Contributions to Pedagogy

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Contributions to Pedagogy

The Contributions that Africa Can Make to the Conceptualization of Pedagogical Practices and Theories of the Contemporary Public School Classroom

Tiffany D. Pogue

Florida International University

The arrogance of universalization has become an issue with which I have been forced to deal with over and over again. A large number of “other-centric” rhetoric criticizes the West’s use of hegemony and likewise critiques the manner in which such hegemony is manipulated in a manner so as to de-culture society’s marginalized masses. Through Lisa Delpit’s (2006) discussions of Alaskan Natives and their experiences in the face of such deculturalization attempts, I am able to better contextualize the problems I have long had, but seldom have had the vocabulary to address.

My own lack of vocabulary with which I would be able to articulate my

experiences of marginalization and silencing has occurred in much the same fashion as the Native Alaskan students are facing in Delpit’s (2006) chapter “Hello Grandfather” from Other People’s Children. The stress that the American schooling system places on the word, rather than the world, has moved children of “minority” standings into a paradoxical world where what they live is irrelevant and only the word matters. Unfortunately, even the word, is beyond their control as others clearly define for them, sometimes under the guise of what’s best for the student, what the word should even be. And so in this environment of creating the word for the student (and not the word created by the student), the student fails to develop a sufficient vocabulary that could be used to confront the system itself.

Spurned by this understanding, I have chosen to examine the definition of literacy as understood by education “experts” in the West. What I have found is that Delpit is quite right. More often than not, literacy is discussed in the literature in terms of the means by which the word is transmitted in writing and not much else. No room, at least in my own cursory research synthesis, is given to the literacy of signs and symbols of non-white peoples. As a result, the children of these populations fail to receive messages from the world that may have very well been created with them in mind. In other words, as a result of our accepted notions of literacy we fail to provide for all children, especially those of African ancestry, a legacy of competence in which they may place their own experiences. Additionally, the historical meta-narrative that includes their ancestors’ ability to create messages beyond the word is removed from a place that would allow it to become motivation for the students’ own empowerment in the literacy process.

The research I am conducting therefore attempts to create an expanded notion of literacy that includes African symbols as identified within the space of Mobile, Alabama. Specifically, the following will discuss the importance of Mobile as a historical site for Africana studies, document the appearance of a specific African symbol in the U.S. coastal city, and call for the inclusion of this previously seldom addressed history within the frame of Africana Diaspora studies.

Though particular methods within the proposed methodology may appear to tarnish the objectivity with which all research should be conducted, one must note that “distance does not guarantee objectivity; it merely guarantees distance” (Patton, 2002, p. 575). The researcher’s proximity, both familial and spatial, to the research setting not only allows for greater access to records of that area, but also to the specific brands of knowledge and situated meanings associated with the area of Mobile County, Alabama. Accordingly, Mobile will serve as the primary setting of the proposed study for the purposes described above as well as the area’s rich cultural legacy.

Adinkra Symbols

Africa is full of systems of knowledge that access deep thought and spiritual power through the use of symbols. According to Michael Twitty (2000, p. 179), “Africans used every known visual device to depict their historical experiences” and the Akan are no exception. Created by the Akan of southern Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, the adinkra system is comprised of a large body of symbols that stand in the place of specific multilayered messages and proverbs.

Though originally created for funerary rites, the symbols have grown in popularity and are now found in a myriad of mediums throughout the African Diaspora. This paper will explore the presence of adinkra in the coastal town of Mobile, Alabama as an example of the African cultural retentions found within the city. Specifically, we will outline the history of adinkra and its associating worldview that may provide information on why these symbols may have endured the horrifying Middle Passage of the Transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans.

