13 May 2017

Sankofa: The Power of Known History

I recently took on two challenges in the sphere of political and cultural advocacy: understanding the roots of our democracy and national laws, and learning to engage in meaningful debate based on this historical knowledge. We often cite the phrase, “To know where you’re going, you’ve got to know where you’ve been.” Yet we rarely seem to apply this standard to our political and legislative systems.

Sankofa: "Go Back and Get It"
Earlier in May, I had the strange yet invigorating opportunity to engage with a “major player” in the House of Representatives, and one of their legislative aides. During the conversation with the aide, we had what I would call a semi-spirited debate on the validity and accuracy of my use of the phrase “legislative lip service” in referring to a recent piece of legislation related to the passage of the American Health Care Act of 2017 (AHCA). The aide insisted that Congress and our nation’s legislative bodies never pass legislation that, as I argued, either does not mean what on its surface it appears to mean or does not do what on its surface it appears to do. I argued that such legislation diminishes the good faith of the American people, and leads to confusion and distrust of our legislative leaders.

The aide, amid a short “yes it does—no it doesn’t” back and forth, finally “challenged” me to provide “any” legislation that historically did either of the things I argued. I’ll share the response I gave with you.

The Declaration of Independence

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” From the time this phrase was first penned, it has been argued, as by Jack P. Greene in his 1976 text and inaugural lecture borrowing its title from the phrase, that perhaps “no single phrase from the Revolutionary era has had such continuing importance in American public life as [this] dictum.” And yet, even as a phrase so integral to the framework of American democracy that it worked its way into numerous state constitutions, it is one of America’s great contradictions. Numerous figures both contemporary and historical point to the hypocrisy of a Declaration phrase penned by men who themselves owned slaves. The hypocrisy, in fact, became so evident that it became a key element in the arguments of the Quock Walker cases that effectively abolished slavery in Massachusetts. Today, many are familiar with the lyric from Lin Manuel Miranda’s award winning Hamilton musical, sung by Angelica Schuyler: “We hold these truths to be self-evident / That all men are created equal / And when I meet Thomas Jefferson / I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!” A fundamental document in the historical scaffolds of our nation penned equality on the page yet denied it to two key groups (at least) in practice. This, I argued with the legislative aide, arguable wrote legislative lip service into the democratic framework of our legislative systems.

The Emancipation Proclamation

I admit that by the time we reached the example of the Emancipation Proclamation, my conversation with the aide had become moderately less “friendly” in nature. But after some debate on whether legislative lip service remains “legislative lip service” if it is, as the aide noted, later amended out of its error, I digressed from the Declaration (and a brief discussion of legalized slavery under the 13th Amendment, which the aide firmly denied) with a simple question: “What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?”

“It freed the slaves,” answered the aide. He seemed almost grateful for the soft ball, adding that it was a “great example” of the power of the American government to make positive change for its people through legislative action.

“It would be,” I replied, “Except … who did the Emancipation Proclamation free?”

“The slaves.”

“Which slaves?”

“What do you mean, which slaves?" he asked, sounding frustrated. "All the slaves. It ended slavery.”

In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation, in its precisely calculated language, did no such thing. The Proclamation neither outlawed slavery nor granted citizenship to the slaves who would have been “liberated” as confiscated goods, in addition to land, only from those states who remained in rebellion after a certain date. Did, I pondered allowed, the aide know that, by its own verbiage, had the rebelling states rejoined the union they may have kept their slaves? Did he know that the only immediate impact of the Proclamation was for slaves who ran away to a free state … or that they could have been resold had they fled to a Union slave state? Was he aware that Lincoln himself wrote that could he “save the Union without freeing any slave” he would do it? (To be fair this, in itself, is not a full assessment of Lincoln’s recorded thoughts on the matter. It does, however, reveal the ultimate clarification of the emancipated slaves as means to an end, rather than the end itself.)

“I would have to review the text myself,” admitted the aide. By this point he sounded nearly finished with me. “But, I’m pretty sure you’re wrong about that.”

I encouraged the aide to do just what he suggested he would: go back and read the text, among others. And through this recommendation, I came to the true crux of the matter.


