Sankofa Video Books & Café Showcases African Culture & History

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Founded by filmmaking couple Haile and Shirikiana Gerima, Sankofa Video Books & Café in Washington, D.C., specializes in videos and books about people of African descent around the world.

Sankofa logoShirikiana Gerima said the store opened in 1998 in a two-floor building the couple purchased to house their film production company, using the first floor as an office and the second as a 2,000-square-foot storefront to sell their films. Shirikiana and her husband taught film at Howard University; since the 1970s they have written and produced many critically acclaimed and prize-winning independent films, including Harvest: 3,000 Years (1976); Wilmington 10 – U.S.A. 10,000 (1979); and Teza (2008).

Sankofa Video Books & Café started by renting out VHS tapes of the Gerimas’ own movies and those of others, then moved on to selling DVDs. When they bought the building in the late 1990s, the bookstore, said Gerima, was kind of a second thought.

Sankofa Video Books & Cafe in D.C. offers videos and books about people of African descent around the world.
Sankofa Video Books & Cafe in D.C. offers videos and books about people of African descent around the world.

“We started by getting books from African World Books, which is a wonderful wholesaler not far from us, in Baltimore. We just went to the warehouse and looked around goggle-eyed at all the great books they had and then brought them back to D.C.,” said Gerima. “This was all we knew in terms of the industry at the time: we knew the books that we loved, that shaped us, and that’s pretty much what we began to fill the space with.”

“We’ve kind of evolved since that time to do more with books,” she added. “We’ve always specialized in DVDs not available in other places, but now the books that we sell far outnumber the DVDs we sell.”

Sankofa screenings board
Sankofa holds regular film screenings at the store.

Sankofa is located on Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C., across from Howard University, a historically black college, which has been “a great relationship and location to have,” said Gerima. Such a prime location has led to a close partnership with the college: Sankofa recently worked with the university to host a screening of Raoul Peck’s film I Am Not Your Negro at the store. Sankofa also regularly hosts film screenings that introduce local audiences to an array of filmmakers from around the world.

“We have a great community and we are very lucky for that,” said Gerima. “They make it possible for us to be here, and we really rely on that relationship, as independent bookstores do. To whatever degree they are successful can be reflected in their relationship with the community. We still work on films, so we also engage people in that process — my husband is working on a film now and he’ll have open screenings in the middle of the process to get feedback.”

Sankofa’s inventory of books offers classic titles from black culture and history, as well as new releases in culture, history, sociology, biography, and fiction. Some of the more prominent authors who have held readings and signings at the store include Sonja Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, Eloise Greenfield, Tananarive Due, and Sista Souljah. Sankofa also stocks the largest collection of children’s black literature in the D.C. area and hosts a Magical Mirrors Children’s Black Book Festival each year.

Sankofa's children's book section
Sankofa's children's book section

The store, which has four part-time employees, added a café in 2007, which is run by an outside operator and sells smoothies and wraps named after filmmakers of color. Sankofa has also become a place for film screenings and for appearances by local and well-known authors, and rents out space to community groups for outside events, Gerima said.

“We really pride ourselves on being able to make a space for local authors’ presentation and sales,” said Gerima. “When we first started out, the idea of independent publishing was fairly unknown, but now it’s neck-and-neck with larger publishers’ materials, so we try to make sure that we sell them and present them, and that really is great for everybody. You never know who you’re nurturing, but you want to make sure that people have the possibility to be nurtured as writers and artists. Secondly, it gives you another link with the community that they bring in.”

A cappuccino at Sankofa
A cappuccino at Sankofa

In terms of new developments and initiatives at the store, Gerima said Sankofa was invited to serve as the national opener for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, We Were Eight Years in Power (One World) on October 9. In addition, Sankofa just finished installing a new patio deck in the back of the store, which was funded by a Great Streets grant for small business improvements.

“We want to get that up and running and get people used to the idea of being able to rent it, of going out there to eat a sandwich — just have a broader space to enjoy books and movies,” said Gerima. “The only thing we haven’t gotten back there yet is a screen; we want to be able to show movies outside in the warmer months.”

What’s in a Name?: Sankofa Video Books & Café

Sankofa Video Books & Café was named after the Gerimas’ internationally acclaimed 1993 film Sankofa, about a young woman who travels into the past and finds herself working as a house slave at a plantation somewhere in the Americas. The term “Sankofa” comes from the Adinkra system of philosophy, a culture from West Africa predating Europe that offers a way of looking at life through various symbols.

In Adinkra, Sankofa means “going back to our past in order to go forward,” said Shirikiana Gerima. The symbol of Sankofa, which serves as the logo for the bookstore, is a Sankofa bird, with an egg in her mouth, looking backwards while one foot is going forward. She is remembering the past while going forward, said Gerima, and the egg symbolizes the new life that she brings with her.

“For us, that is what the importance of history means: that it emboldens you to go forward and to care about your path and do whatever you deem necessary to do within your generation, armed with a knowledge of the past. Sankofa the movie readily embodies that theme as well,” said Gerima.