Sankofa can mean either the word in the Akan language of Ghana that translates in English to " reach back and get it" (san - to return; ko - to go; fa - to look, to seek and take) or the Asante Adinkra symbols of a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back, or of a stylised heart shape. It is often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi," which translates "It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten."
The Sankofa symbol appears frequently in traditional Akan art, and has also been adopted as an important symbol in an African American and African Diaspora context to represent the need to reflect on the past to build a successful future. It is one of the most widely dispersed adinkra symbols, appearing in modern jewelry, tattoos, and clothing.
The Akan people of Ghana use an Adinkra symbol to represent this same idea and one version of it is similar to the eastern symbol of a heart, and another version is that of a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back. It symbolizes one taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge. Adinkra symbols are used by the Akan people to express proverbs and other philosophical ideas.
The sankofa bird also appears on carved wooden Akan stools, in Akan goldweights, on some ruler's state umbrella or parasol (ntuatire) finials and on the staff finials of some court linguists. It functions to foster mutual respect and unity in tradition.
Use of the Sankofa in North America
During a building excavation in Lower Manhattan in 1991, a cemetery for free and enslaved Africans was discovered. Over 400 remains were identified, but one coffin in particular stood out. Nailed into its wooden lid were iron tacks, 51 of which formed an enigmatic, heart-shaped design that could be a Sankofa.  The site is now a national monument, known as the African Burial Ground National Monument, administered by the National Park Service. A copy of the design found on the coffin lid is prominently carved onto a large black granite memorial at the center of the site.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture uses the heart-shaped symbol on its website. The "mouse over" for the image reads, "The Sankofa represents the importance of learning from the past."
Sankofa symbols show themselves all over Washington, DC, particularly in fence designs.
Sankofa is an event used by Saint Louis University to honor African American student graduates and students who graduate with degrees in African American studies.
The African American string band, Sankofa Strings, founded in 2005 by Sule Greg C. Wilson, Rhiannon Giddens Laffin, and Dom Flemons, was featured in the 2007 jug band documentary, Chasin' Gus' Ghost. The band self-released the CD, Colored Aristocracy, in 2006. A second iteration of the band, Sankofa, with Wilson and Flemons, as well as Ndidi Onukwulu and Allison Russell, released the CD, The Uptown Strut, in 2012.
Cassandra Wilson recorded the song "Sankofa," which appeared on her 1993 "Blue Light 'Til Dawn CD.
The Adinkra dictionary: A visual primer on the language of Adinkra, W. Bruce Willis, Pyramid Complex (1998) ISBN 0-9661532-0-0
- The Spirituals Project at the University of Denver. "African Tradition, Proverbs, and Sankofa". Retrieved 19 February 2010.
- An example is shown at conradiator.com
- An example is shown on the myfundi.co.za page on the gold and proverbs of West Africa
- fa.indiana.edu site on Akan goldweights
- Seeman, Erik R. (January 2010). "Reassessing the 'Sankofa Symbol' in New York's African Burial Ground,". William and Mary Quarterly 67: 101–22. Retrieved 17 April 2011.
- Sewell Chan (26 January 2010). "Coffin’s Emblem Defies Certainty". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 February 2010.
- "African Burial Ground National Monument". Retrieved 19 February 2010.
- "National Museum of African American History and Culture". Retrieved 2 March 2010.