The People

The Akan are a large ethnic group situated in contemporary West Africa. Living in Ghana, the Akan speak dialects of a language of the same name and share similar cultures and traditions. The Akan can also be found in Côte d’Ivoire as well as throughout the African Diaspora. This group is known for its Adinkra system that can be defined as a system of symbols initially used in funerary art and cloth that were usually hand-painted and embroidered to transmit specific messages and proverbs to those who were making their final transition from flesh to spirit. According to Willis (1998), these symbols transmit not only messages to the deceased but also serve as windows into Akan worldview and philosophical thought. Because the symbols are complex and convey multilayered messages, it would be a life’s work to explore the entire breadth and depth of the Adinkra system. However, it is possible to discuss the appearance of one specific symbol, Sankofa, in the coastal city of Mobile, Alabama. Specifically, this paper will propose that enslaved Africans and their descendants have purposefully and purposely used Sankofa within the region despite the fact that contemporary African Americans are no longer able to consciously translate the symbol’s underlying meaning and messages.

Herein we will provide a cursory discussion of the Akan culture as well as the Adinkra system. Through this examination we will be exposed to knowledge that will serve to highlight the possible reasons that Adinkra symbols continue to be found in Mobile.

The Akan

The Akan are an ethnic group that arrived in the area of West Africa, specifically modern Ghana, during the twelfth or thirteenth century. It has been suggested that their migration was motivated by their ancestors fleeing the collapse of the Ghana Empire in addition to conflicts in the area over control of the trans-Saharan trade (Harris, 1998). In the regions of modern Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, the Akan were able to establish small states and exhibit considerable control over gold production in the area. As early as 1710, the Asante, a powerful group among the Akan, began expressing power at the same time the Fon and Fante were also growing in power.

The capital of the Asante is Kumasi, a commercial center serving as both a trading and religious meeting place (Harris, 1998). Oral tradition indicates that the origin of the Asante is divine in nature. It has been suggested that the king, or asantehene, Osei Tutu and his priest, Okomfo Anokye, were the founders of the Asante empire in 1695. At an event called by the two, it has been said that a golden stool descended from the heavens and fell before Osei Tutu. The stool embodied the collective soul of the Asante and unity was achieved. Harris asserts that in the 1690s the most powerful state in Western Sudan was Denkyira. In order to secure more lucrative links with the coast, Osei Tutu and Okomfo were able to use the newly established unity to defeat Denkyira in 1700 (Harris, 1998). From this, the Asante kingdom rose to prominence and considerable power. As the Asante begain to grow southward, they came into contact with European traders on the coast. The rest, as they say, is literally a matter of history.

The History of Adinkra

Because Akan worldview considers physical death as a transitory process, the funeral is held as particularly significant among the group. As such, funerals are large and elaborate rituals that are marked not only as times of grief but also of celebration accompanied by eating, drumming, and the recitation of oral tradition (Willis, 1998).

Specifically, the funerary rituals are used to establish/encourage a relationship between the newly deceased and those left behind on earth as well as to ensure the deceased’s smooth transition into the world of the ancestors who are also called nananom nsamanf (Willis, 1998; Ephirim-Donkor, 1997).

During the funerary rituals, the Akan wear funeral cloths, ayitoma, that are covered with many symbols collectively known as adinkra. These cloths are made by a commissioned artist who chooses the particular symbols to be used according to the family’s specific genealogy and history. It is important to note that not all funeral cloth are adorned with adinkra symbols. The adinkra cloth is generally only worn by family members and friends (Willis, 1998). Translated as meaning “to part, be separated, to leave one another, or to say good-bye”, the adinkra symbols transmit very specific messages and meanings to those skilled in their use.

Willis (1998) posits that adinkra symbology has been in used for at least two hundred years. Accounts of adinkra history have been theorized by scholars as well as by the Akan themselves. The major hypotheses regarding adinkra origin are briefly outlined to provide basic understanding of the origin of the symbols although there has not been definitive proof offered to confirm any particular thesis.