We cannot know where we are going, as individuals or a nation, unless we are willing to critically look at where we have been. This idea is captured beautifully in the word Sankofa.

Sankofa is a Ghanaian phrase and symbol (adinkra) that translates, “Go back and get it.” In essence, it means that as we move forward and learn as time passes, we must never forget the past that has paved the path for this progress.

And yet, in our society, we too frequently seem to put blinders on when it comes to the past. History seems to sneak up on us as it repeats itself. From the modern civil rights battles of the LGBTQIA community that call forward the memory and legacy of the 1960’s racial civil rights struggles, to the actions of the current administration that for many harken back to the Nixon era, we seem to see yet struggle against the parallels between the present and our past. We forget that historical battles are cyclical, mirrored through time, reflected through a lens that has seen this all before. We forget that America has always been “the great experiment,” and so forget that experiments always—always—rely on repetition: we try, we succeed or fail, and we go back to try the process again with new variables.

It worries me that legislative aides, and legislators, at the seeming top of our governmental hierarchy can so easily fail to see, refuse to see, or simply dismiss, the history we draw from to move forward as a country. As I shared with him, an easily forgotten past only leads to turmoil in our present society. A government that does not look back toward the full history that has led to its current point of action, or look forward toward the history its actions will create, is not acting in the interest of its people. And a government that denies history creates distrust and fear among the people. And government cannot thrive when the state of the union is fear.

It worries me that even among those of us who advocate for change we seem to more frequently lose sight of the lessons of the past that could make or break the revolutionary actions we fight for. We, too, bear great responsibility to the past. It both shapes us, and is shaped by us into progress. Just as the legacy laid down by my forebears has paved my developmental path, we as a nation owe it to our own history to never forget where we came from. 

We owe it to our past as much as we owe it to our future … because one cannot live without the other. As we move forward, as we fight our great fights and struggle toward the ever more perfect union, let us remember to go back, fetch the lessons we have left in the past, and bring them forward to our present, to better craft our future.

Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi ... It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.


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01 May 2017

A More Perfect Union: A Reflection on President Trump's 100th Day Rally

I grew up in Harrisburg. All my formative years were spent among its people, its places, its fancies and its flaws. In Harrisburg I found my passion for making a positive difference, in my neighborhood, in the city, in the state … in the world. Through the rising and failings of Harrisburg I learned the enduring power of hope and belief that even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds there was no mountain too high to overcome … that at the perilous ridge of every valley was the glimpse of a promised land that we would never stop fighting for. And every plan, every initiative, every whispered promise of change, seemed heavy laden with the enduring belief that “Someday, we can fix this. Somehow, we will fix this. Together … we will.”

Yet on my recent visit to Harrisburg, which marked the 100th Day of President Trump’s term of office, I was stricken by the words of a taxi driver who carried me away from those familiar streets: “That city’s given up on itself. It’s only a matter of time.”

I wonder what the founders of the framework of our nation would say to this. Theirs, after all, was the promise of “a more perfect union” through the establishment of the Constitution and the perambulatory promise of the Declaration of self-evident truths of equality, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and life itself. There is such a bond in these words, such a promise of a united future, that formed the very cornerstone of our Union, the very framework of these United States. The labors toward these promises ripple through history as constant reminders that we the people work best when we strive together toward the goals of our mutual democratic progress. That forward progression is the progeny of a cohesive, collective push … by, for, and of the people.

We, the people, have always pushed for this pledge of self-evident truth: that all men are created equal. And we have always believed that the bedrock for the fulfillment of this promise must be the commitment to strive, ever, forward towards it, to struggle toward and debate for and eventually convene within its truth. Democracy, after all, is not a matter of perpetual agreement, but rather an uphill battle of ideas until we come, finally, to rest in a place of peace and mutual concession toward the betterment of our nation.

