In honor of Black History Month this February, we’re exploring elements of West African culture that reach back deep into the past, yet continue to hold meaning in the present. The adinkra, a collection of symbols, each with its own complex meaning, teach us about ways of seeing that resist any simplistic claims to truth.
What is Adinkra?
You see them etched on ceramic vases, burnished in red. They adorn earrings and folding tables. Masks carved from sese wood and vibrant kente cloth wall hangings. To the unknowing eye, the adinkra symbols might seem like decorative flourishes. Shapes born in the mind of the maker. In reality, they gesture toward a much larger, historically significant symbolic language that weaves the verbal and the visual into an elegant web of meaning.
It is fitting, perhaps, that the origins of the adinkra are a matter of dispute, because the meanings they hold also resist any simple designation. Instead, the symbols wrestle with the nuanced truths of proverbs, the well-worn tread of ancient wisdom, the authority of ethical imperatives, and the urgency of warning signs.
One of the most famous adinkra symbols, the Gye Nyame, with its diagonal slashes and curved lines, is an invocation of the Supreme Being. Its meaning, “except for God,” is a reference to God’s omnipotence, to unwavering faith and belief in the powers of the Almighty. Even still, the symbol is an invitation, rather than a declaration.
Linked as it is to the world of proverbs, it does not trade in the currency of facts. Instead, its truth is one that poses questions, rather than provides answers.
Some trace the adinkra’s beginnings to a battle between the Gyaaman clans and the Asante Nation in the early 19th century. Others claim the adinkra are older. In the British Museum hangs a mourning cloth, adinkra symbols stamped from carved calabash and vegetable dye from a badie tree, that dates back to 1817.
While the precise details of the adinkra’s birth may keep us guessing, other aspects are more settled. The symbols are linked to the Akan people in what is now Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. In their earliest form, they functioned as a mode of communication when reading and writing were not easily accessible. They adorned the clothing of royalty and spiritual leaders at funerals and other special occasions.
Today there are over 500 adinkra symbols, each with its own meaning. Symbols for the supremacy of God, humility, leadership, mercy, and the list goes on. No longer the province of royalty, the adinkra are now a part of everyday life in Ghana.
They adorn clothing, art, musical instruments, all the while preserving a nuanced perspective on the world — an invitation to think, reflect, and resist any facile claims to truth.