Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sankofa: Look to the Past

On Chestnut Street here in Portsmouth, construction has been progressing on the African Burying Ground Memorial Park, which is scheduled to finish later this fall, with a formal dedication ceremony in the spring of 2015. 
The African Burying Ground site, with construction equipment on Chestnut Street

In 2003, excavation for the city's Court Street Reconstruction Project encountered a burial, and archaeologists from Independent Archaeological Consulting worked to recover the remains of eight individuals.  It is the only known colonial African American cemetery to have been archaeologically investigated in New England.  DNA analysis confirmed that the individuals were of African descent.  Historical research indicated that this burial ground was used in the early 18th century, when this area of Portsmouth was on the outskirts of town.  When the city expanded throughout the 19th century, the street was paved over and its exact location was forgotten.   As many as 200 enslaved Africans and African Americans are still buried, undisturbed by 21st century construction.  

The memorial will include space for sculpture, reflection, and public education.  The remains of the eight individuals exhumed will be re-interred in a vault in the meditation area of the park.  The vault will be marked with a sankofa, an Andinkra symbol from the West African Akan Asante language.  Sankofa translates as "reach back and get it," and is often associated with a proverb that means "look to the past to inform the future."

Until the park opens, there is a series of signs, installed along Chestnut Street in 2012, that inform pedestrians of the African Burying Ground and the African community of colonial Portsmouth.  The signs include the sankofa symbol as well.  The signs were designed by Elisa Winter Holben, a graphic artist in Kittery.
African Burying Ground signs along Chesnut Street

Why is sankofa so significant to the African Burying Ground?  To understand its importance, we might look to the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan.
The African Burial Ground Monument in NYC

Like Portsmouth's African Burying Ground, the Manhattan African Burial Ground was a cemetery for free and enslaved Africans, who were buried there from the late 17th century through 1794. The 6.6 acre burial ground was forgotten due to city development, but the planned construction of a Federal building resulted in the accidental discovery of burials in 1991.  Over 400 men, women, and children of African descent were recovered from the site by archaeologists in the 1990s.  Responding to concerns from the local community, the project was taken on by Dr. Michael Blakey, then at Howard University, for study of the remains.  Dr. Blakey worked hard to make sure that African-American students and community members had a participatory role in the research direction and study of their ethnic ancestors' remains.
Dr. Michael Blakey
One of the burials was interred in a coffin decorated with tacks that had been nailed in to the wooden lid.  The decoration seemed uniquely familiar to Dr. Blakey.  The symbol was recognized as sankofa in 1995 by Kwaku Ofori-Ansa, an expert in African art at Howard University.
Sketch of in-situ Burial 101, African Burial Ground Collection, Howard University, Montague Cobb Laboratory Record Group. U.S. General Services Administration, NYC.
In a 2003 interview, Dr. Blakey remarked that that sankofa "resonates so completely with the African Burial Ground. It has to do with the idea that you need to go back and search in the past, to let the past be a guide. It has to do with the connection with past and present... I think the African Burial Ground has helped disseminate knowledge of that symbol and its message."  In 2003 the remains were re-interred and a partnership with the National Park Service resulted in a Memorial, which was dedicated in 2007.  Today, Dr. Blakey continues research of the African Burial Ground, and has developed a comparative database on the bioarchaeology of the African Diaspora at the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William & Mary.
The sankofa symbol is meaningful to many, and is relevant at the New York African Burial Ground, and at Portsmouth's African Burying Ground as well.  For African Americans and scholars of the African diaspora today, the fact that sankofa may be found in West Africa, the Caribbean, and in America is evidence that despite the dispossession of the Atlantic slave trade, Africans maintained elements of their own culture.  


Archaeological Institute of America  (2003) "Return to the African Burial Ground: An Interview with Physical Anthropologist Michael Blakey."  Archaeology Magazine November 20, 2003.

Cunningham, Valerie (2011) "Portsmouth, New Hampshire Memorializes 18th Century African Burying Ground." African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter: Vol. 4: Iss. 1, Article 25. 

LaRoche, Cheryl J., & Blakey, Michael L. (1997) "Seizing intellectual power: the dialogue at the New York African burial ground.Historical Archaeology31, 84-106.

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