our family’s most treasured truth, undermined the cultural self-confidence of African peoples and justified the subjugation of women:
I remember my days studying the Bible and basing my whole existence and livelihood on it … That belief system kept me positively focused on what is excellent, constructive, noble and makes for a good existence on this planet. However, that belief system kept me focused on a Eurocentric approach to life. My cosmology was wrapped up in Eurocentric packaging.
This is the bravery of sankɔfa time: daring to gaze upon the contrasting narratives that always exist at the crossroads of past-present-future. Underneath the history of a purpose-filled and committed Christian journey, a life that includes many of the markers of modern success, there is also a narrative of loss. Yaa Ofobi asks: “As an authentic African with an African worldview, would my life have been any different? Could I have had an education that affirmed who I am as an African?” Even now, she wonders:
Why was I, as a child, not interested in learning about African cosmology? Why was I punished in school if I spoke my native language? Why did I believe that a better life could be found only in being close to European ways? Why did I communicate with my children in English, a European language?
What is the impulse that urges Yaa Ofobi to articulate this challenging story about the violence of African Christianity now, in her elderly years? After all, this narrative places her at odds with the mainstream evangelical Ghanaian social milieu that includes most of her friends. She states: “The answers to some of these questions are self-evident, but I need to ask them.” This desire to plunge into the archives of our own lives, to listen for the whispering underbelly of our own societies, ethnic groups, racial identities, and deities, is lost or masked when we insist that history serve only to consolidate political identities or preserve power. In sankɔfa time, the pasts that chafe uneasily against our present may very well be vehicles toward a necessary future. And so Yaa Ofobi must ask these questions and reach toward a tomorrow where new visions of wholeness, liberation, and community are possible and coming.
Our society holds different visions of history-work; which do we reach toward? Do we imagine ourselves trapped, mouth agape as the past’s wreckage piles around our bodies, or do we believe ourselves able to turn, choose from the wreckage to take something precious for the future? In sankɔfa time, we can tend to our ancestors and their complicated legacies. We can sift through the past, picking seeds and leaving behind divots of emptiness. Nothing prohibits us from running our fingers over the complicated patterns, the scarring and rupture and stitching that bind us together.
Featured Image: Weight for weighing gold dust [Two birds in the sankofa position], ca. 1800s, is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Accessed November 28, 2023.
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