And I wonder how much the April 29th Rally in Harrisburg bore the likeness of this struggle.
Passing outside the Farm Show Complex—a place whose sights and sounds and scents I can still recall at a moment’s notice—in the dwindling light of Saturday the 29th of April, the 100th Day of the new White House, I was stricken by the peculiar scenes that seemed to capture so perfectly the tone of the day. To one side, a group of protestors bathed in the mingled light of dusk and streetlights: they carried signs that pleaded for peace, for progress, for change. They smiled and waved as cars rolled by, whether the cars honked in approval or rolled by in silent indifference. They held on to each other as tightly as they held on to their gently rippling flags and colorful displays. To the other side, in the dimmed glow of closed storefronts and the shadows of trees and alleys alike, stood the opposition. They, too, carried flags, but the only illuminated parts were those that made clear the message of supremacy. They did not smile, and they did not wave, but stood like stalwart guardians, eyes poised out of contact’s reach. Between the two groups, State Police stood sentry on horseback, the horses’ twitching tails seeming to sway in the melody of tension. I cannot fully put to words the palpable tension and the perpetual sense that at any moment bedlam might spontaneously erupt.

I rode in the car with my father, and we listened with shared unease to the speech being given within the halls of the Farm Show Complex. President Donald Trump was speaking about immigration, his ominously named VOICE (“Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement”) Office, the need for “The Wall” and cameras, and the failures of the media, the Democratic Party, sanctuary cities, and so forth. He read, once again, the poem “The Snake,” albeit misattributing it to singer Al Wilson, and likened it to American immigration and the border. He drew the speech to a close with a promise that American children would finally learn to love their country and “take pride in our great American flag,” and that countries around the world “will finally treat America and our citizens with the respect that our country and our citizens deserve.”

I would love to say the end of President Trump’s speech inspired hope. Sadly, it is hard to overlook the overwhelming tone of hopelessness that was shared. Though the weekend has ended, and the President’s familiar departure song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” long since echoed into silence, I find myself pondering the President’s words and cannot shake the sense that something about it is wrong.

I would suggest to you that what was wrong was the fear. The dread and disdain of the Other—the immigrant, the refugee, the political party, the “swamp” of Washington, the free press, the opposing viewpoint—seems a strange way of celebrating. The promise, and at times almost threat, of “law and order” weigh heavy against the softer promise of an eventual return to “greatness” for our nation. And I can’t help but juxtapose these things with the images outside: on one side people calling out for love, on the other people brooding in antiquated hate, and between them a silent squadron ready to take them all down should one so much as step out of line.

Where is the hope, where is progress, where is the future, in the shadow of such dread?

My ultimate desire, having borne witness to the rally and pondered the words and images in my head and in my heart, is that we might all remember that democracy is compromise, and conflict. It is dispute, and dissent, and always discourse. It is divided in ideas yet united in the solidarity of ideology: the shared ideology that we cannot rise by trodding our brothers and sisters underfoot, lest we rise to find we stand on nothing at all. We rise, as we fall … together. We are one … or we are nothing.

I am a person of faith, and in times of trouble I pray. I know that not all agree with me, and not all turn to the same place as I do. But whether we pray or simply hope and believe, whether we reach out beyond to the Something and Someone greater, or reach within to cling to the burning ember within our own hearts, I believe we all yearn for the same things. That we will be saved from ourselves. That we will rise above, and beyond, our own seemingly unshakable impulse of self-destruction. That love will conquer fear. That we will become more united, not more divided. That, together, we will conquer the battlegrounds of struggle and strife to walk, someday, upon the promised land of unity, of life, and liberty, and the prosperous joy of freedom.

We cannot achieve these things through cynicism. We cannot achieve these things through polarization. We cannot achieve these things through finger pointing and fear mongering and bitter divisiveness that keeps us forever revolving in circles around and adjacent but never in unison with each other. This is the sad march of fear. And we must always remember that the threat of fear keeps the dream of prosperity and progress ever distant, traded instead for the visage of a nightmare … and we do not chase our nightmares. We shrink from them, hide from them, pull away until we wake to find the world familiar and just as it always was. And this is not progress; this is stagnation. This is a death march toward a failed future.

We can only achieve these things as one. United as our states. Drawn together toward this common goal, the dream that propels us ever forward to that great tomorrow and what lies beyond it, ever on the horizon, just beyond our reach … the dream that never dies.

My hope is that we turn the words of that taxi driver on themselves. Let us never give up hope. Let us never give up on ourselves. Let us never give up on the dream that together we will.

Because it’s only a matter of time.


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