Sankofa is a Ghanaian term that means to look backward in order to understand and move forward. For only when we dig deep into a culture and history can we truly understand where we are today. I can think of no better title for the incredible performance hosted by the African American Student Union earlier this month.
For two hours, the stage of Burden Auditorium came alive with music, songs, dancing, personal story-telling, poetry, and skits. The personal stories were moving, the dances were highly impressive, and the music was extraordinary. The Modern Dance and African Dance numbers were truly unique, highlighting breathtaking colors, impressive movements, and foot-tapping music that many of us in the audience had never heard before. The sounds of the gospel choirs were spine-tingling with their power and harmony – the vocal recreation of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” was particularly moving. The Step performance brought the house down with its blink-and-you’ll miss it sequences of stepping, clapping, and spoken word. The closing Hip Hop Dance number made me want to get up and go dancing. Our hosts for the evening, Brittany Lanier and Scott Harris, navigated us through the performances gracefully, adding an extra flair by dressing up as noteworthy African-American couples, such as President and First Lady Obama and Beyonce and Jay-Z. I came away from the performances reminded of just how talented my HBS classmates are.
But more than simply entertaining, each performance was eye-opening. Each session added a different shade to the multifaceted, sometimes painful, sometimes uplifting, always rich, and incredibly dynamic African American experience. Through the personal vignettes, we heard many different flavors of experiences and backgrounds from our classmates. Brittany Lanier relayed the value of education in her family, discussing how every generation moved up to a higher level of education attainment than the one before it – the pride she felt of being one of the first to get a professional degree was palpable. Tabitha Salomon discussed her first encounter with racism in the South and the difficulty of being forced to pick between her black and white friends, describing her incessant refusal to bucket her friends and her continued passion for getting to know people who are different from her. The gospel songs, the poems, and the dances showed elements of pain, but also elements of perseverance and joy, lightheartedness and hope.
We have probably all heard the advice of “show me, don’t tell me.” At HBS, many of my classmates have been very generous in discussing their backgrounds, and through personal conversations and long talks, I have gotten a good sense of who they really are. And yet, Sankofa was a chance for them to show rather than tell – and it was an invaluable opportunity for those of us in the audience to learn. True to its namesake, the Sankofa performers looked backward and looked deep into their culture. By doing so, they weaved together the many colors of the African American experience into one truly beautiful tapestry.