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.


  1. The view you articulate is, I would think, the standard - and, without a doubt, the best - reading of Sankofa. It would be quite surprising to me if you could find attempts to articulate its ...meaning that do not amount to what you - wrongly, from my perspective - take to be a different view. Surprising, but not challenging, as they would simply be - from my perspective - bad readings, which one might argue that proverbs often invite or at least do not fend off given their necessarily enigmatic nature.

    The problem here is evident in your closing line: "Knowledge of history is not necessary for progress, but it is necessary if one is to recognize the significance of certain types of progress." How can "progress" here be taken as a useful gloss on the idea of knowing where you're going? Certainly the term gives us a sense of "going"... but it's not at all clear that it adequately represents the idea of "knowing where."

  2. I'm fairly unfamiliar ut I have heard the statement made at least once.

    I'm not sure about the analogy of the line to increasing the Black representation in the senate. If I read correctly, you go into things you need to know to accomplish the goal[the increase]. I didn't think the line was about that[ie. the knowledge you need in order to accomplish the goal].

    "If you don’t know where you have been, how will you know where you are going?" Seemed to me that the statement's agnostic about the info you need in order to actually accomplish the goal/get to where you're going. I thought it was about the knowledge regarding the goal-- ie. the significance of it, which seems more in line with the view you put forth at the end.

    That aside, I'm not sure how much I agree with the importance of knowing the past. Obviously you need at least a more-than-cursory understanding to get some significance, but I do think it causes some dangerous habits of looking to the past to find significance in the present/create relationships between the past and present that don't exist.


  3. I think you've run into a problem of ontology. Neely Fuller has this great quote: "If you do not understand 'white' supremacy (as racism)--what it is, and how it works--everything else that you understand, will only confuse you"

    I think that the best interpretation of Fuller's quote and the artist's view you are talking about is as an ontological thesis.(I'm not sure they would agree, but once they figured out that I was right, they'd change their mind.) "If you do not understand who you are, then everything you do threatens to get in your own way."

    Understanding who you are is rich metaphysical process that means, to some extent, learning about African history(popular American interpretation of Sankofa) and the systems of white supremacy(Fuller), but only insofar as these systems disclose a person's present ontological predicament, how they understand who they are and their place in the world. The deeper wisdom that is supposed to be offered by these pursuits involves the wisdom to set the right ends appropriate to who you are, in addition to providing the means to progress towards those ends.