How to collapse the present and past in innovations and storytelling.
“Sankofa’ literally means go and get, but it has various connotations. I’m a Ghanaian-Brit who lived in Ghana for almost a decade — sent to school there because my parents believed it to be more superior than the English schooling system at the time.
If you’ve watched Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe’, it tells the story of sink schools for Black children in the UK in the 70s.
My step mom would regularly use the phrase. I could be forgetful. Its deeper meaning is its affinity to the past.
Because of Ghana’s tradition of oral storytelling, the phrase signifies a way of connecting the past and present, space and time. My furtive mind connects it with Einstein’s continuum.
It is as much a proverb as it is a physical address. “Biribiara” means everything. So “Bring back everything”.
Last July I was researching an article for the British Library on the BLM movement which has just been published in their compendium book to accompany the opening of their “Breaking News” exhibition in April 2022.
It happened at the same time as I stumbled upon a treasure trove of the most extraordinary personal archive of tapes from the 90s featuring a host of US and UK stars being interviewed, as well as issues e.g. Police, the LA Riots, Times’ OJ Simpson cover and the first time a Jeans company would seek to use UK black models. Together with Archive producer Jose we retrieved them and with the help of FIAT/IFTA a global body it’s been transcoded.
In both cases, these events form a strong bond with the past and more importantly memory. Whilst researching the BLM article, it became clear how BLM served as a beacon for tackling racism. Not just because of their sheer global size but because of their strategy to connect different agencies, and “Sankofa”. They embody Dr King as much as they do Malcolm X’s philosophy and more.
The portent of racism today emerges from direct threads of philosophers, Eugenicists, European and American writers, academics and policy makers building on each other’s narratives over five centuries.
There’s no need for them to extol the need to look back, because deviously, cunningly, they keep building upon their own racist tropes.
Listening back to the archive and interviews such as Herman Ouseley (now Lord) taking up his position at the Commission for Racial Equality, it struck me how much in Britain the past is rendered obsolete.
That is the absence of meaning weighted on institutional memory. It’s the past move on. Thus, for instance, malevolent issues emerge which are treated as new; when they’re not.
How might we address this? One way is innovative storytelling linking the past and present as continuums. Cinematic devices such as flashbacks or reminiscing achieves this.
In journalism, TV particularly the past is treated as a detachment, incidental to a problem. Television’s immediacy tends to negate memory. In the 1990s the Director General of the BBC presented a reporting strategy to help rectify this. He called it Mission to Explain.
A report had to have context. And whilst that worked for a while, reports tended to be anaemic when it came to context. Arguably and understandably there’s a limit on how much background material runs through a TV report. But that’s only because of the construct, human construct, built into news.
That’s one reason why politicians can get away with lying on camera, or otherwise a journalist dropping the ball in an interview. The past has happened already. I’ve argued that with today’s technology ( and we’re working on something) you can use AI to do the heavy lifting and call people to account. Imagine that? TV with a memory.
The other route is to persuade academics/ universities who shape intellectual arguments towards policy making to sankofa and centre race and culture in its pedagogy, rather than as a technical module outside the body politik of STEM and Humanities subjects.
The other is for more and more people to seek to connect and build upon each other -the past and present — and cultures. In Ghana, sankofa is a way for a generations to see their culture through a lens that reflects past and present.