Akan Oral Tradition

According to Akan oral tradition, the adinkra were obtained during conflict when a king, Kofi Adinkra, of Gyaman replicated the sacred stool of the Asante. Because this act was considered a breech of protocol as well as sacrireligious, the Asante king, Nana Osei Bonsu-Panyin ordered an attack resulting in the Asante-Gyaman War of 1818 (Willis, 1998). This account is disputed by conflicting information that indicates that Europeans encountered adinkra in the Asante region of Kumase as early as 1817, one year prior to the war.

Muslim Origins

It has also been suggested that adinkra symbolism has its origin in Islamic tradition from North Africa. This particular argument suggests that the rich graphic symbolism is closely related to the adinkra. However, according to Willis (1998), there is nothing in Islamic tradition to indicate that adinkra have ever been used. Additionally, as explained within Arthur’s (2001) text, the fact that adinkra symbols appear similar to Islamic art ignores that contact during the trans-Saharan trade was a two-way phenomenon and could possibly indicate that it was the Muslims who carried West African symbols back to the north with them. Additionally, borrowed phrases from Arabic do not indicate that the Akan were soley dependent on Arabized populations for their creative works.

Bron Origins

As an Akan state, the first perhaps, Bron was situated in a very lucrative location and served as a crossroads for traders traversing between other western Sudanic states as well as those coming from the north. There is some archaeological evidence to demonstrate that Akan cloth weaving, as well as adinkra both found their Akan origins in this area (Posnansky, 1987). When the Asante defeated the Dormaa state long prior to the Asante-Gyaman War of 1818, a group of those resisting Asante rule escaped to the north and these Bron became the Gyaman. According to this hypothesis, as a result of Asante conquest of the area, the obtained access to many artistic practices of Bron including, but not limited to, adinkra (Arthur, 2001). Oral tradition suggests that the Gyaman son of King Adinkra, Adinkra Apaa, demonstrated adinkra production processes to Kwaku Dwaku in a town near Kumase called Asokwa.

Denkyira Origins

The Denkyira argument is framed around the suggestion that even before the Osa-nti war of circa 1700, the Denkyira ruled over the Asante and taught them the practices of cloth making and adinkra stamping (Arthur, 2001).

Danquah’s Hypothesis

According to Danquah (1944), the very word “adinkra” provides clues to the origin of the communication mode. He holds that the word “nkra” means intelligence in Akan and describes the knowledge a soul carries with it from the realm of the flesh to the realm of Spirit. Therefore, nkra is the message that the newly deceased carry with them to an afterlife. This hypothesis is supported by the funerary uses of adinkra cloth as means of transmitting messages to the dearly departed. Therefore, adinkra as a mode of communicating with the realm of spirit predates the other hypotheses. Akan oral tradition seems to coincide to spiritual origins of the practice as it has been said that the Asante Golden Stool which has been said to have descended from the heavens descended wrapped in cloth covered in adinkra symbolism (Willis, 1998).

The system of adinkra contains a historical body of symbols although new symbols have continued to be introduced according to the changing environments of the Akan. Perhaps no greater change among the Akan was the period of enslavement and Transatlantic trade in African flesh.

Mobile’s Africa

Of all enslaved Africans brought to the U.S, the vast majority were brought to the country from West and Central Africa. The enslaved African population therefore was made up of a number of ethnicities including, but definitely not limited to, Wolof, Fon, Yoruba, and Igbo (Holloway, 1991). Estimated numbers of Africans brought to the “New World” vary from 9.6 to 15.4 million (National Park Service, 2003) with as many as fifty million uprooted in the wake of the period (Harris, 1998). From 1650-1900, over 10% of Africans brought to the U.S. were from the Gold Coast (Lovejoy, 2000). Though some Western scholars have attempted to paint these groups as lacking agency in the Americas, it must be noted that these individuals would have often been trained within their own cultural context prior to their kidnapping. As such, those brought to the so-called New World would have brought with them their own cultural understandings and artistic expressions.

These Africans did more than just supply mindless labor and domestic help, they brought necessary agricultural and smithing skills to the United States with them. These Africans left their mark on the environment of the U.S. in ways that affirm Twitty’s statement about the persistence of memory.

