Looking Behind to Move Forward


Sankofa is an African word symbolized by a bird looking backwards with its feet facing forward. In its beak, it carries a precious egg (symbolizing the future.) The word literally translates: san – to return; ko – to go; fa – to fetch. The underlying concept promotes the importance of looking behind in order to move forward. Sankofa is often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates as: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”

As Americans, it feels like we have forgotten quite a bit lately — kindness, respectful discourse, empathy, compassion, a sense of unity, the ability to listen to those whose opinions differ from our own.

On a personal level, as I look back over an eventful sixty years, it is clear that my history does not start with my own birth. The generations before me have left a legacy of stories. Some of those stories are shameful, some are sweet, some are heart-breaking. When telling family stories, there is always a temptation to gloss over the shameful bits in favor of the more heroic (overcoming adversity during the Great Depression) or heartwarming (Grandma’s 90th birthday party). 

History is full of triumphant tales told by the victors. But I think the more inspirational stories are found in the lives of the forgotten, the disregarded. The precious eggs of our future are found in our past. What can we learn from our ancestors’ suffering or from their misguided ambitions?  What has been forgotten that we need to remember now? While our Creative Memories scrapbooks and scribbled journals may not seem to carry the weight of civilization preserved under the patient care of monastic scribes, these keepers of our histories are our own form of illuminated manuscripts. Our stories invite others to join in our experience of humanity. Our stories remind us that although people do not reach perfection, everyone should be given the opportunity to learn and grow.  

In the following pages, what began as simple writing exercises became something more, sometimes doubling as personal therapy, veering into social commentary, often emerging into thought-provoking questions. This is my journey. If it helps you reflect on your own, I bless your sankofa.

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