Sankofa (pronounced SAHN-koh-fah) is a word in the Akan Twi and Fante languages of Ghana that translates to "retrieve" (literally "go back and get"; san - to return; ko - to go; fa - to fetch, to seek and take) and also refers to the Bono Adinkra symbol represented either with a stylized heart shape or by a bird with its head turned backwards while its feet face forward carrying a precious egg in its mouth. Sankofa is often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi," or “Sankofa w’onkyir” which translates as: "It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten." It implores for Africans to reach back into ancient history for traditions and customs that have been left behind.
In addition to being used on adinkra cloth in Ghana, the Sankofa heart is a common design on gates in the United States, particularly New York City. In Brooklyn, the Sankofa heart is commonly upside down on gates to Brownstone residential buildings.
The sankofa bird 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 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 in North America and the United Kingdom
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 symbol. 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 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, 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.
A Sankofa bird appears several times in the BBC Television show Taboo. It was carved into the floor of a slave ship by James Keziah Delaney, appears as a tattoo on his upper back and as a drawing within the fireplace of his mother’s old room.
- The Spirituals Project at the University of Denver. "African Tradition, Proverbs, and Sankofa". Archived from the original on 20 April 2011. Retrieved 19 February 2010. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- DeMello, Margo (2014-05-30). Inked: Tattoos and Body Art around the World [2 volumes]. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-61069-076-8.
- 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 Archived 2011-07-20 at the Wayback Machine
- fa.indiana.edu site on Akan goldweights Archived 2012-08-02 at archive.today
- Seeman, Erik R. (January 2010). "Reassessing the 'Sankofa Symbol' in New York's African Burial Ground" (PDF). William and Mary Quarterly. 67: 101–22. doi:10.5309/willmaryquar.67.1.101. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 June 2010. Retrieved 17 April 2011. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- Sewell Chan (26 January 2010). "Coffin's Emblem Defies Certainty". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 February 2010. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- "African Burial Ground National Monument". National Park Servicef. Retrieved 19 February 2010. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- "National Museum of African American History and Culture". Archived from the original on 26 March 2009. Retrieved 2 March 2010. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- Mary Brennan, "Rhythms of everyday life", Herald Scotland, 10 February 2000.