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Sankofa can mean either the word in the Akan language of Ghana that translates in English to “go back and take” (Sanko- go back, fa- take) or the Asante Adinkra symbols of a 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 sankofa symbol appears frequently in traditional Akan art, and has also been adopted as an important symbol in an African American context. It is one of the most widely dispersed adinkra symbols, appearing in modern jewelry, tattoos, and clothing.

Akan symbolism

The Akan people of Ghana use an Adinkra symbol to represent this same idea and one version of it is similar to the eastern symbol of a heart, and another version is that of a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back. It symbolizes one taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge. Adinkra symbols are used by the Akan people to express proverbs and other philosophical ideas.

The sankofa bird also appears on carved wooden Akan stools, in Akan goldweights, on some ruler’s state umbrella or parasol (ntuatire) finials and on the staff finials of some court linguists. It functions to foster mutual respect and unity in tradition.

Use of the Sankofa in North America
The sankofa image has been adopted by numerous afro-centric organizations in North America

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During a building excavation in Lower Manhattan in 1991, a cemetery for free and enslaved Africans was discovered. Over 400 remains were identified, but one coffin in particular stood out. Nailed into its wooden lid were iron tacks, 51 of which formed an enigmatic, heart-shaped design that could be a Sankofa. The site is now a national monument, known as the African Burial Ground National Monument, administered by the National Park Service. A copy of the design found on the coffin lid is prominently carved onto a large black granite memorial at the center of the site.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture uses the heart-shaped symbol on its website. The “mouse over” for the image reads, “The Sankofa represents the importance of learning from the past.”

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