African derived place names (Suwanee, Wando, etc.), words (okra, gumbo, jazz, etc.), and practices designating the significance of place (yard sweeping, porches, etc.) all indicate that enslaved Africans refused to forget their own particular cosmological considerations. By providing evidence of the material history left behind by these Africans including cosmograms and adinkra symbols one is able to prove that Africans, even those enslaved, were empowered enough to create spaces of their own. According to the U.S. National Park Service (2003), the methodology for examining Africanisms, or African derived practices and materials in the “New World”, includes considering these remnants of African culture not as evidence of direct “one-to-one connection with Africa” (p. 2). Instead, the African cultural retentions require illumination and documentation framed by a discussion of the migrations of the enslaved persons that may have brought the items and practices to the West. Additionally, the practices and items in their indigenous settings must be considered. Our focus on adinkra symbolism in Mobile, Alabama, is structured according to these requirements. As outlined above, we have addressed the indigenous settings of adinkra symbol usage.

As a result of the Transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans the forced migration of Africans from the Gold Coast (or modern Ghana) and Lower Guinea (which also included areas of modern Ghana) helped Africanize areas from Brazil, the Caribbean, and the U.S. (National Park Service, 2003). As discussed, these Africans brought with them full knowledge of their own cultural understandings. Hurston’s (1927) interview of Cudjo, an African living in Africatown just outside of Mobile city limits provides a first hand account of this.

Captured by Dahomey raiders, Cudjo left his West African home but provided the African American anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston, (1927) with information regarding his indigenous lifestyle. According to his own accounts, his people were a “peaceful, agricultural people, raising hogs, goats, sheep, chickens, and a few cows” (p. 649). Cudjo went on to describe the agricultural traditions, architectural styles, clothing practices, and military practices of his village. Though from his own accounts there is no definitive information available for his birthplace, Cudjo describes an enslavement process that transformed many African ethnicities into a more homogenous group. We therefore suggest that ethnic groups, and African American descendants of these groups, were able to combine practices from a number of varying ethnic sources. Therefore, it may not be necessary to articulate the exact numbers of Akan present in Mobile as other non-Akan Africans may have become familiar with Akan systems after exposure and shared trauma.

After their horrific experience aboard the Clotilde and enslavement, Cudjo and his shipmates eventually, after the close of the Civil War, were able to settle at Magazine Point in Alabama which they renamed “African Town”, currently legally known as Plateau. Due to their knowledge, these Africans were able to manage their own crops, market their own produce and build a successful community. Though they were unable to physically return to their native lands, these Africans became willing and able to build a new space for themselves in what could be an inhospitable land (Hurston, 1927).

Just as these Africans were able to utilize their own cultural practices to develop space for themselves, it is possible that others did so in other ways. More research is currently being conducted on quilting practices to document nearly identically African American practices to West African textile traditions, I propose to do the same with the symbolism found in ironworks. To any trained person familiar with adinkra symbology, the ironworks of Mobile County reveal their African roots.1 (See Slides)

“New” World Sankofa—A Supposition

Smith (1952) asserts that Africans “habitually think and speak in pictures” (p. 20). He intimates that African use of symbols must be understood from a perspective that understands that symbols are not necessarily representative of some literal concept, but instead are commonly held to “coercive, creative, and productive” functions (p. 33). Though there are certainly some that do exist in both modes, the latter is far more popular. The example provided by Smith (1952) explains that the ancestral shrine does not simply represent the ancestors, it is also the place where the ancestors presence may be felt. Thus, the shrine is both representative (of the ancestors) and productive (in the sense that it produces an abode for ancestral energy).

