Op/Ed By Kofi Quaye
If anyone had predicted 30, even 20 years ago, that Syracuse would name a park “Sankofa,” few people would have believed it, in pretty much the same way an Obama presidency could not have been predicted. I would have been one of the skeptics.
But, that is precisely what happened July 14, when Sankofa Park was dedicated at a ceremony on the Southside of Syracuse that was reported in a previous edition of this newspaper. The mayor, state senators, city councilors and leaders from the community were in attendance.
So, what makes the naming of a park on the Southside of Syracuse “Sankofa,” such a big deal? The answer is simple; it’s the selection of an African name. It suggests that Syracuse has come a long way; more so, the African-American community, when it comes to relating to Africa, and Africans. It is also an indication that Syracuse’s African-American community has witnessed a significant number of changes, not the least of which has been a closing of the gap which once seemed to exist between African immigrants, and the African-American community. Sankofa Park has been one huge step forward in that direction.
Let me put it in the proper context, by explaining what Sankofa means. It comes from the Akan language of Ghana meaning, “reach back and get it.” It is often associated with the symbol of a bird reaching back with its long neck, and symbolic of reaching back into the past; finding goodness, and using that as a foundation for progress, in the future.
When I arrived in Syracuse, some three decades ago, pro-African sentiment on the part of African-Americans was just not widespread in the community. It was not as strong, and as pervasive as it was in other cities like New York, Detroit, and Washington D.C. It was also during a time when the majority of Africans in the city were government-sponsored students, and job-seeking immigrants who had come to Syracuse to find work.
The students studied, and socialized, with other students who were mostly white. Only a few African-Americans reached out to the African students and African immigrants who seemed to gravitate toward the white community.
However, it seems to be a different story now. It looks like there are Africans everywhere, within the city. The influx of refugees from Sudan, Liberia, Congo, and other parts of Africa has created a thriving African-immigrant community. And, they are not confining themselves to the college campuses, or living in isolation from the African-American community.
They have opened all kinds of businesses on the south side, as well as the north side. The businesses range from a Sudanese-owned mechanic’s shop on South Salina, Park St., to Somali-owned taxi companies, Ghanaian-owned restaurants, and grocery shops on N. Salina and Pond Streets. The new reality is what can be seen in the streets of Syracuse today, which is men and women from different countries wearing their native traditional costumes, and going through the motions of adjusting to life in America.
I am sure the paradigm shift that has occurred in the African-American community is the result of ongoing efforts by African immigrants, and members of the African-American community, who are involved in programs and activities which make it possible for increased interaction among them.
I know of, and cite, the active participation of Van Robinson, the African-American president of the Syracuse Common Council, who has maintained close ties with the African immigrant community. He has been involved in various initiatives designed to benefit them. So has Mike Atkins.
A former city councilor, and still a leading political figure; he has made several trips to South Africa, and is recognized as the go-to person when Africans face problems which require knowledge, and expertise, in dealing with government bureaucracy.
Charles Anderson, also a former city councilor, continues to support causes seeking to address concerns related to Africa, and Africans, in the community. And others, too many to list here, have also played various roles over the years in making the shift happen.
The city’s African-American leadership deserves to be congratulated for taking the initiative to accomplish a feat that has been unique by any measure. Hopefully, it won’t end here.