During my second year in seminary, I participated in a trip called a “Sankofa journey”. The word “Sankofa” is a word from the Kwi language of Ghana and translates to “go back and get it”. There is a proverb that uses this word that says, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten” (Wikipedia).
In the spirit of this proverb, a Sankofa journey is a walk through history, a discovery or rediscovery of a forgotten past. For us, that meant traveling to important places in the story of the Civil Rights Movement. We started at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, site of the Civil Rights Museum, and the place where Martin Luther King was murdered. We then traveled to Birmingham and worshiped at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were murdered in a bombing; we walked through the park where attack dogs and fire hoses were unleashed on young people marching for the right to cross the street into the all-White business district. We spoke to one of the women who marched that day, and learned why Birmingham’s nickname was “Bombingham”. From there we traveled to Selma and then to Georgia before journeying back home.
For me, the most profound moment of our trip was when we walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The bridge is a huge arch, and as we made it to the top of the arch and looked down, I could imagine in my mind’s eye the imposing line of police officers mounted on their horses, billy clubs in hand, defying the marchers to continue their trek to Montgomery. They were marching for the right to vote, and the officers were tasked with stopping them. In one breathless moment, they stood, protesters and law enforcement, face to face. No words were spoken in that moment. And then it happened. John Lewis was one of the marchers in the front of the crowd, and as they took their first steps over the county line, the officers charged forward, pursuing the marchers back over the bridge, beating and tear gassing them.
None of these marchers were armed. They were not violent. They did not fight back or resist. They simply wanted the rights of full citizens of this country. And they were beaten for it. I cried that day as I walked. I cry now as I write this post.
Many people would say that we need to forget the past. That the reason we can’t move on is because we refuse to forget. I would disagree; I would say it is because we refuse to remember.
The history of my family is the history of slavery; of Reconstruction; of Jim Crow; of lynching; of Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma; and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. It is not for pity that I remember, but for strength. It is a reminder that what I am today, who I am today is due in large part to the very real suffering, strength, vision, and courage of those who came before me. It would be a dishonor to their sacrifice to forget.
I do not remember to make people feel guilty.
I remember because it encourages me to go forward. It teaches me lessons to take down the road with me. I cannot compartmentalize my life to edit these things out. I’m a “what you see is what you get” kind of girl. I am not ashamed of my heritage; and I am not fearful of my future. This is the life story I have been given by my Father in Heaven. I want to use it for His glory. And to do that, I must be real about it.
On this day, I choose to remember. I choose to go back for what I have forgotten, so I can press on with greater wisdom toward what is ahead.
Because freedom is never free.