Specifically, the Sankofa symbol can be etymologically broken down to mean san, to return to the roots; ko, to go; and fa, to seize. It has widely been interpreted to mean “go back to the past in order to build for the future” or “go back and fetch it.” This particular symbol then serves as a link to the past that is fundamental to the future. Often represented by a bird walking forward with its head turned backwards, sankofa, according to Willis (1998), “is a realization of self and spirit” representing not only a link to the past but also the importance of “self-identity, redefinition, and vision” (p. 189).

Recall that adinkra is primarily a mode of communication, especially between flesh and Spirit. Not only that, the adinkra system was used to communicate messages to aid the deceased in their transformation into spirit. Perhaps no other symbol would have lent itself so well to the transformation of the African into a “New World” African than sankofa. As Willis has argued, sankofa along with all other adinkra symbols communicates a complex and multilayered message. Though commonly understood as meaning “go back and fetch it”, Sankofa is much more complex than that. It also reflects “the Akan belief that the past serves as a guide for planning the future” as well as that the quest for such information from the past must be critical, intelligent, and patient (Arthur, 2001, p. 181). Further, and perhaps more interestingly, the Sankofa symbol was used by the Akan military to signify the rearguard who were responsible for not only the survival of society, but also the defense of the heritage (Arthur, 2001). Could the enslaved population familiar with the symbol have used Sankofa as a symbol of resistance and of cultural protection? I submit that this is the case. There are many other adinkra from which the enslaved population could have chosen, many of which appear in other folk art forms in the Diaspora (i.e. in quilts, dolls, and other crafts). Sankofa though, speaks directly to the enslaved Africans experience of attempting to be transformed into something less than human and certainly not African. These Africans were determined to maintain their culture despite attempts to take it from them. And as previously discussed, sankofa emphasizes the reclamation of that which has been forgotten.

Sankofa as Pedagogical Practice

Firstly, I believe that it is important that I make clear which, and whose, definition of education I will be utilizing for the purposes of this presentation. Education, as operationalized within the context of this specific effort, cannot be separated from life; it is viewed as a natural process through which one learns what skills are necessary for life in his/her community (Reagan, 2000). In other words, education will be defined as the “means of providing for the inter-generational2 transmission of values, beliefs, traditions, customs, rituals and sensibilities along with the knowledge of why these things must be sustained” (Shujaa, 2003, p. 10). Additionally, education will be viewed as having the primary function of the survival of a particular people and the intergenerational transmission of the “instruments and medium for sustaining and developing life, i.e. culture, across time, space, and place” (Hilliard et al., 2005, p. 5). These educational characteristics can be viewed as traditional African pedagogical practices. So we must note that: (1) there is a difference between education and schooling; and (2) the survival of African people depends on both schooling and education though we have far too often sacrificed education for schooling.

Our argument for inclusion of Sankofa and other Adinkra symbols in the public classroom is rather circular. Not only does the definition of education call for the transmission of culture and values across time and space (necessitating the transmission of cultural markers like Adinkra to subsequent generations) but Sankofa itself requires that values be gleaned from the past to be used contemporarily. Moreover, this directive of Sankofa supports its own presence in contemporary pedagogical practices of African descendants. Sankofa offers teachers the ability to reinforce the idea of contextualization of messages thus promoting higher order thinking and metacognition in students.

Because of its productive function(s) (i.e. moving one to action), Sankofa also moves students from a complacent subject of a schooling experience to an active agent involved in their own educational processes. In other words, students are moved from a place of mere knowledge acquisition (as if all knowledge lay somewhere dormant beyond their imagination) to a role of knowledge creator.

Most importantly, Sankofa, and the examination of its history, places African students firmly within an established historical meta-narrative that provides them with a legacy of competence in which they can find new standards of excellence against which they may measure themselves. Thereby students will be offered a new concept of what their performance should be. The experience of having their performance measured against that of other ethnic groups, regardless of these groups own frequently poor performance, must become a notion of our past as we provide our students with the experience of a logical, and clear pursuit of excellence.


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1 Though this particular essay does little to support the appearance of these symbols as marks of African agency and resistance, it will be built upon as a thesis in order to indeed make such a case.


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