The first phase of “Chronicling Resistance” held its last major event on May 7 at Bartram’s Garden and Sankofa Farm, with 27 people in attendance. The event began in the Barn with a pop-up exhibit featuring enlarged copies of resistance-related historical materials from local libraries and archives. Attendees had the opportunity to engage with these materials before hearing the program.
The formal portion of the event began with a welcome and introduction to “Chronicling Resistance” from project director Mariam Williams. Williams discussed several of the documents in the exhibit, noting that they show the risks people took, conflicts within movements, and connections to the space where we were, as several were directly connected to Southwest Philadelphia.
Williams described some of the work of the project, including the questions that have been asked throughout the project, some of the listening sessions we have held, and a preliminary look at findings. These included the importance of feeling placed and rooted through history, how programming and art can help people to establish meaningful connections with the past, and how lack of knowledge about what is available is a barrier in connecting many people to archives. Williams closed with a vision for future “Chronicling Resistance” work, which includes striking “enabling” from the formal title and replacing it with “affirming.”
The evening then transitioned to a conversation among Williams, Shani Akilah, one of the founders of the Black and Brown Worker’s Cooperative (BBWC), and Sade Black, a youth worker at Sankofa Farm, about the theme of Sankofa. “Sankofa” is a word in the Twi language which signifies that there is nothing wrong with going back to pick up something you have forgotten. The term connects with the work of “Chronicling Resistance” because it helps to remind us that remembering is something we must practice, and that remembering is especially difficult for people whose histories have been erased. Remembering gives context and provides roots; it is an act of resistance to say “we were here, we are here” and to preserve what is actively being erased.
The conversation opened with discussions about the work each is doing. Black described her work learning about African culture, cooking African food and foods from the African diaspora, teaching new students to farm and cook, and the deep connections of food to history. Sankofa Farm provides opportunities to learn things she doesn’t learn in school, such as how African women preserved crops to save their culture and heritage when they were enslaved in the Americas. Akilah began with their family history; as a descendent of Jamaican Maroons and Haitians, they carry their history of freedom and rebellion with them, and this has informed what they believe is possible. BBWC works for an expansion of democracy and an acknowledgement that black and brown workers do much of the front-line work in social justice movements but still suffer under white supremacy.
For both Sade and Shani, their activism and work is a way to reach back and remember. Black noted that farming was not part of the community she grew up in, but that a connection to the land is part of her culture, although one that is not widely recognized in among African American youth in Philadelphia. Getting an education, and in turn educating others, is itself an act of resistance. Akilah emphasized the importance of moving beyond incremental change in becoming the dreams of our ancestors; they are inspired by slave rebellions, Harriet Tubman, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and other people who have been criminalized for what they know. Remembering the truth is the deepest work we can do, because society functions on falsehood and false projects, and we must get at the truth.
Both Akilah and Black spoke about the importance of lifting up the work of black women, who are often erased from the work that they do; this is part of a commitment to collective liberation. Akilah noted the contributions of Ella Baker to the Civil Rights movement, although she is not familiar to many; Black noted the inspiration she derives from Harriet Tubman, who went back many times to save her own people.
In discussing how people should learn about stories in the future, and how their work should be remembered, Akilah noted that one should always ask “is this the moment I should be speaking?” before doing so, and recognize when to allow other voices to be heard; things are missed when people tell stories for others rather than allowing them to speak. Black emphasized the importance of not waiting for other people or school to tell you about history, but to seek it out and to use your voice, not allowing yourself to be silenced. Akilah also noted the importance of oral tradition.
After the conclusion of this conversation, attendees took a tour of Sankofa Farm with Chris Bolden-Newsome, one of its co-directors. Bolden-Newsome described the goals of the farm, including reconnecting African-Americans to the land, as the culture has all but abandoned the value Africans traditionally place on spending time in nature, and farming is often seen as connected to slavery, when black people were forced to labor on the land in bondage. Sankofa Farm is rooted in the community of Southwest Philadelphia, and is sacred ground where all the plants that are grown have historical and cultural meaning, in addition to providing nutrition. Bolden-Newsome prefers to talk about resilience rather than resistance, because he sees this as a better description of how people can live their lives.
Following the farm tour, attendees were invited to an outdoor picnic dinner catered by Atiya Ola’s Spirit First Foods, an African-American family-owned restaurant that deeply connects spiritual and nutritional nourishment.