“Sankofa” by The Rev. Marshall Hatch Jr.

“Fling yourself down on the truth and cling to that as a drowning man in a stormy sea flings himself on to a plank and clings to it, knowing that, whether he sink or swim with it, it is the best he has.” — Olive Schreiner

In our faith tradition, “Sankofa” keeps us grounded and forward-looking. The Twi word is connected to a broader West African principle: Before moving forward we must first look back, gleaning the well-earned wisdom rendered by the ancestors. The word means “retrieve, or go back and fetch.” The instruction is symbolized by a bird flying forward while reaching back, tending to its egg. Culturally, we cling to its call to remember because we’ve learned that the past is what anchors our souls; without remembrance we’d be like a ship without a sail. We’d forfeit the inheritance and genius of Blackness. Spiritually, Sankofa is our “source of self-regard,” our place of refuge. It’s how we remain vigilant in the face of old and new struggles. It’s how we resist hopelessness and create beauty out of the muck and mire. Sankofa is more than a word. It’s the plank that we fling ourselves on to, because it is the best we have.

Like most communities, ours was wrecked by the onset of COVID-19. Our elders were terrified and isolated. Our young people were insecure and out of school. Our essential workers were finally deemed essential, but still without an essential wage. Our worship was online, but off-kilter. But unlike most communities, ours simultaneously faced the recurrent cancer of white supremacist racism and its structural implications. This disease was one of the triple evils prophesied by King before his assassination (the other two evils were poverty and militarism). We witnessed the convergence of these evils in the disproportionate numbers of Black, Brown and Indigenous COVID-related deaths, and in a policeman’s knee on the neck of George Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Many of us responded with an uprising because … we had to. The spirit of Sankofa had forced a racial reckoning with the past; there was no more running.

At our West Garfield Park-based church, we looked to the God of our ancestors, and leaned on what Howard Thurman called “the experience of a common sharing of mutual worth and value.” Several months prior to the pandemic, we had unveiled a 25-foot stained-glass window deemed “Sankofa.” It features the faces of the four little girls who were killed in a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. It also features five contemporary martyrs: Derrion Albert, Laquan McDonald, Hadiya Pendleton, Blair Holt and Demetrius Griffin, Jr. The central image depicts a hooded Black Messiah shepherding the young people back to Sankofa Village, the beloved community. Of the five Adinkra symbols reflected in the window, my favorite is the one which means “love never loses its way home.” Every time the light of the setting sun shines through, it refracts, causing the window’s vibrant colors to illuminate our sanctuary. The light also seizes our gaze. We’re reminded that death and despair aren’t final, that there’s a light that shines beyond the darkness. We’re encouraged to press on, striving to embody this light — to love our way back home.

The Rev. Marshall Hatch Jr. is Co-founder and Executive Director of the MAAFA Redemption Project.