Sankofic Symbolism: An Interpretation of the Tulane University Medical Students’ Photo
“This album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin” was how the song began. However, as a young boy, I did not fully comprehend the depth of the message of this song by a rapper named The Notorious BIG. “Juicy” was one of the singles from BIG’s first album and it reflects the drastic change in his life from poverty to riches.
Perhaps one of the most intimate statements in this song is when BIG places his experience with his mother in a one-room shack side by side with the new reality of his mother owning a luxury vehicle and wearing expensive clothing. As this song articulates BIG’s transition from poverty to wealth, one becomes aware of the function of the mental (and lyrical) juxtaposition of struggle and success. Contemplating the transformation of his life seems to have been satisfying, encouraging, and inspiring to both BIG and his listeners.
Disrespecting the Ancestors?
This paradigm of taking times of struggle and hardship, and apposing them with times of success is a lens I suggest may be used to think about the recent photograph displaying fifteen medical students dressed in their white coats in front of the “slave quarters” on a plantation.
The post on social media has sparked some discussion about the wisdom of taking this type of picture. Although some people had a positive view of the image, others felt that it was problematic. Much of the controversy is over the statement by one of the students who said, “We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.” One person stated it is important to consider the fact that enslaved Africans in the United States were familiar with cures and healing practices. She went further and stated that the photograph and statement from the students suggest that they were the first African-Americans to obtain medical degrees, but there were others in previous generations who did so under harder circumstances.
Others argued that the post was self-congratulatory and ostentatious. The most relevant statement for my thesis, however, is: “You are standing on mass graves. Literally. Celebrate survival & thriving, rather than use your ancestors as a stepping stool. Learn your history.” While it is unclear whether her statement about using the ancestors as a stepping stool applies to the notion that the photo was posted for popularity, it seems she perceives that the photograph presents the ancestors negatively rather than highlighting their strength and ingenuity. A different interpretation may be plausible. Although I sympathize with the desire for care and sensitivity that his African ancestors are portrayed, it may be possible to read this photo as an act of Sankofic symbolism.
Sankofic symbolism refers to the use of symbols as a means of simultaneously looking back while striving to move forward. Sankofa is an Akan word which means to “go back and recover it.” As Maulana Karenga explains, Sankofa is the act of returning to the past for its rich resources as a foundation for the improvement of the present and future. This concept is found in Scripture as well.
For example, the Passover was meant to be a reminder for the Israelites of their bondage; but God miraculously delivered them from their slavery (Ex. 12:14, 24-27). This is also seen in the story of Joseph’s exaltation to second in command under Pharaoh in Egypt. As a way to remind himself of the contrast between his past condition and the position that God had brought him to, Joseph gave one of his sons a name that means “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Gen. 41:52). Every time Joseph would call his son’s name, he would be declaring the contrast of his time of “affliction” to his current time as being “fruitful.”
One should also consider the symbolism God uses with the eternal nail prints in Jesus’ hands/wrists (Jn. 20:24-28). These nail prints will act as a continual reminder that Jesus’ path to glory was through suffering. This fact magnifies his glory even more. These are merely a few of the examples in the biblical text of the use of previous suffering or hardship to enhance the observer’s perception of the magnitude of the victory obtained.
African-Americans have understood this Sankofic symbolism within their culture as well. There are museums that carry the shackles used on slave ships and memorials for the victims of lynching in America. This Sankofic symbolism can be seen even in the artistic expressions of African-Americans. The character Killmonger in the movie “Black Panther” made an iconic declaration when he stated that he would like to be buried in the ocean with his ancestors to show homage to them because they knew that death was better than bondage. It shows up in the Black National anthem as well:
“Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chast’ning rod
Felt in the day that hope unborn had died
Yet with a steady beat
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place on which our fathers sighed
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our star is cast.”
These verses highlight the horror of the African-American past while declaring hope for the present. This is the true meaning of Sankofa: not wallowing in the pain of the past, but using the struggles of the past for hope for tomorrow. The plantation photograph may have the function of Sankofic symbolism that is used to honor the ancestors and gain encouragement to press forward on the freedom struggle.
Personal Sankofic Symbolism
I have overcome negative circumstances in my life and I use Sankofic symbolism as a way to press forward. I’ve spent over five years in prison and endured much hardship. Subsequent to my release, I have earned my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. I took pictures of myself holding my diploma while wearing my prison ID card. These symbolic acts were cathartic and inspiring. I also keep my prison clothes in my closet as a continual reminder of where I came from. These garments will also function as a means of inspiration for my daughter when she realizes what her father went through and what she is able to accomplish because of my example. These actions are not a glorification of my past, but they are Sankofic symbols for inspiration.
Notorious BIG, “Juicy” on Ready to Die Album (1994), retrieved Dec. 28, 2019 from: https://genius.com/The-notorious-big-juicy-lyrics.
@theguywithyes, “We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams. In the background, an original slave quarter. In the foreground, original descendants of slaves and medical students. #whatatimetobealive #yeahwecandoboth.” Twitter, Dec. 14, 2019, 6:49pm, twitter.com/theguywithyes/status/1205998323355803648?s=21.
@profblmkelley, “My ancestors knew much more about cures than the people that held them in bondage. My ancestors knew about the safe delivery of babies, about working herbs and roots that kept folks alive. Until relatively recently the doctors were killing people. Doctors weren’t their dreams.” Twitter, Dec. 26, 2019, 9:23pm, twitter.com/profblmkelley/status/1210385765865263104?s=21.
Ibid, “It also assumes that they are among the first who participated in modern medicine, but they aren’t. No doubt getting a medical degree is very hard. I can imagine that it was profoundly hard to get during Jim Crow, but people did that too.” Twitter, Dec. 26, 2019, 9:29pm, twitter.com/profblmkelley/status/1210387209125335040?s=21.
@Arrianna_Planey, “’I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams’ is also egotistical & ahistorical. It’s almost as if traditions of ancestor worship/basic respect have been thoroughly erased, & now we get…*gestures* self-congratulatory selfies on plantations.” Twitter, Dec. 26, 2019, 10:38am, twitter.com/arrianna_planey/status/1210223365073653760?s=21.
@brentricekc, “The endless tagging of celebrities under the pic sealed it for me. This wasn’t to honor our ancestors…but to gain clout. And clout was in fact achieved.” Twitter, Dec. 27, 2019, 3:24am, twitter.com/brentricekc/status/1210476578838401026?s=21.
@Arrianna_Planey, “You are standing on mass graves. Literally. Celebrate survival & thriving, rather than use your ancestors as a stepping stool. Learn your history.” Twitter, Dec. 26, 2019, 10:39am, twitter.com/arrianna_planey/status/1210223702115258371?s=21.
Maulana Karenga, Introduction to Black Studies 4th edition (Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 2010), 65.