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Sankofa: Searching for Roots

By Heru Kevin Bullard

Presented by Omni-University

Over the last several months, I have been immersed in a Family Genealogy Project researching family history on my father’s side which has its roots in the deep southern areas of the Louisiana / Mississippi Delta regions and eventually migrated into the Midwest and coastal areas up North. What I discovered is that our genealogy represents multiple strains of crooked family pathways compounded by missing names and ruptured human stories. I viewed my anticipated undertaking as comparable to the challenges of scaling a mountain.

When looking up from the base of the mountain, the trajectory is extreme and intimidating. But, once the climb begins, the focus shifts and the climb is based on measuring one’s steps and securing one's footing instead of concentrating on the enormity of the mountain. My attention is centered on episodic memory from living elders and oral family narratives that may support my research findings. But, what I discover is that the paths lead in different directions.

An African proverb states, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will lead you there.”Unfortunately, the answers that I seek are supplied through the very same systems and institutions that were used, historically, to obscure them. Therefore, His-Story is the lens that I must see through as I seek to get a glimpse of Our-Story.

The Ascent

Culture is a way of life that encompasses a Worldview which is expressed in a myriad of ways: through language, mores, traditions, orientations, ethos, ritual, and so on. These are the means by which we define ourselves and the manner in which we relate to each other as well as to the "world". When culture is disrupted, distorted, or erased, the aftermath leaves a legacy of indelible trauma and cultural chaos. As I embarked upon my search for family names, I began to reflect on the task of looking for Africans in cargoes labeled "negroes". How does one find one's Kunta Kinte(s) in a mass of Toby(s)?[1]

Names and naming within common African traditions were the means by which kinship, eldership, lineage, etc. were identified. Given names, i.e., names that we are born with as well as names that are given by our kinship group acknowledge lives that have come into being to fulfill an inherent purpose and/ or to RE-present ancestors. Names were given which continued our connection to our kinship group, rather than as mere designations of our unique individuality. Names embody culture and culture supports life. Hence, cultural names signify more than "meets the eye". They were encrypted by signs, symbols, marks, lines, diagrams and abstract letters. They might be heard through grunts, clicking sounds, tonal inflections or cadence-based exhalations.

As I further immersed myself in the search for names, I realized that I had to go back and rethink every little thing I thought I knew and recalculate my steps from the beginning of my journey. The soundest gear is required for scaling this mountain thus, I was compelled to go back and recapture my Afrikan-Thinking Mind: to Re-research from a different vantage point. The names for which I was searching kept changing and didn’t line up with the ones I had already identified. There were too many missing pieces and moving parts that didn’t correspond with the stories told.

The Sojourn and Descent

As I continued to ponder the direction of my investigation, my thoughts travelled to my earlier visits to Elmina Castle on Ghana’s Cape Coast and to the Goree Island of Senegal. I remembered the hollowness that my spirit felt as I wandered through "Holding Cells". I recalled the silence, the barely audible whispers, and the plaintive voices from Ancestral souls carrying mournful, unutterable grief and separation. I "heard" the cries of my Ancestral mothers and fathers weeping for their children and each other. I "heard" the voices of my Ancestral brothers and sisters as they pleaded for their parents and their siblings. I promised that I would never forget. As I stood before the "Door of No Return" I pledged through tear-filled eyes, that I would somehow reclaim our Ancestors: Those whose bodies lay beneath the ocean's waters all along the Middle Passage as well as those who survived the voyage to the "Brave New World"[3].

So, the arduous task of sifting through archival documents, incomplete old census data, incomplete historical land/ slave schedules, unreadable probate records, missing obituaries, conflicting marriage certificates and inaccurate county records, paled in comparison to the hardships and suffering that our Forbears endured .

Anyone who has ever ventured on a long journey will agree that it often seems as if the travel back home is shorter than the original departing voyage. As I continued to unravel the family puzzle, putting together severed connections and weaving a family web of names, locations and reunions, I began to feel invigorated by my determination to reclaim names, heritage and legacy. During the antebellum periods (1800-1870), names could not be found. Our Ancestors were considered to be mere chattel/ commodities/ property. They were not persons and, thus,could only be claimed from enumerated "slave" registers and yearly "slave" schedules. With the 1870 Census, emancipated "Freedmen" were counted basically through the common names and surnames of their former "OWNERS".

The process of reclaiming family members is both exhilarating and exhausting. His-Story has never been kind to missing "property" whose missing names deny that these persons ever existed. Our-Story- our Family history- which has always been dynamic, fluid, multi-linear, extended and cultural remains to be told. The summit of this mountain has yet to be reached. As I complete this part of my responsibilities to the Family, I remind myself of the sacredness of cultural memory. This, I realize, has been my own personal Rite-of-Passage as I reclaimed the family names thought to be lost or unknown. As I recite and record the names, I realize the commonality of recurrent names from the past echoing back across current family members who carry the same names.

"The Strength of the Mountain is Rooted from the Ground"

In the African-Centered Cultural Movement, we often refer to the “Wehemy Mesu [WHMY MSW], repetition of births, as a reoccurrence for healing OurSelves and rediscovery- of finding our True Self / Selves (Hilliard,1996). As I look at existing family photographs, the similarities between the past and the present are striking.

Sankofa provides the means for the WHMY MSW[2] to maintain the circle and allow for the right [rite] to return home again.

Sankofa transforms the pain into resiliency.

Sankofa provides the impetus to call the names of those who have lived, those shoulders on whom we stand .

Sankofa, becomes the means to re-member, to re-tell and to re-store our legacy as well as our ledgers that remain un-balanced.

Sankofa is both the exit and entrance.

Sankofa is me, Sankofa is We,

Sankofa is Us.

Blog Notes:

[1] [Ancestor] Haley, Alex, "Roots: The Saga of An African American Family "

[2] [Ancestor] Hilliard, Asa (October 21, 1996, DRAFT). SBA, the Source for the WHMY MSU: Building the African Mind and Community from Our Deep Thought, MDW NTR/MDW NFR.

Suggested Reading:

Cheatwood, Kiarri T-H, "The Butchers Grand Ball".

Baptist, Edward E., "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American


Asante, Molefi Kete, "The Book of African Names".

Willis, W. Bruce, "The Adinkra Dictionary".

Huxley, Aldous, "Brave New World".

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