What have I learned and experienced to get me where I am today? How do I want to bring my child up in this world? What can I do to better innovate, collaborate, and engage in critical conversations and initiatives to bring about more socially just and equitable study abroad opportunities for our students?
Heavy topics? Yes! Critical to reflect on complex subjects in order to move forward? Absolutely!
Many cultures around the world have the language and the tradition to wrap a range of feelings or essence into one single word. Usually that single word holds an abundance of power and meaning.
Which brings me to …
Sankofa, is a word from the Akan people of Ghana that means “to go back and fetch it”. This word, symbolized by a bird with its head turned backwards but their body and feet always facing forward, has become a theme in the lives of many in the African Diaspora.
I was first introduced to this word during my undergraduate years. Our United Black Students Organization led the university-wide celebrations for Black History Month, we dubbed it Black Awareness Month, BAM for short (who doesn’t love a catchy acronym?). We hosted events, that not only celebrated Black joy and liberation, but also made space to unlearn parts of our history that were, and still are, challenging and painful.
Now, even at this stage in my life, the word continues to hold deep meaning, maybe even more meaning.
I offer this challenge to those reading: how will you look back on Black history this month, and beyond? What will you “fetch” from the past and bring to the work you are currently doing today? How can that work impact our tomorrow?
Reflecting on my own study abroad and international travel journeys brings to mind many moments that I want to hold on to and bring into my present day.
One lesson occurred while traveling across South Asia. I was flying from India to Nepal and seated next to another traveler. As travelers do sometimes, we began chatting about the weather, where we were heading, and complaining of the delays. A local to India, we started to discuss politics, the one subject that everyone warns us to stay away from! However, we were not deterred. The conversation was spirited and educational…until we reached a tension as we discussed race:
“So, how do you describe yourself?”, he asked with curiosity.
“Oh, I am Black,” I exclaimed proudly as I shared a bit about where my family was from.
His face grew peculiar, and he shook his head.
“No, no I would think you should say “rusty” or something like that…not Black.”
I paused. Then laughed. I have learned that sometimes a laugh can diffuse many uncomfortable conversations.
In that moment, I vividly remember having a choice to make. I could easily agree and nod for the sake of pleasantries. I wouldn’t speak to this traveler again, what difference would it make? No. Instead, I replied, “No, Black is beautiful, I wouldn’t describe myself any other way!”
He laughed and began explaining his position but, in that moment, I learned something.
Everyday we have a choice to stand firm in the confidence of who we know ourselves to be. I knew who I was in that moment, and who I am now. My lesson that I have “fetched” and hold dearly, is the lesson of self confidence in the midst of doubt. My Sankofa moment is one I hope to pass along to my son. As he grows up, explores the world, I hope he always stands firm in all the intersecting identities he holds.