I am reminded daily that I operate within multiple identities and roles, as I suspect that all of us do. Some of the most obvious identities and roles for me include being African American, Christian, and a woman. While I am generally comfortable in my skin and with my ever evolving belief system, my levels of comfort and beliefs have been challenged quite often in recent years. Contemporary events, hate crimes, police brutality and political gerrymandering have stoked my cognitive and emotional fires to consider which identity I will most closely align with and operate in at any given moment. Even within the last week, my identity and beliefs have been challenged by the verdict, sentencing and subsequent responses associated with the Botham Jean murder by former police officer Amber Guyger. For some, this may have been primarily an unfortunate situation that warranted familial and Godly forgiveness, but for others, it was also represented a complete miscarriage of justice that had tinges (at the very least) of systemic injustice for people of color. For me, it was all of the above, and a reminder of the significance of Sankofa.
Sankofa, as symbolized by a two-sided heart and a forward moving bird that is looking back to cradle the egg of promise, communicates a philosophy and spiritual principle which suggest that one person or community cannot move forward in the best possible manner without looking back, learning from the past, and preparing a new generation to move forward. While there are other symbols (http://www.adinkra.org/), this African Adinkra symbol frames a necessary awareness of the intersections of faith, race and gender in social justice messages from the past to guide steps forward into the future.
In preparation for an upcoming conference presentation, my focus on the concept of Sankofa led me to study the lives of historic figures like Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Dorothy Height, and other female vanguards who also faced the complicated juxtapositions of multiple minority identities. As I considered my “place” in our increasingly racially-charged society, I related to the righteous indignation of Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper viciously beaten by police officers while in the process of fighting for her community’s right to vote. Hamer exclaimed that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of the atrocities faced by her people during the Civil Rights era, as am I in contemporary times. As I thought of the continued loss of all lives (particularly Black lives and the lives of children) from gun violence and brutality, and the responses of so many who declare that they are “praying for the families of the victims,” I connected with the sentiments that Hamer shared at a civil rights rally that it was time to connect “thoughts and prayers” with actions. As I read and reflected upon my role as a self-proclaimed activist for woman and other oppressed people, the “unbossed and unbought” slogan attributed to Shirley Chisholm’s presidential campaign resonated with me. It actually reminded me of another Adinkra symbol, the Gye Nyame (you will find this symbol on my dress in my photograph at the beginning of this blog entry) which is a prompt to walk in strength and to fear “no one except God.” And as I thought of my identity as a mother, I related to the words of Dorothy Height, whose mother helped her “understand how not to show off what I knew, but how to use it so that others might benefit.”
While the normalcy of my juxtaposed identities was affirmed through similar sentiments expressed by the aforementioned African American Christian female trailblazers, my consciousness was captured by the prompt that the Sankofa journey is not complete if the lessons from the past are not applied in the present and transmitted to the future. So, despite resonating with the frustrations of today’s racisms, sexism, xenophobia and religiously-affiliated hate crimes, I must continue to apply the lessons learned from heroines from the past in contemporary times. Additionally, I must continue to embrace the queries presented by contemporary African American Christian leaders who promote advocacy-orientated introspection, “speak truth” and “fight” for “equal treatment, collective purpose and freedom for all”. It is with this full circle expression of Sankofa that I am empowered to continue to live out the requirement found in Micah 6:8 to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with my God.”
Kesslyn Brade Stennis is the immediate past President of the NACSW Board, and has been an advocate and social work educator for over 20 years. She has particular interests in women’s studies and African American faith communities. Currently she is an Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Dr. Dorothy I. Height Center for the Advancement of Social Justice at Coppin State University.