by Jasolyn Harris, LCSW, M.Div.
Imagine seeing a beautiful bird flying forward, while looking backward. Literally pause for a moment, close your eyes, and attempt to visualize this. You are shocked, maybe even perplexed seeing this mystical creature flying bizarrely, and yet you see something else peculiar going on. Not only is this mysterious bird flying forward while looking backward, but it is also carrying a precious egg in its mouth that symbolizes the future. This beautiful, mystical, mysterious bird is called “Sankofa” and it is one of the many Adinkra symbols of the Akan people of West Africa. Sankofa is expressed in the Akan language as “se wo were fi na wasan kofa a yenki” which is translated to mean, “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” In other words, looking back while simultaneously flying towards our future is not unthinkable, yet necessary so we can go back and get what is in danger of being left in our past.
I grew up in the Black Missionary Baptist Church tradition, shaped by the institution and beliefs of white Western Christianity that strongly encouraged all of us to forget what is behind us and strain toward what is ahead. We were taught to forgive and forget, especially any trauma inflicted upon us from someone in our household family or church family. In my studies at Divinity school and experiences with various colleagues of different Christian traditions, I learned that the Black Missionary Baptist Church wasn’t the only denomination being taught flawed belief systems. Many Christian church traditions all over the world have been formed by white Western Christian beliefs that contradict the essence and symbol of the Sankofa. Westernized Christianity tells us in more ways than one, it is in fact taboo to go back into our past and there is great risk in looking back into what we left behind.
This is precisely why the Hush Harbors are essential to the journey of a Liberating Church. Black enslaved persons would not and could not forget their lived realities which were both various rich African traditions and the immense problem of slavery. Black enslaved persons lives were at risk if they were to show the fullness of who they were and the richness of their traditions so they had to carve out space where they could remember what they were forced to leave behind. So they would risk their lives on those days they would travel deep into the forest and worship together unapologetically. It was a place and space they could check in with one another, combine their spiritual practices and somehow, someway make it through one more day of an impossible reality. Black enslaved persons refused to forget and somehow envisioned us in the future possibilities.
Unfortunately, the Christian church today as a whole, does not serve as a liberating space for many people, people on the margins of society, and particularly not for queer and trans people of color. Historically and currently, the Christian church tradition nearly worldwide has adopted problematic ways of interpreting the bible (rooted in a Westernized Christian perspective) which has literally convinced many parents, siblings, extended family, friends, and church communities to abandon, leave behind, and forget a vital group of people necessary for the future of the church. The Sankofa can certainly serve as a symbol to remind the church that our collective liberation can be found through an exploration of what our future has the possibility to hold when we go back and get what we forgot about our past.
The reality is, particularly for many Black people and more specifically Black Christians, we are unaware of our past ancestry, specifically as it relates to Black Queer people and the role we played spiritually in our communities. This adds a more complex layer to the context of the Sankofa symbol and its relation to Liberating Church. How can one remember, and/or go back and get something they didn’t know they left behind? For example, in the Dagaaba tribe of the modern region of Burkina Faso, they see LGBTQIAA+ people as “…having the ability to intercede between the people…as a type of gatekeeper who has direct contact with the Divine.” As a recently Black queer femme Pastor, I discovered this vital ancestral knowledge after I graduated with my Masters in Divinity from Duke University. What a beautiful piece of information to go back and get from the past while simultaneously flying towards the future in the thicks of the present day as a church liberator!
As we continue to reflect on the symbol of the Sankofa in relation to the Hush Harbors, liberating church, especially for queer and trans people of color it is a vital notion for the church to not only continue contemplating what it means to be in a continual cycle of transformation, but also how we can begin to transfigure. When Jesus took James, Peter and John to the top of a mountain to pray, Jesus revealed to them Jesus’ self as “a complete change or form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.” Jesus transfigured Jesus’ self quite possibly to show James, Peter and John a more beautiful future while simultaneously allowing them to see an import part of the past (Elijah and Moses’ presence) and a present reality that was difficult to fully take in (Jesus’ most beautiful state in which they never spike of to anyone). Liberating churches through the collective memory and tangible actions of the Hush Harbors in connection to the symbol of the Sankofa helps us to see particularly queer and trans people of color as the link towards a future that remembers to go back and get what we forgot.