Coffin’s Emblem Defies Certainty (NY)

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When the remains of hundreds of colonial-era Africans were uncovered during a building excavation in Lower Manhattan in 1991, one coffin in particular stood out. Nailed into its wooden lid were iron tacks, 51 of which formed an enigmatic, heart-shaped design.

The pattern was soon identified as the sankofa — a symbol printed on funereal garments in West Africa — and it captured the imagination of scholars, preservationists and designers. Ultimately, it was embraced by many African-Americans as a remarkable example of the survival of African customs in the face of violent subjugation in early America.

The sankofa was widely invoked in 2003, when the 419 remains were reinterred at the site, now known as the African Burial Ground, following painstaking examination. It was chiseled into a black granite memorial unveiled in 2007. It is featured in an interpretive display in the federal building at 290 Broadway (the construction of which led to the discovery of the graves), which describes it as a direct link to “cultures found in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.” And it serves as a logo for the African Burial Ground as a whole.

Michael A. Gomez, a professor of history at New York University and an authority on the African diaspora, said the design’s apparent link to 18th-century Africa “is of enormous meaning and carries a lot of symbolic weight.” For decades, historians and anthropologists have debated the extent to which the continent’s cultural practices endured and came to influence art, language, music and religion in the Americas — a question with particular resonance for the African-American community.

But now a peer-reviewed study, published this month in a leading history journal, argues that the heart-shaped symbol is not, in fact, a sankofa, and probably does not have African origins at all. Indeed, it suggests that the sankofa probably did not yet exist as a symbol in Africa at the time the coffin was made, and that the design is likely Anglo-American in origin.

The National Park Service, which has managed the burial ground since it was a declared a national monument in 2006, is itself stepping back from the original claim. As a result of research by scholars who prepared reports in 2006 for the federal government, the interpretive sign in the service’s new $5.2 million visitor center, scheduled to open on Feb. 27, will say only that the design “could be a sankofa symbol” and that “no one knows for sure.”

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