Sankofa: One Person’s Journey into Self-Discovery

Post a Comment » Written on January 20th, 2009     
Filed under: News
CHICAGO, IL (January 20, 2009) – The Evangelical Covenant Church is preparing to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Sankofa journey, an experience that pairs individuals of different racial backgrounds as they travel through historic sites of importance to the Civil Rights movement.

The following reflection was written by Caenisha Warren, a member of Quest Covenant Church in Seattle, Washington, who participated in a 2006 Sankofa trip. The photos used in this story came from a 2002 Sankofa journey that included a number of leaders working in denominational and conference ministries and offices, taken by Don Meyer, executive minister of the Department of Communication.

By Caenisha Warren

I will start with the simplest question that came up in one of our conversations which was: Why haven’t I ever questioned what have I learned? Why haven’t I wondered about what I have not learned?

I wrote these thoughts in my journal along the way.

I stumble through the thoughts and feelings that have guided me through this lifetime—confronting my fears, my pains, my discriminations and my prejudices. The things I have overlooked in my past. The things I never thought to look at or think twice about. Why do we have this tendency to just accept things with all their blind injustices as the way it is, the way it has to be, or the way it’s supposed to be? How are we to change it if we are not even willing to confront it?

16th Street ChurchThis is where my struggle with the Sankofa trip began. I knew I had so much to learn and that it wasn’t going to be easy. But over the past few years, I have been wrestling with the question of “Who am I?”  And the only way I have come to find out who I am, who I want to be, and who I am supposed to be, is through Christ. So my journey these past few years has been in trying to figure out “who I am in Christ”—the person God made me to be and not who I think I should be, not who my family wants or expects me to be, not who my friends have always known me to be, and not who I am perceived to be by others.

So when I received the journal for Sankofa, the first question it asked was: “Who are you?” And I wrote, “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” So this trip has been another step in learning my story and my history.

The beauty of this trip was being paired cross-racially, having equal representation of people and thus creating a safe place to learn, discuss and explore. No one had to be the “token” person to answer for their race. But I knew this wasn’t always going to be the case, especially coming back home.

The three of us met every other week for about six months before leaving for the trip. We created a safe environment as we read and discussed different books on the issues of prejudice, racism and reconciliation, in the past and in the present. In our reading we learned about overt and subtle racism, white privilege, and distinctions between prejudice and racism. We all have prejudices. Not everyone is a racist in the known sense of the word—as someone who expresses stated views or actions against another person based on race. However, not everyone recognizes racism when it isn’t coupled with a negative act or an offensive statement. Think about how our society operates and the institutions we live under. Who holds the power? Who controls the resources? Who lives in the “nice” neighborhoods versus those that aren’t so desirable? Have you ever been denied service because of the color of your skin? Or have you been followed by a salesperson or police officer because of your race? How often have you been the only one of your race in a room of people?

NAACPThis last question and similar ones like it made me begin to evaluate my life— where I live, who I interact with, what I identify with? I had never really thought about how racism might affect me—never really thought it did—until the last couple of years. But then I began to recognize the struggle I have had with my identity in this world around me, which has been predominantly white—my schooling, my work, my church and social circle. This is neither a right or a wrong thing, nor a good or bad thing—it’s just my reality. But admitting it has helped me understand my perceptions, my feelings and my fears.

I started to identify some things that have made it hard for me to truly relate in the world around me, like the feeling that I have to uphold some kind of role because of my racial makeup, or feeling like the minority in any group of people I am with, including my family. I know that I don’t appear troubled by these issues regarding my racial identity. In fact, it has been much easier to relate to and identify in a white world than to confront the mass of conflict, hurt, prejudice and difficulties that exist in my actual identity as half Chinese and half African American. I have realized over the years—and especially now— that the pains of being both and not just one or the other is far greater than compromising my identity in order to succeed or get along in the world around me. But internally, all these things are salient to the core of my being.

Throughout my Sankofa journey, in the books that I read, in the sites I observed, the historical events I learned of, and in the everyday stories I heard from participants and hosts, I was amazed by the interactions and dialogues that take place cross racially. One morning we sat outside the 16th Street Baptist Church as we finished up a video about the bombing that happened there 43 years ago. Sadness and disbelief went through me as the families of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and other church members recounted that morning. Frustration and anger filled me as I walked through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institution and the King Center in Georgia where I saw pictures and video clips of the taunting and violence to blacks. The sting of fear actually hit me as I stared at the faces of utter hate and disgust on the white persons pictured in these images as they committed these acts. In that place I began to imagine myself in those pictures and I felt helpless. I can’t change what I am to others on the outside. And if I can’t be seen for who I am on the inside, I am helpless, at someone else’s mercy. In a film we watched, one of the actors states, “While it’s not a disgrace being black, it is inconvenient.”

