Currently, I’m writing this post from the comfort of my own cozy bed in my cozy home. By the time I choose to publish this, however, I’ll be well on my way to being pushed out of my comfort zone.
This spring break, I’m traveling to the South to various locations which are all historically significant and associated with the Civil Rights Movement. This trip, which is an academic course led by my college’s Office of Multicultural Affairs and faculty members of the history and political science department, is titled the “Sankofa Verandah Experience.” Wikipedia defines the word sankofa with the following description:
Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates as “Go back and get it” (san – to return; ko – to go; fa – to fetch, to seek and take) . . . Sankofa is often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates as: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”
This is the second year in a row I’ve had the great privilege of participating in this Sankofa experience. Between both years, the mission of the course has remained the same: for students to trace the steps of the Civil Rights Movement, and to reflect on how the civil rights struggle connects to our passion for social justice and leadership. As someone who enjoys personal reflection and connecting experiences, I’ve eagerly thought about, processed, pondered, and contemplated so much regarding this.
Prior to participating in the Sankofa trip the first time, I’d hardly had any knowledge about this period of time in my country’s history. Honestly, prior to coming to college, I’d hardly cared — about the Civil Rights Movement, about politics, about hardly anything, it seems now. But I had been shocked into reality upon arriving to college in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, MO. I was upset by the hateful words and actions that seemed to follow the black community. And suddenly, my eyes flew wide open as I began to recognize how such hatred and ignorance manifested itself in other aspects of our society. And I began to get angry. Desperate to find a solution, I switched my major from psychology to sociology and established the diversity club at my school. I began to read. I started interacting with fellow students who shared this rage at the state of our society and the social conditions many of us have unknowingly fallen into or perpetuated for ourselves and for others. Out of this newfound passion, I got into arguments and discussions, sometimes speaking out of line or sometimes not speaking enough, anxiously trying to fix these things I had just begun to see.
Aware of my desperation and frustration in trying to find answers to so many questions (Why does such hatred toward others exist? Where did it start? How has it been perpetuated? What is being done to combat it?) a faculty member recommended that I apply for the Sankofa trip. I can’t thank her enough for that little nudge. Being a first-year college student, I had felt daunted by such an incredible opportunity — it would be my first time doing anything like this. But I also felt driven, on fire with an inarticulate but no less empowering anger and confusion, and I applied.
Throughout the trip last year, however, I found myself doubting this fire. One of the things I struggled with most was wondering if I had a place in this conversation about the Civil Rights Movement, about Mike Brown, about racism or injustice in general. As an Asian American, it felt like I didn’t belong in a conversation that seemed to literally be black and white.
But, of course, I learned. I learned about the roots of this conversation. I learned about the discrimination that Asians — and not just Asians in general, but specifically Filipinos — have suffered in the history of our country. And I learned that I do have a place in these conversations. I learned that everybody has a place in these conversations, and that we can use our positions to help make things better for everyone by being sensitive allies, amplifying the voices of the silenced and swept aside, and humbly learning about ourselves and those around us.
But people misunderstand their place in these conversations far too often. (I mean, I was guilty of it myself!) Sometimes we’re apathetic, indifferent; other times, we’re just plain oblivious. What I’ve most commonly seen, though, is an active denial of this responsibility we have as people of all cultures to be cognizant of our roots, an “it’s not my problem because I didn’t really do anything” attitude. No, of course you didn’t really do anything. No, you didn’t own slaves. No, you didn’t lynch a black person or attack Filipino farmworkers in 1930. But the people who did, in doing so, asserted themselves and their ilk as the dominant. Many of us benefit from those actions. And many of us still suffer from it.
Learning our history is incredibly valuable to understand its implications in the present. Otherwise, we’re stuck in a state of apathy and indifference, of oblivion and ignorance, of frustration and confusion. I think that’s really the bottom line that I’m trying to get at here.
As we “go back and get it” again on this year’s Sankofa trip, I have a few things I’m praying for. One, I’m praying for a safe trip — safe travels to and from places, and every step in between. Two, I’m praying that while I’ve grown considerably as a student and as a person in general since the last trip, I will be humbly receptive to learning new and different things. Three, I’m praying for every single one of my classmates and our faculty members that they too will challenge themselves and explore this side of history, and that we all keep in mind the value of understanding where we came from in order to make the path ahead of us a little brighter.