Africana majors and faculty are inducted into the Sankofa Society, held at the Spencer-Weinstein Center, February 27, 2018, Courtesy of Dr. Devyn Benson.
Authored by Oge Ibida ’21 in “Black Faculty and Imagining Black Studies“
last updated 02.09.2021
On February 27, 2018, Sankofa Society Induction inducted the largest number of Africana scholars into the department. This image powerfully represents an Africana community cultivated in knowledge, diasporic identities, and guidance. The plaque of the Sankofa bird stands proudly on top of the bookshelf, thus serving as the centerpiece of the ceremony and photograph. In particular, the significance of the Sankofa bird has ties to the Akan people of Ghana and visually depicts a bird with its head turned backward carrying an egg from its back. “Sankofa” translates to “You must reach back to reclaim that which is lost to move forward.” It expresses the importance of reaching back to knowledge gained in the past and bringing it into the present in order to achieve progress. The bookshelves behind the Africana community can be a metaphoric symbol of past knowledge. Although the bookshelves are placed in the background, it reminds us that Africana Studies is rooted in the cultural products of Africa and the knowledge of Black scholars who envisioned a program of the African Diaspora. Ultimately, the centerpiece explains the induction ceremony as a diasporic celebration that invites Kindred into a discipline designed to unlearn and dismantle systems of antiBlack violence. The significance of the Sankofa bird connects folks in the photograph, especially the kente cloth stoles embroidered with the Ghananian symbol.
Everyone in the photograph wears a kente stole labeled “Africana Studies Dept.” and the Sankofa bird. The kente cloth originated in Ghana by the Ashanti people and became a sacred symbol used in a rite of passage. Ultimately, the kente stole becomes a “ritual marking of oneself with a visible sign of Africa which weaves together the wisdom of Africa before the Middle Passage with the persistent struggle to retain the knowledge of oneself that defines Black experience in the Diaspora” (Padilioni, 2017). For the past decades, we start to see the kente cloth stoles as a hallmark of the Black collegiate experience. The representations of Ghananian heritage through the kente stoles and Sankofa bird center the diaspora as a key aesthetic to Africana Studies. Additionally, the Pan African Movement in the 1950s used kente stoles during graduation to encourage solidarity and community among people of the African Diaspora. In essence, the kente stoles in the Sankofa Society induction reclaim the aspirations and values of the Pan African Movement and create a generational link between the new inductees and people in the Diaspora.
Because the Sankofa Society induction represents a rite of passage, it encouraged some students to dress in traditional clothing and represent their heritage. Once they had to walk throughout a predominately white campus with their traditional clothing, their clothing transformed into a political statement that affirms their cultural pride and existence as a Black scholar. In addition, the new Africana majors and faculty dressed elegantly for the ceremony which emphasizes the ceremony as a celebration of knowledge, culture, and community. This highlights diasporic identities and the appearance of Afrocentricity.
The physical space of the Sankofa Society induction is critical to the analysis of the photograph. The ceremony takes place in the Spencer-Weinstein Center also known to students as the Multicultural House. Referring to the center as a “house” suggests the comfortability and familiarity of the space which made it possible for it to be used as the location for the ceremony. Moreover, the television and the bookshelves in the background resemble a living room thus creating an intimate atmosphere to freely enjoy themselves. The Multicultural house was designed in this fashion to create a safe hub for underrepresented students and faculty to do anti-racist work on campus. Furthermore, the windows in the room have the blinds rolled down which forms a protective barrier between them and any outside influence. The insulated space within the house allows the department to be able to have an open and safe space to build community.
In this particular photograph, the students and faculty form a semicircle that invites the audience to feel a part of the community. The faculty is hugging the students while the students’ smiles and enthusiasm radiate from the photograph. One important thing to note is that both the faculty and students wear the kente stoles which eliminates any form of hierarchy. This photograph beautifully captures Africana Studies as one unit and the strong bond that exists as a department. Without knowing the individuals in the photograph, the audience could not make a distinction between the faculty and students. Ultimately, this ceremony visually represents the cultivation of a community, of a kindred that was envisioned for Africana.