Ever since my first introduction to Sankofa —both as a symbol and a term—roughly 2 years ago, the implications behind its meaning has always taken precedence in my mind. Reading Jemisin has allowed me to revisit this belief and presented a different outlook on how it can be applied. By creating a world that struggles with confronting the truth of their histories, Jemisin tells a story of the ease in forgetting parts of the past. One way to address the (hauntingly familiar) effects of this neglect is through considering the Regwo race, otherwise known as lorists.
To begin I’d like to explore what Sankofa means, both as a symbol and a belief in its cultural context. According to an archive titled African Tradition, Proverbs, and Sankofa recorded in The Spirituals Project Sankofa originates from an ancient civilization in Western Africa known as the Akan whose writing system, Adinkra, used symbolism and aphorism to pass on information. This archive tells us that Sankofa: “literally means, “to go back and get it”. The proverb that is associated with the Sankofa symbol is: ““Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,’ “ which translates to, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”. At its core, Sankofa stresses that for knowledge to lead to understanding it must recognize the past: “You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you come from”.
Forgetting history is then not only unwise but leads to an unknown future, one that I think Jemisin creates in the Broken Earth Trilogy. In Obelisk Gate—as if symbolically— Jemisin begins by reviewing and elaborating on lorists as: “an even older part of life in the Stillness” (Jemisin 2) who, despite all their history: “became distorted into near uselessness” (Jemisin 2). Nassun presents lorist origin by acknowledging that they were a race of individuals knowns as Regwo who had an obligatory dedication to the knowledge of the past: “[Lorists] worshipped the preservation of history the way people in less-bitter times worshipped gods” (Jemisin 2). It is later explained that lorists took it upon themselves to “chisel stonelore into mountainsides in tablets…so that all would see and know the wisdom needed to survive” (Jemisin 2-3). In these instances, lorists directly replicate the Sankofa belief in hopes of creating a future with sound foundations; however, despite their purpose, lorists are not taken seriously by the people of the Stillness.
More often than not, wisdom provided by lorists—either through stonelore or oral tradition—is often defaced by universities and scholars: “disavowing their work as apocryphal and probably inaccurate” (Jemisin 2), and even governments: “undermining their knowledge with propaganda” (Jemisin 2). This inevitably leads to the culture, beliefs, and history of lorists—centered on “the preservation of history”— being ignored by the very people they were created for, putting them in a dangerous position in terms of their survival.
When I first grasped this, I thought of it as the critical problem that results from ignoring history—i.e. putting future generations in severe jeporady—then I considered what was forgotten, not just wisdom engraved in stone but an entire culture. The purpose of Regwo civilization was rewritten and devalued in order to accommodate the beliefs of new societal factions. And THAT realization is what has reframed my updated understanding of Sankofa.