Sunday, January 9, 2011
I saw an interesting piece of art on the New York City subway last week. The work consisted of a depiction of the Sankofa bird with an inscription underneath: “If you don’t know where you have been, how will you know where you are going?” The view implicated by this question (that one cannot know where one is going if one does not also know where one has been) struck me as obviously false. And this is why:
Taken literally, the view is clearly false. Just think about the situation in which I viewed the quote. I was on the subway. All one has to do to find out where one is going on the subway is to look at the subway map or listen to the subway announcer. One doesn’t need to know about where one has been (on the subway) to know where one is going.
But, clearly, the view isn’t to be taken literally (well, at least not in the above sense). The real idea is this: as a people, African-Americans will be unable to progress into the future with any clear direction or achieve any worthwhile goals unless they are aware of their collective history. Now, why should we take that to be true?
Let’s assume that some group of African-Americans has the following as a goal: to increase the number of black members of the US Senate. What does one need to know in order to achieve this goal? A few things come to mind immediately: the demographics and voting trends of various districts, the issues voters in particular states are concerned with and the campaign strategies of those who will likely run against the black candidates. Knowing about the ancient kingdoms of West Africa or the history of African-American slavery in the United States or the history of the civil rights movement does not seem to be necessary to achieve this goal.
Granted, knowing the history of the civil rights movement may help one to better predict the likely campaign strategies of those likely to run against black candidates. But knowledge of the former is not necessary for knowledge of the latter.
It seems too that there are many positive goals that African-Americans can achieve that do not require knowledge of African-American history.
What seems true is this: African-Americans will be unable to recognize the significance of any collective gains if they are not aware of their collective history. It would be impossible for an individual that did not have some sort of awareness of the history of African-Americans in the United States to recognize the significance of Barack Obama’s presidency. Such a person could very well have guided Obama to political victory, but would be unable to recognize Obama’s election as the monumental event it was.
The Sankofa view (at least this version of it) is false. The view I articulate is true. Knowledge of history is not necessary for progress, but it is necessary if one is to recognize the significance of certain types of progress.
Posted by Brandon Hogan at 5:48 PM