Sankofa: A Celebration of What Was and What Will Be

“Returning to your roots, recapturing what you lost and moving forward,” is a phrase that has great significance for African-Americans. For us, it is very important to have an intimacy with our heritage. For years, we have continued to seek this intimacy, and one such example was witnessed here at HBS with Sankofa.

Sankofa is a word in Adrinka, which is the language of the Akan people of Ghana, and it means just that, “Returning to your roots, recapturing what you lost and moving forward.” The leadership of the African-American Student Union (AASU) first convened during the end of the last school year and this meeting spawned the first annual Sankofa celebration, which served as the capstone event for the Black History Month celebrations here on campus. February serves as the month for black history in the United States and this tradition has its roots in the Negro History Week which Dr. Carter Woodson initiated in the earlier half of the 20th century.

The night began with a wonderful meal representative of the diversity of the African Diaspora. The menu included beef and vegetable patties, fish and collard greens, among other dishes. After the meal, the program began with an exploration of culture from Africa. The main organizers of the event, AASU members Dan Reed (OC) and Miriame McIntosh (OE), started by explaining the significance of Sankofa to the audience of HBS students. After that, the Silimbo Dance Troupe from Senegal, led by Sister Fatou, taught certain attendees from the general audience some steps of African Dance. After the steps, Omari Bouknight (OA) read a poem he had authored, entitled “Envision”.

The Caribbean portion of the presentation began with a tune from Noel Watson, a Technology and Operations Management (TOM) professor at HBS. His strong rendering of “No Woman, No Cry,” a song about an impoverished life and having hope despite being in an adverse situation, received thunderous applause. The crowd, which included a number of past and present students of Tom Watson, was very pleased to see a member of the faculty being so active in the event. And everyone began to back up the professor’s singing as he continued.

After that, the crowd was entertained by a group of HBS dancers. They included Mariame McIntosh (OE), Kenna Baudin (OE), April Crosse (OI), Carole Gardner (OF), Ivelisse Rodriguez (OB), SoYoung Kang (OA), Erika Perkins and Zuhairah Scott (OB). Later, Dan Reed (OC), Athelstan Bellerand (OJ), and Felix Ofungwu (NB) assisted the ladies in their dance, much to the gratification of the audience.

To portray the African-American heritage witnessed here in the United States, Omari Bouknight (OA) read another poem. This particular piece was a powerful work by Langston Hughes entitled, “I, too, sing America.”

The piece discusses the struggles of a black servant who is treated disrespectfully by those he serves, but is determined to claim his fair share of the American dream. From there, Bouknight (OA) joined Athelstan Bellerand (OJ), Kim Spears (NG) and Zuhairah Scott (OB) in singing, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the so-called Negro National Anthem that African-Americans have claimed as symbolic of the culture.

Finally, to illustrate a unique part of African-American life, Tamara Lynn Nall (NB) introduced members of Kappa Alpha Psi, namely, Emanuel Slater (NI), Kurt Summers (NJ), and Chadwick Cunnigham (NC) and also, several distinguished brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha, namely, Robert Munroe (NJ), Athelstan Bellerand (OJ), and Doug Miller, as they illustrated two major parts of African-American intercollegiate fraternal life: stepping and competition. The night then ended with AASU co-presidents Torarie Durden (OI) and Tarik Brooks (OG) thanking all participants and beginning an old African-American favorite, the electric slide.

The reactions to Sankofa were very strong and encouraging. So-Young Kang (OA), who danced during the Caribbean presentation, stated that, “I liked how we were able to share different aspects from different cultures. Overall, it was a great experience.”

Kim Spears (NG), who sang, also showed enthusiasm, “Sankofa was an awesome event and I enjoyed every moment. It was great to have this opportunity to share the diversity of African-American culture and celebrate it with the HBS community. Our history has too often been ignored. I definitely look forward to building on the momentum of this event next year.”

On a personal note, as an African-American who has lived the culture that was on display, I was truly touched to see so much acceptance for customs that were long considered, by some, barbaric and primitive.

While it was very heart-warming to see everyone enjoy themselves and learn about the different aspects of our heritage, I must state that it is important to remember the true meaning of the evening. It’s good to be entertained; however, it is only if you grasped the words of our songs which described our struggle rather than just listen to the music, that the participants will consider their efforts well-spent.