Sankofa: Drawing Strength from Our Ancestors

Sankofa is a Ghanaian term that signifies the importance of drawing on our past in order to move forward. While some of the current struggles that we experience as black women are unique to our time, there are similarities to the challenges that our female ancestors faced. I believe that reflecting on the strengths and experiences of black women who came before us can give us insights into how to endure what we face today. In particular, one common challenge involves balancing our identities as women and black people in a social environment that often pushes us to prioritize one identity over another. In this post, I will review the experiences of three black women and highlight the lessons we can draw from their lives.

Sojourner Truth

Photo Credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Sojourner Truth

In her famous speech “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” Truth argues that women and men should be treated equally because they can perform the same tasks as men and at times endure more than them. In her argument she calls upon her experiences from slavery saying that she has “plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me.”[1] In this statement she is countering a common narrative about women being feeble and arguing that we are just as capable as men.

Lessons from Sojourner Truth: Assert Your Value

It is important for us to acknowledge and assert our strengths. Truth gave that speech in 1851 and unfortunately, the need to articulate the value of black women continues today. I encourage you to be outspoken about what you can do as a black woman. Whether you’re taking the lead as an organizer, negotiating for a raise or higher salary, or making sure you get appropriate acknowledgment for supporting your family, don’t shy away from highlighting your strengths. Let’s strive to communicate our value with finesse and grace so that others can hear and acknowledge what we bring to the table.

Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height was a key leader during the civil rights movement who advocated for the rights of women in addition to the rights of African Americans. She was the head of the National Council of Negro Women, which enabled her to become a member of the Council of United Civil Rights Leadership. She was the only woman in this group of men.  In Height’s words: “there was an all-consuming focus on race. We women were supposed to put all our energies into it. Clearly, there was a low tolerance level for anyone raising questions about the women’s participation, per se.”[2] In spite of this, Height advocated for the voices of women and young people to be heard. In addition to her unique position as a female leader in the civil rights movement, Height was unusual in her explicit push for women’s rights.

Lessons from Dorothy Height: Advocate for Your Rights as a Woman

We should not be ashamed or afraid of advocating for our rights as a women. While Height’s legacy is not adequately captured in many history books, she did have an important impact on the world. Remember that whatever you are doing to further the rights of black women whether that be speaking out on social media, marching, or asserting yourself at your job, your efforts are significant and you too are helping to pave the way for future generations of black women. Valuing yourself and your work helps to relieve feelings of stress and hopelessness.

Alice Walker

Photo Credit: The American Library Association (License)

Alice Walker

Alice Walker (the author of the The Color Purple) has rebelled against the idea of suppressing her female identity and defined herself through her personal pain and struggle rather than through the pain and struggle of the men in her life. In her powerful poem “On Stripping Bark from Myself”Alice Walker fights against the idea that Black women should have to live for the other people in their lives instead of pursuing their own dreams.

Lessons from Alice Walker: Be Your Own Woman

I encourage you to read the poem linked above and just sit with the feelings it stirs in you. Through this poem and other writings, Walker pushes us to think about what we want for ourselves. To take a step back, look at our lives, and examine whether we are really living for ourselves or simply motivated by fulfilling the desires of our loved ones. I encourage you to follow Walker’s lead, consider how you spend most your time and whether or not at least some of the things you do bring you joy. If not, it may be time to change something to make sure that the life you are living is your own.

Concluding Thoughts 

I highlight the great work and accomplishments of these women not as signals that we need to do more but as encouragement that the efforts of black women make a significant difference. We can see that today as black women are leading the contemporary efforts to change policing and advocating for human rights for black people. I hope that the lives and work of the women who came before us will serve as reminders that what we do is important even if it is not acknowledged by the people surrounding us right now.


[1] Gates, Henry Louis Jr., Nellie Y. McKay, editors. 2004. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Sojourner Truth, “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” 248 p.

[2] Height, Dorothy. “‘We wanted the voice of a woman to be heard’ Black Women in the 1963 March on Washington.” Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement. Ed. Bettye Collier-Thomas, V.P. Franklin. (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 86 p.

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