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Adinkra Symbols

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Adinkra Symbols in New Orleans Ironwork

by Karel Sloane-Boekbinder

from The Anvils Ring


Full speed of fire forges ahead with an insistence that there must be something more to a lump of metal than meets the eye—this is what connects all workers of iron. I am an aficionado. I live where iron carefully wraps around window sills, doorways, and balustrades; here the forge’s bright orange belly and the hammer have given birth to all manner of curves, angles, lines and spirals. These lines and curves too, carry more than meets the eye. From fire into iron is where those who wrought lines and curves have folded their messages.

The messages forged into iron shapes have crossed centuries, cultures and continents. As a person’s expertise with metal and fire can travel with that person, so can cultural patterns particular to the places they come from. I have just finished a large (three parish) education project that explored cultural retentions and symbolism woven in to the architecture of the Mississippi Delta.  A cultural retention is something that remains from a culture, and can be identified as having come from that particular culture. Many are aware of European cultural retentions. Sometimes the elements of African cultures that have been retained are not so obvious. Since the 1800’s, Adinkra symbols from West Africa have been woven into wrought-iron designs found up and down the Mississippi Delta.  These Adinkra symbols communicate complex messages and complicated concepts that relate to individuals and to society as a whole.

In Africa, between savannah and forest, since the 1200’s, smiths have forged metal by hand from clay furnaces fueled with charcoal. One of the main professions of West Africans, it seems, is that of metalworking. Further, according to a paper African Ironmaking Culture Among African American Ironworkers in Western Maryland 1760-1850, Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta are not unique, Technological diffusion occurred and occupational identity increased when workers made iron with methods based on African traditions, Libby, 1991. The contributions of African ironworking to the culture and development of American wrought iron design is further detailed in two books: Negro Iron Workers in New Orleans, 1718-1900, by Marcus Christian: Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Co., 2002, and Forging from sun-up to sun-down: African symbols in the works of Black ironworkers in New Orleans (1800-1863), by Eva Regina Martin: Temple Univ., 1995 (9600046.)

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Architechural illustrations here

One of the oldest Adinkra symbols, Asase ye duru, is also one of the most commonly found wrought iron designs. Asase ye duru translates as the earth has weight. This image is from a doorway located at 710 Royal Street in New Orleans. As with most Adinkra symbols, Asase ye duru is accompanied by a proverb: All power emanates from the earth, or Tumi nyina ne asase. The implications of this proverb are that wealth arises from the conscientious care-taking and conservation of the earth.

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Dwannimmen, translated as “ram’s horns,” is another commonly found design. This image is from the Xiques House located at 521 Dauphine Street in New Orleans. This symbol is accompanied by the proverb Dwannini ye asisie a, ode n’akorana na: It is the heart and not the horns that lead a ram to bully. Ironically, in the case of ironwork created by enslaved artisans, this symbol is also equated with concealment of learning. Other meanings for dwannimmen include strength, wisdom and humility.

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Nyame biribi wo soro signifies that God is in the heavens. This image is from a balcony located at 2408 Chartres Street in New Orleans. In 2001, this building received the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission Honor Award. The idea behind this Adinkra symbol is that residing in the heavens gives God the ability to hear all prayers. This symbol is also equated with hope.


Architechural illustrations here

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“Nyame dua” literally means “tree of God” and is associated with blessings. This image is from a balcony located at 713 Camp Street in New Orleans. According to W. Bruce Willis, author of The Adinkra Dictionary, “The Nyame Dua is a sacred spot where rituals are performed. Erected in front of the house or compound, it is crafted from a tree that has been cut where three or more branches come together. This stake holds an earthenware vessel filled with water and herbs or other symbolic materials for purification and blessing rituals.”


Architechural illustrations here

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Hye won hye, translated as that which cannot be burned, is equated with toughness, imperishability, overcoming adversity and endless endurance. In an ironic twist, this symbol is featured prominently in all of the balconies that wrap around the Pontalba buildings in New Orleans. The Pontalba buildings, along with St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo, were reconstructed following a devastating fire five blocks wide and nine blocks long that, in 1794, decimated these buildings along with 207 others. Additionally, Hye won hye was a powerful testament to tenacity; in 1788 in New Orleans, 856 buildings previously been obliterated by fire.


Architechural illustrations here

Sankofa, translated as return and get it, another prominently featured Adinkra symbol, is also accompanied by a proverb: Se wo were fin a wo Sankofa a yennkyi. This proverb translates It is not a taboo to return to fetch something you forgot earlier on. This image depicts the two Sankofa symbols found at the tops of the spires of the St. Louis Cathedral, located on Jackson Square in New Orleans (the symbol Asase ye duru can also be seen on the spire between the two “Sankofa” symbols.) Among other things, Sankofa is equated with the phrase better late than never, and, the belief that, by carrying the ancient into the present and then on into the future, it is possible to correct mistakes made in the past.


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Karel

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