My second year in seminary a group of us took a trip called a “Sankofa Journey”. Wikipedia defines “sankofa”:
Sankofa can mean either the word in the Akan language of Ghana that translates in English to “go back and get it” (san – to return; ko – to go; fa – to look, to seek and take) or the Asante Adinkra symbols of a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back, or of a stylised heart shape. It is often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”
The purpose of such a journey is to look back so we can move forward. Most would find this idea preposterous…but in reality, we understand ourselves better when we first know where we have come from. I particularly like the definition “go back and get it”, the idea of going back and “getting” what our history as a country says about how we have been shaped into our various ethnicities, races, etc, so we can more accurately determine a better way forward. I am of the firm conviction that I need to know where I’ve been so I know where I’m going…I believe we all do…
Our journey was a tour of locations that were significant to the Civil Rights Movement. We began in Memphis, travelled to Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, and ended in Atlanta. We were paired up with another person from a different ethnic background, and walked through the journey together, sharing our different reactions and feelings as we faced our collective history. It was a life-changing experience in many ways.
The most significant part of the journey for me was in Memphis, where we visited the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum was built as an extension of sorts to the Lorraine Hotel, the hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. The exhibit took you from chattel slavery all the way to the day Dr. King was shot – the final stop being the room where he stayed the night before he died, and a window looking onto the balcony where he stood when the fatal shot was fired. At the time, we were not allowed to walk onto the balcony, but just being there, looking at that quiet balcony where a man was brutally gunned down was enough to jar the senses. At least for me.
After the museum tour, we walked across the street to the building where James Earl Ray fired the shot, looking out of the window where he rested his rifle and pulled the trigger, viewing the weapon used. It was an eerie feeling to be in that room.
I could write pages and pages about that journey and the myriad feelings I experienced through each step – from standing in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four young girls died, to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where marchers were greeted with riot police and Billy clubs as they sought to march to the state capitol to draw attention to voting rights.
There are those who would say all this happened ages ago and should be forgotten; but it was not so long ago that battles raged. Many who fought the battle still live among us and bear the scares in their souls and bodies. Race is still a dirty word that raises the volume of many discussions, sometimes rendering them useless in seeking solutions. We see it in our politics, our neighborhoods, our churches…if we believe we live in a post-racial, or even post-racist society, we are wrong. Our country’s identity was forged through the defining of people groups into those who would enjoy the benefits of democracy and those who would not. Race was paradigm through which these decisions were made. Race has shaped who we are as people, to the point that I would even argue we wouldn’t understand ourselves as Americans if we took it away. It is part of who we are, for good or for ill.
I am most concerned with how this has shaped the church in America, I have written and spoken before about my own struggles with race and identity, and how, even in the church I find no true remedy for those struggles. In Christ, my identity is assured; but as I walk through this life, it can be hard to reconcile the truth of my position in Christ with my lived reality. That is a post for another day; quite frankly, it exhausts me to think about it. But perhaps in the near future I will revisit it again…
I chose today to write about this because 45 years ago today, Dr. King stood on that balcony. Forty-five years ago today, the shot was fired that took his life. This man, who dreamt of a day when something as arbitrary as skin color would not determine the fate of his children, or any other child. What is interesting about Dr. King is that he believed in the founding documents of this nation; he loved the vision they cast. And he saw that our country was living far short of that vision. His passion was to see that vision come to pass, for us to live up to our stated purpose as a nation. I am a realist; I realize that we will never reach perfection; that does not mean, however, that we should not seek to do our part in moving us a little closer…