The word sankofa comes from the Akan language of West Africa, and its meaning can be expressed several ways.
Verbally, it means, literally, “to go back and get it”, to retrieve something.
Visually, artistically, sankofa is usually depicted as a bird with feet facing forward and head turned back, often with an egg in its beak, representing the future’s promise.
It has become a prominent symbol of the African diaspora and the need to draw on past history and cultural legacies to help build for tomorrow.
The exhibition Sankofa: African Routes, Canadian Roots has been running at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC since last November (it closes March 27). An introductory web essay by MOA Africa and South America curator Nuno Porto says of the term: “Sankofa recentres, recognizes, includes, inscribes, and builds on memory to move forward.”
As part of that art-based exhibition, there is a one-day film festival at the MOA’s Haida House this Saturday (February 12), commencing at 11 a.m. Entry to the films and traditional First Nation structure is free with museum admission on a first-come, first-served basis. (Capacity is limited as per COVID-19 safety protocols, and proof of full vaccination is required.)
The fest, titled Sankofa Film Festival: Films From the Diaspora, consists of three short documentaries about the Black experience in urban communities in Canada, made between 1991 and 2016, and one (They Are We, 2014, 77 minutes) that traces Afro-Cuban culture and the shared heritage of a family torn apart by the transatlantic slave trade.
Of the other three, one (“Remember Africville”, 1991, 35 minutes) tells the story of a Black community in Halifax that was demolished in the 1960s in the name of “urban renewal”, a city-revitalization initiative that in both the U.S. and Canadian experience often involved uprooting communities of poor Black people. (American author James Baldwin famously referred to the practice as “Negro Removal”.)
The other two, “Hogan’s Alley” (1994, 32 minutes) and “Secret Vancouver: Return to Hogan’s Alley” (2016, 16 minutes), concern the destruction and cultural legacy of Vancouver’s storied Black neighbourhood on the southwestern edge of Strathcona downtown.
Coral Santana, a recent UBC graduate who worked as a cultural-programming consultant for the film fest, told the Straight by phone that she helped select the initial list of films to be considered for screening.
“Then I worked with the other curators,” she explained. “We wanted to make sure there was a cohesiveness with the rest of the exhibition…[that] we highlighted important spaces for the African diaspora in Canada.”
Santana, who was born in the Dominican Republic and came to Vancouver and UBC in 2017, said she works full-time for the Directors Guild of Canada, B.C. (“I do identify as Black,” she told the Straight, “but the term that I use is Afro-Latino.”)
The two films about Hogan’s Alley, the Black community and gathering place that thrived in Vancouver from the early 1900s to the late 1960s—when it was mostly demolished to make way for part of a downtown freeway project that was never fully realized—have the most local impact, Santana said.
“Although they both tell the story of…what was completely torn away from the Black community, they tell it from different perspectives,” she noted.
“ ‘Hogan’s Alley’ ”, she said, “gives a more personal story of the destruction of Hogan’s Alley. It tells the story of Hogan’s Alley through the eyes and lived experiences of three women.”
“Secret Vancouver”, on the other hand, is a look at what the neighbourhood, and Vancouver, lost when nightclubs, restaurants, and, eventually, the city’s only Black church were gone. “This is about the cultural impact of the loss of that community,” Santana said.
Although she never saw Hogan’s Alley in its heyday, she said, “you can definitely feel the loss. The Black community here in Vancouver doesn’t really have a space.
“I think it’s why Hogan’s Alley will not be forgotten.”
Santana’s advice to those who decide to take in the mini film fest?
“Take a moment to really listen to the stories that are being told. One thing we see a lot when it comes to Black history is that people like to say, ‘Oh, this is what happened in the past.’
“See how the stories reflect on today.”
Ultimately, Santana said, they are stories of inspiration and hope.
“I hope that these films help folks [understand] the history and loss of the Black communities in Canada,” she said. “But these are not just stories of loss; they are stories of perseverance.
“The Black community here, we’re resilient. We don’t have a home base, so sometimes people feel at a loss.
“But there are definitely people doing work to make these spaces,” she noted. “There are a lot of barriers to making it happen…but people are working.”