Over the last year, UNC Greensboro celebrated its 125th anniversary. The occasion has given us time to remember our past — but also to envision our future. I was recently reminded of what a gift such moments are during UNCG’s 2018 Conference on African American and African Diasporic Cultures and Experience, where a presenter introduced me to the concept of Sankofa.
The term, from the Akan people of Ghana, means “to go back and fetch it.” It is typically heard as part of a proverb that translates to “it is not wrong to go back for what you have forgotten or lost.”
The symbol for Sankofa is a bird looking backward, with an egg in its mouth representing the future. The proverb has been particularly important to peoples of the African Diaspora, for whom the meaning has evolved to “remembering the past, to protect the future.”
As UNCG looks forward, I find myself thinking that Sankofa holds important lessons for us as scholars. The concept weaves through much of our work, as is evidenced in this latest issue of UNCG Research Magazine.
The rings of ancient alpine larch trace the rise of global warming. Our responses to a 1906 earthquake and 2005 hurricane offer insight into how we will face coming natural disasters. A previous generation’s exposure to BPA dictates a medaka fish’s reproductive health. A queer network of exchange in the early 1900s illustrates how women have lifted and continue to lift one another up in the face of overwhelming odds.
In each story, the same lesson: to build a better future, we must understand our past.
To make our next leap in space, we must go back and comprehend basic mechanisms of plant biology, evolved long before we took our first steps out of the primordial ooze. We have to play the long game, as we have in UNCG’s quarter-century effort to teach kids life skills and build stronger communities through sport — refining our models as we go, in response to lessons learned.
Of course, no project better embodies Sankofa than the Digital Library of American Slavery, where researchers and students are working to bring some of the 4 million enslaved and forgotten back into the light. The library is for descendants of the oppressed and the oppressors. Because we cannot move forward together without facing our past.
As UNCG takes its next giant steps into the future, may we be like the Sankofa bird. Boldly winging forward, yet always conscious of our past and the hard-won wisdom it contains.
Brass weight from Ghana in the form of a Sankofa bird.
UNC Greensboro’s impactful School of Nursing and science programs will soon have a new home. Thanks to a voter-supported Connect NC bond, the outdated McIver Building will come down this year, to make way for a new Nursing and Instructional Building. With 14 classrooms and 39 labs, the five-story, 180,000-square-foot building will provide much needed space for our growing programs — allowing our regional and national impact to expand for decades to come.