Sankofa: Go Back and Get It!

Senior Researches Past to Uncover More About Her Heritage

It often has been said that in order to go forward, one must never forget where one has been. Senior Lauren Harrison not only understood this concept, but used this idea to base her Summer Scholar research on her family’s ancestry from the early 1800s to present time.

’s project: “Sankofa: Go Back and Get It! Black Cultural Identity in Fiction and in Life” allowed her to explore the many facets of research that interested her, which included: recognizing black identity in works of fiction, genealogic research in several regional libraries and traveling to various states. Harrison also wrote poetry and spoken word and produced a filmed documentary of her journey as she collected more information through death records, census reports, birth records and slave schedules.

Sankofa is a proverb from Ghana that loosely means that “you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you came from,” which greatly intrigued Harrison to research the importance of identity and ancestry, as well as the truth within her own family heritage by researching her family’s past and honing in on the treatment of African-Americans throughout the years.

For Harrison, this opportunity to combine her love of literature as an English major with her curiosity about her family’s past, was truly a wonderful experience. With the assistance of Dr. Virginia Stewart of the English department, Harrison was well on her way to a successful project.

“I wanted to research the injustice and treatment of black people, and also gain a new understanding of my family’s background. Everywhere I went I took my video camera with me to gain a different perspective and to record what I discovered and to truly capture people I interviewed,” says Harrison.

The Summer Scholar project took Harrison to W. Va. as well as various counties in Va., as she hoped to find evidence of her ancestors. Not only had the environment changed, but Harrison was disgusted to find that many of her family’s gravestones were broken and uncared for due to racism in certain counties.

“The most unsettling images were of the graves that hadn’t been properly taken care of in over 50 years. To go into the cemetery for my research was almost like a family reunion. In many ways it was very emotional for me,” Harrison says.

Harrison delved into literature by reading Corregidora, The Atlantic Sound and Song of Solomon as well, which allowed her to gain new perspectives on her research when comparing her findings to specific novels.

Throughout the entire Summer Scholar project, Stewart played an integral role in Harrison’s research.

“Dr. Stewart was my rock—she would go with me to research in graveyards, at churches; we would go through books together. I know that I couldn’t have done this project without her emotional and physical support. She was an integral force in my Summer Scholar project,” Harrison says.

Harrison recently received a grant totaling $2500 to initiate a community service project that focuses on creative writing and speech skills for teenaged girls at the Virginia Baptist Children’s Home. The grant was awarded to all participants of the 2006 Collegiate Women of Color Leadership Development Institute, for which fewer than 50 minority women were selected across the country. After graduation, Harrison hopes to enroll in a master’s program for either creative writing or journalism. She has been accepted at Columbia University's School of Journalism.

Released: March 21, 2007