Askia MuhammadColumnistsOp-EdOpinion

MUHAMMAD: I Stand with Sankofa!

I stand in solidarity with Sankofa Book, Video & Café.

Sankofa is the Ghanaian Adinkra symbol which pictures a bird, whose head is looking back. It means: “Go back and fetch it.” The cultural oasis at 2714 Georgia Avenue NW — named after the first film, “Sankofa,” made by the store’s founders, retired Howard University film professor Haile Gerima and his wife, Detroit-born Shirikiana Aina Gerima — was launched as an outlet to distribute the duo’s acclaimed films.

Haile Gerima’s handful of critically acclaimed projects takes us deep into the lives of Ethiopians, in the U.S., in Europe, and on the Continent, from the lens of a master filmmaker and teacher. His store and café is a gateway into African culture and intellectual property, and it deserves public support, even beyond the healthy customer support it already receives.

Gentrification is the villain.

For more than a decade, rising property taxes forced the closure of several Black neighborhood establishments directly across the street from prominent HBCU Howard University, including the Labamba Sub Shop, and Children of the Sun, among other small businesses.

The disappearance of those businesses also reflects the greater exodus of Black residents from the surrounding Shaw area and other parts of D.C. Since 1998, when Sankofa was founded, the District’s Black population has shrunk by more than 30 percent, while the white population has correspondingly increased.

Legislation has been proposed before the District Council to provide relief for Sankofa. If passed, the bill would protect Sankofa from taxation for 10 years and provide the bookstore with what’s described as “equitable relief,” and serve as an example for other small Black-owned businesses.

“So see we have to make it plain that Sankofa and the other black bookstores are protected so that this idea of developing a city doesn’t mean us being rolled over,” Shirikiana Gerima told supporters outside the store at a rally June 1. “We know we don’t. We have to stand firmer. We can’t just be victims all the time.

“We are quite proud of what we have here. What we’re facing now with gentrification is what we’ve been facing since we’ve been here — on steroids,” she continued. “Why is it they’re saying we can leave now in the name of development? What does development mean except a takeover, and you have got to leave, if you happen to be black. If you happen to be white, you are going to get the profits of what we did.

“You walk down the street like you don’t notice that you are a new and in charge now and everybody and everything has to move out your way because you are here,” she said of the haughty attitude of most new, white residents in the neighborhood. “You create a distorted image. You’re creating a population that can be a dangerous population because they’ve been taught that they’re privileged; just being here makes them privileged. So let’s everybody say no, that’s not right.

“I don’t want the city to feel like they’re doing me a favor,” Mrs. Gerima said. “They should be saying ‘thank you, Lordy’ because businesses like this have contributed to the strength of the city.

“Sometimes, I feel like I work for the city,” she said, according to a published report. “[To make ends meet], we rent out the office space, the conference room and the front space to families and community groups. In the history of development, the development came at the cost of families and businesses.

“In rough times, their commitment holds the city together,” she said. “They pay their taxes, despite what they have to face. Then when the city makes good, they get pushed out.”

To the contrary, she said, the city has a responsibility to help residents and business owners who stayed in the District and accentuated the local culture during its toughest times.

If passed, this bill would protect Sankofa from taxation and provide the bookstore with what’s described as equitable relief for a decade, and serve as an example for other small black-owned businesses.

“The character of our neighborhoods depends on sustaining the small and local businesses that we know and love,” Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau told a reporter in an email about her sponsorship of the proposed legislation.

Me? I’ve held a warm spot for Sankofa’s location for a dozen years before I even came to the District in 1977. That address, 2714 Georgia Avenue NW, was the national headquarters of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., when I joined in 1965. Omega was founded across the street on the campus of Howard University in 1911. Talk about Sankofa “going back to fetch it.”

The store at that location follows in a hallowed tradition, standing on Sacred Ground, and I stand with Sankofa.

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Askia Muhammad

WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.

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