What Can Sankofa Teach Us?

The Popular African Symbol—Which Means ‘Return to Your Past’—Continues to Guide and Inspire the Black Diaspora

Over the last few decades, the African American community has embraced Sankofa—a concept that calls for people to reach back to move forward. Scholar Christel N. Temple writes about the power and promise of the Adinkra symbol. Image of the Sankofa Village Community Garden in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; courtesy of Yasmine Abbas, Penn State.

This essay publishes alongside tonight’s Zócalo and Destination Crenshaw event, “How Do You Grow a Rose From Concrete?” Register here to join the program live in-person at Crenshaw High School or virtually online at 6 p.m. PT.

Affixed on jewelry, tattoos, fabric, and home decor, and even in the pattern of wrought-iron fences in places like Washington, D.C., and Savannah, Georgia, is a heart-shaped symbol with curly circles at the top and bottom, almost like the mirroring of two S’s to make a heart.

It is one version of the popular Adinkra symbol Sankofa.

Sankofa literally means “return to your past” or “go back and fetch it.” It can also mean “it is not taboo to go back and fetch it,” which is useful as an apology (e.g., “I invoke Sankofa and wish to go back and correct what I did at yesterday’s meeting when I incorrectly accused you of wrongdoing”).

Also commonly symbolized by the outline of a bird whose head and beak are pointed backward, toward its tail, often with an egg either in the beak or nestled in the tail, Sankofa has become a cultural phenomenon. It gives a name to the African diaspora’s concerns for heritage, legacy, authenticity, and dignity—in the U.S. and beyond.

Sankofa belongs to a communication system called the Adinkera, or Adinkra, which comes from present-day Ghana and Ivory Coast—key West African regions from which African Americans’ ancestors came.

After Ghana’s independence from Britain in 1957, the country’s first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, instituted a national policy to revive and celebrate the Adinkra system, particularly the concept of Sankofa. Nkrumah also welcomed the descendants of enslaved Africans to repatriate, or at least visit, the nation. Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, and many other artists, activists, and culturally curious African Americans began making trips to Ghana in the late 1950s, where they would have likely encountered Adinkra symbols and philosophies. Scholarship around the Adinkra started to become more visible stateside, too, beginning in 1983 with the publication of Ivory Coast anthropologist Georges Niangoran-Bouah’s The Akan World of Gold Weights.

The concept of Sankofa resonates with core aspects of African American culture and life. The ideas of “return” and “back-to-Africa” anchor African American nationalist thought. Even more pervasive in Black people’s consciousness is the endearment of Africa as a homeland. By reflecting folk narratives presenting flight as self-emancipation and escape from enslavement and oppression, Sankofa embodies a sense of love, affection, respect, and sacred remembrance that affirms African American cultural uniqueness and celebrated difference. The principle of Sankofa is a reminder that “flight” and “return” go hand in hand. Just as peace can only come from knowing one’s legacy as well as the healing power of cultural memory.

Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima’s 1993 resistance-themed feature film Sankofa helped introduce the proverb to a wider audience. The multi-award-winning independent film begins in contemporary times, with a culturally unaware African American model doing a photoshoot on the same Ghana beach where the historic Elmina enslavement fort still stands. The model then travels through time to the enslavement past and discovers the sacredness of how her ancestors survived through revolts and sacrifice. Rich in themes of communalism, revolt, Pan-Africanism, and intellectual agency, Sankofa is a revolutionary vision of enslavement courage. In the years since its release, it has attracted a cult and cultural following.

The Sankofa cultural explosion continues in high schools and colleges today. In Black Studies classes, teachers introduce Sankofa to newer generations through the film and as an example of African philosophy. For many, it is a new and inspirational experience that reinforces the educational goals of historical recovery and presents the rich intellectual tradition of the African world. In practices of Black psychology, Sankofa grounds wellness and renewal in ancient wisdom. And in literary analysis, Sankofa is a paradigm that asks readers to map the ways characters of African descent travel and explore heritage homelands. This travel is often multidirectional and involves not just Africa, but also the Americas, the Caribbean, and even Europe.

The principle of Sankofa is a reminder that “flight” and “return” go hand in hand.

But Sankofa is most visible outside of academia, in the explosion of businesses, schools, and community engagement projects that have embraced the name “Sankofa.” Represented by familiar icons (a heart, a bird) rather than some of the less familiar geometric shapes in the Adinkra, Sankofa holds immediate, recognizable visual appeal. While community institutions may not necessarily have a deep understanding of Sankofa’s precise Adinkra meaning, Sankofa has also been embraced by some as a general African/Black legacy concept that communicates that they are proud agents of a global heritage.

Consider just a sampling: Sankofa Kitchen (Dallas); Sankofa Arts Lounge (Dallas); Sankofa Research Institute (Houston); Sankofa Village for the Arts (Pittsburgh); Sankofa African and World Bazaar (Baltimore); Sankofa Church (Atlanta); Sankofa Community Discount Card (Atlanta); Sankofa Initiative (Jacksonville); Sankofa Creations Spalon (Jacksonville); Sankofa Jazz Festival (Miami); and Sankofa Soul, the sponsor of music festivals in St. Lucia, Curacao, Brooklyn, and Coney Island.

For hundreds of years, African Americans have used everything from storytelling to art to religion to keep their heritage alive in a hostile U.S. In 1991, African American archaeologists even discovered Sankofa symbols in a colonial-era African burial ground during a high-rise construction project in lower Manhattan; that site is now a national monument. Such relics from the past, like the Akan gold weights that fueled commerce for 500 years, show the depth and longevity of the ancient traditional West African roots of African Americans.

The knowledge imparted by African ancestors—an inheritance forcibly taken away, though never completely lost—has endured, yet African Americans revel in the more recent awareness of the vast Adinkra system because it is specific amidst a cultural history that largely has been a generic remembrance.

Imagine the possibilities for cultural reclamation and enrichment if the African American and diasporic communities continue to utilize not just Sankofa but the wealth of philosophies shared within the entire Adinkra system. Because among its symbols lie universal wisdom around the human capacity to heal, to repair, to renew, and to return.


Send A Letter To the Editors

    Please tell us your thoughts. Include your name and daytime phone number, and a link to the article you’re responding to. We may edit your letter for length and clarity and publish it on our site.

    (Optional) Attach an image to your letter. Jpeg, PNG or GIF accepted, 1MB maximum.