The picture on the right is a sankofa bird, a symbol from the Akan art culture of West Africa. Sankofa is a word that comes from the Twi language, and it roughly means “Go back and get what was left behind.” The sankofa bird has been a big symbol for a long time in Africa and among the African diaspora, and it stresses the importance of remembering your past in order to ensure a better future. I came across it researching Afrofuturism, and I think I first heard about it in the This American Life episode highlighting the movement. The idea, of course, is that even while we step into the future we keep an eye on the people and events that have shaped us.
Afrofuturism is an idea that exemplifies this attitude: we go back to retrieve the things we might have lost along the way, the things that are worth preserving, in order to take the best of ourselves into the future with us. No matter what we think about the past — that it’s irrelevant, or that it doesn’t define us — it’s as much a part of us as our self-determination and our idealized selves. We can’t escape it, no matter how much we try, but we can learn from it and take those lessons with us to build a better future.
Personally, this means going back to pick up all those things I dropped when I fled Baltimore: the black part of my identity; the trauma and complicated feelings I have around my family; the fact that there are so many people still trapped in poverty and hopelessness in our inner cities; addressing the problematic attitudes that alienate so many LGBQTIA brothers and sisters. It’s important to hold all of this with me as I forge ahead with my writing and my life. They’re a part of who I am, and I can’t hope to make an honest future without them.
Culturally, it’s so important for us to recognize and accept our history. The United States has abandoned the lessons of our history — and knowledge itself, it feels like — because acting on those lessons means hard work, discomfort, and acknowledging truths about ourselves that can be really difficult to admit. None of us are as altruistic as we’d like to think. We can be selfish, mean, willfully blind. But not taking an honest look at the worst within us will always lead us to justifications for some truly monstrous shit: take a look at the political rhetoric burning through our population right now and tell me I’m wrong.
Our past is called our roots for a reason: our experience, culture and traditions ground us firmly in the world and give us something to hold on to when the wind kicks up and storms are lashing us. We obviously don’t have to keep every little thing from our pasts, but I think we’ve swung too far in our desire to look forward. We’ve lost something valuable, and it’s time to look back and retrieve it.