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.Skip to next paragraph
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
The symbol of the African Burial Ground.
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The African Burial Ground Monument in lower Manhattan.
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.
The burial ground sankofa was important in this debate, Dr. Gomez said, “because, let’s face it, we don’t have an extremely large amount of material culture with which to work.”
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.”
In an interview, Erik R. Seeman, the historian whose new study treats the sankofa claim skeptically, acknowledged that his argument could be politically fraught. In his article, published in the January issue of The William and Mary Quarterly, he makes a point of emphasizing his belief that African influences did play a major role in the lives of early black Americans — although generally as part of hybrid traditions.
“As free and enslaved blacks created a distinctive culture in the New World, they drew on remembered African practices and Anglo-American religious and material culture to fashion something altogether original,” wrote Dr. Seeman, who teaches American history at the University at Buffalo. Dr. Seeman’s article, adapted from a book, “Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800,” to be published in May by the University of Pennsylvania Press, argues that scholars “have too readily attributed cultural practices to African antecedents without convincing documentary or archaeological evidence.”
After archaeologists who examined the bones “emphasized the African origins” of the beads, shells, rings and other objects in the graves, Dr. Seeman writes, “historians followed this lead, seeing in the African Burial Ground artifacts glimpses of a long-hidden African worldview in New York.”
Particularly striking was the coffin labeled Burial 101, containing the remains of a man between 26 and 35 who died sometime after 1760. (Some of the tacks within the heart-shaped symbol can be read as the number “69,” suggesting that the man died in 1769.)
The hexagonal, larch-wood lid of the coffin was studded with 187 cast-iron tacks, 51 of which made up the heart-shaped pattern, about 18 inches wide and 19 inches high.
“It can be safely concluded,” Kwaku Ofori-Ansa, an expert in African art at Howard University, wrote in a 1995 newsletter of the archaeological excavation, “that the image was meant to be” the sankofa — one of several hundred symbols that are stamped on adinkra cloth, used by the Akan people of present-day Ghana and Ivory Coast.
NYTimes article on the "sankofa" symbol used at the African Burial Ground in New York City. The same symbol is found throughout grillwork in New Orleans including the historic "iron grillwork" that was created by Africans in historic New Orleans.