Ebenezer-2In one of the discussions on the bus someone asked, how do we (meaning black people) keep up the courage and hold our head high? One woman responded, “by keeping and passing on the knowledge of civil rights.” She admitted that she still reminds her sons not to pile into one car with all their friends or do anything that will attract unnecessary attention to them. Wow, what a world of difference they live in compared to the subtle racism, prejudice and fear that I encounter. I think about the recent stories I’ve heard about Kierre’s experience, the stories from my own families, and the injustices we were exposed to regarding the criminal justice system in southwest Georgia. I can’t help but be dismayed at the level of racism that continues today in our nation.

My main experience with racism has taken on a different form. I feel alone in an overpopulated world in large part due to my identity. I am half black and half Chinese, but my identity has been learned in part by what I see reflected back at me. This consists of everyday products that are not made or advertised for my person type such as the common hair products most widely available or the idea of skin-colored Band-Aids. Many times I am one of a few persons in the room who is not white or not just one race. I have received awkward stares as I enter a Chinese restaurant even though I am half Chinese and with my Chinese family. These and other signs let me know that I’m just not quite the norm for this society. My category is “other” and even though I never mark that box on questionnaires or applications, I truly feel like “other.” Someone not understood, not known, not recognized, not the norm. If I had to think of how many ways am I not the norm, I would say: I’m half black and half Chinese, I am young, I am female, I wear glasses, I am left-handed, I am short. But this experience has given me a chance to embrace these things as part of my story—wanting to know my story more and coming to see that, yes, my story is different, but that it is also valid.

So what now? At our debriefing session we were told that we could no longer claim innocence. We now have a responsibility. When I returned home, I noticed that I was more racially aware, more racially conscious. In fact, a common question I began to ask myself was, “Am I now projecting racism onto people, into statements and into situations? Or am I just now seeing the racism that exists?” I don’t know the answer to this. But in this process of reconciliation, what I must remember is that perception is reality. It is easier to understand someone and to change my behavior when I think about things from the other person’s perspective and background. This understanding that I gain enables me to move toward reconciliation and then finally to love.

JailOn the trip we saw places like New City Church, which is living out God’s love and working toward reconciliation and community transformation through programs they sponsor and organizations they partner with in Birmingham’s metropolitan area. They have programs that provide education, health care and economic empowerment. We met individuals like John Cole Vodika, who is one of three people who make up The Prison & Jail Project. This is a grassroots organization that advocates against the unjust prison and court systems in counties in southwest Georgia on behalf of prisoners and their families. We also heard the personal testimony of Sandra Russell Mansfield, who at the age of 14 was arrested in 1963 with about three dozen girls from Americus, Georgia, after a series of protest prayer marches. They were never formally charged, but were held for 45 days in jail and many of their parents had no idea where they were. She is working alongside groups like The Prison & Jail Project and other organizations in her community to this day.

So I ask what will God have me do? This is the haunting question that hovered over me as I was making the decision to go, and the question that stayed with me during the entire trip, even to now. And I don’t have any kind of big answer for this. I don’t think any of us do. But I can say that for right now, I will continue to seek God, I will continue learning my story and finding out who I am. I will recognize what I learned. I will not neglect what I know or what I see or don’t see in this world. I will not forget.

In Ephesians 2:14-16 it says: For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it (NRSV).

Each person you see here is different. They each have a story. And their story is valid. God wishes us to celebrate and utilize our differences and not be divided by them. Each one of us is made in the image of God. He divided up all of his gifts, talents and skills among every one so that together we can honor him by working together in unity. We have a need for each other because each of us is made unique. In our uniqueness we are beautiful, but alone we are limited. We must be dependent first on God and then on each other.

Rev. Holly at the NAACP office in Georgia said, “If you don’t speak up or speak out, then business will go on as usual.” This statement struck a chord with me. So I stand before you speaking up and speaking out about what I have learned. And we are beginning here and I challenge you to know your story, to share your story, and to see how your story connects to one another. Seek to understand and be reconciled in the love of Christ. Stand against injustices, speak out against racism—
ingest it, confront it, deal with it, understand it, and then act in love.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Report This Post

Leave a Reply

Report This Blog