The Critical Eye

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

What's in a name? (Africa)

A friend of mine has been hounding me for about a year and a half to watch a movie called Sankofa. She insisted that I needed to watch it. She believed that my sensibilities would grasp the depth of the message meant by the film-maker. She stated that there were several people she had shown it to who didn't get it - much to her frustration.

So, after finally acquiring a copy, she handed it to me last week, just in time for the weekend. Actually, she handed it to someone else - her boss - who felt it necessary to try to hijack this shipment that was meant for me. After a few threatening phone calls, the Sankofa DVD was delivered to my office.

Not intending to have anything too heavy, we sat down to watch the Sankofa DVD Saturday night. We usually pick a light hearted movie for Saturday nights, well, as we learned, Sankofa is far from that. It is the journey of a modern day woman who returns to the past to experience slavery on a plantation. The cinematography leaves much to be desired, however, the critical components of this movie build like the crescendo of an engrossing symphony. Once started, you will be forced to chase it to its end.

The rape, abuse, physical and emotional assault that follows is reminiscent of slave movies already seen. However, Sankofa carries through it an underlying message of identity and heritage that is subtle yet loud in its depiction. It is a story told from the perspective of Africans having never lost their identity in the midst of slavery. Those who sought to carry their traditions and heritage through generations. Their strength, found in communal traditions, acts of initiation and refusal to assimilate, empowered them. What culminates, I will not reveal, as I encourage everyone to watch it for themselves.

Sankofa's underlying tone shows the calculated method with which generations of Africans systematically lost their identity and took on slave names. Sankofa displays an intimacy with Africa to which the movie Roots, alludes. It careens full speed to a cataclysmic end that can be the only conclusion to a life of sadism, death, lies, abandonment, cruelty, hatred, terrorism and despair. In the midst of this, remains this component of a name. What is in a name?

Mine is Soneka Kamuhuza. A very distinct name. Well it's unique for this hemisphere, a dime-a-dozen in Zambezi, Zambia. I once rode a bus in Zambia, somebody called out to a Soneka, and half the bus answered. That burst my bubble. See, among the Lunda, Soneka is about as common as John is to the English. In America, I'm about as unique as Barack Obama. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. In Sankofa, I realized that the allegory was in the identifiable characteristics of strong African connections being countered by a terroristic effort to break that very bond.

To be named Toby, Henry, Mark as opposed to Kwame, Tesu, Ade was the beginning of the slavery brainwashing process. In essence the most critical part of the integration process was to lose your name. The slave would be beaten until he accepted his slave name. It would be his disconnection from who he was, his acceptance into who he was to become. So for over four hundred years the perpetuation of dissolution and separation has been perfected to what is now seen in African-American culture; Jones, Yokum, Sisko, Todd, to name a few.

A generation of people exist as if adrift at sea, with no port in sight. The slave masters game plan has come to pass. The very connection that Sankofa bridles with in its energetic scenes; the volcanic aspiration of self that Sankofa pulsates, is now lost. The silent fart of a distressed identity emits slowly from the bowels of a festering cultural myopia, all held together by a society with the runs. These frequent bathroom trips only help to highlight the stench that now emits from what is left of our hard earned freedom.

Somewhere, in the midst of all this cultural atrophy, I believe Sankofa rises as if to remind the many African-Americans who remain adrift. "Look East. Look to where the sun rises each morning. Remember a land where the sun is seen first each day by your people. A land that your ancestors called home. A land where they were free. Africa, mother Africa."

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