The Sankofa Experience kicks off at People’s Liberty in Over-the-Rhine next month. The first half of the programming – Feb. 2-24 – explores the Harlem Renaissance while the second half – March 7-24 – explores the dawn of the age of hip hop. We recently talked to Jennie Wright, Chief Imagination Officer of The Sankofa Experience, about how she and her crew tie speculative fiction, African-American history and the Afrofantastic together for this imaginative programming.
Midwest BSFA: Tell us about yourself.
Wright: I am a writer, a dreamer and a momanger. I am also a former nationally ranked slam poet and Cincinnati Poetry Slam International slam master, a playwright, former educator and activist.
Midwest BSFA: How did you come up with the concept for The Sankofa Experience?
Wright: This project is a culmination of a lifetime love of sci-fi, make believe, my time as an educator and African Rites of Passage Mwalimu. I am someone who believes and feels that every experience and moment is propelling you for the next step on your journey. My childhood was extremely rich in imagination and I credit my cousin, Chrysailis Johnson, for that. He had a tremendous imagination and “created” the games we played. We even shared imaginary friends. My imagination grew exponentially when my cousin and I got into a childhood argument and he made our imaginary friends stop talking to me! LOL
After that, I created my own and I remember how amazed I was that I could conjure these characters on my own and create my own worlds to travel to and explore. My favorite game was Time Traveler. We would concentrate on where and when we wanted to go and imagine it in our “mind’s eye.” We would describe everything we “saw” until we were both in that time and space. Once we were both “there,” we had to fulfill different missions. This was by far my favorite childhood game and I would feel like I was really there! As an adult, I realize we were entering into a meditative state. As a kid, we were traveling the universe.
A couple of years ago, I saw Jennifer Simone, an amazing local artist, perform for the first time. Her performance was so moving that I found myself entering into a meditative state. I looked around the room and there were other people with their eyes closed, swaying, crying, humming and I realized they were in a meditative state as well. It felt as if a portal to another plane of being opened. That made me toy around with the idea of using music and meditation to travel through time. So all those little separate occurrences turned into The Sankofa Experience!
Midwest BSFA: How does The Sankofa Experience work?
Wright: Cincinnati harbors a hidden reality. An unassuming storefront in the city’s gentrified urban core is a naturally occurring temporal vortex capable of amplifying supernatural abilities. Most visitors to Sankofa Travel have found themselves inexplicably drawn to the storefront while, some special guests were invited because of their “supernatural gifts.” Attendees can come dressed in the garb of the time period we will be exploring or they can check out items we provide to help them blend into the time they are visiting.
Using ancient Akan wisdom, we travel through time and space under the protection and guidance of the Watchers. Watchers are benevolent, mysterious beings from the future. From hints in conversation with them we find they come from a devastated feature devoid of art and culture. Their home plane of existence is stark and in ornate. Lead by our Watchers, participants are led in meditation and song that reverberates at a frequency capable of opening portals. There are very important and strict rules that time travelers must adhere to called the “Temporal Imperative.” The Temporal Imperative is in place to protect the integrity of the timeline and the safety of the time travelers.
Once they arrive at their destination, through scavenger hunts and docent interaction, 21st century time travelers are tasked with retrieving lost art and cultural legacies that will be used to create a society that values the contributions of all sentient beings. Most of the interactive missions are 30-minute time travel excursions. There are, however, some times that correspond with cosmic and stellar events that make extended 2- to 3-hour excursions as well as the ingestion of food and/or substances possible.
Midwest BSFA: What’s the purpose of your project?
Wright: The purpose of this project is 1) To appreciate and explore people of African descent’s rich and varied contributions to art and culture to the universe. 2) To educate those who may not be familiar with some of the amazing American artists of African descent and their works. 3) To introduce and reinforce some philosophical and epistemological African concepts. 4) To create an immersive arts black cosplay event in Cincinnati and to give people an opportunity to dress up in costume and go on a quest 5) To use cosplay and the arts as a vehicle for impart the importance of being keepers and guardians of our heritage.
Midwest BSFA: Who are your favorite speculative fiction creators and did they have influence on this project?
Wright: Langston Hughes is one of my favorite Harlem Renaissance era writers. I was introduced to him as a child by my mother. My mother bought me a book of his poetry that we read together. Octavia Butler was my first introduction to sci-fi written by an African American woman, as well as my first introduction to the concept of time travel without some type of technology or machine. Toni Morrison introduced me to strong female African American characters as the deliberate creators of their own destiny.
Midwest BSFA: How does your project tie into Afrofuturism or the Afrofantastic?
Wright: The Sankofa Experience is Afrofantastic at its core. It is Afrocentric future-oriented sci-fi in which black folks show everyone how to save the universe using ancient African knowledge and concepts. I love the idea of black folk saving the world. I love the idea of our art and history being integral in creating a new society.
Midwest BSFA: What has been your interactions with Afrofuturism before this project?
Wright: Honestly, other than my own lived experience as a black child traveling the galaxy with my first cousin very little before this. I have recently discovered many groups, artists and writers through social media. One of my favorite is Tony Snipes. I like his approach to sharing his art and narrative. I have yet to see him break character. Dude is dope!
Midwest BSFA: What do you want people to get out of your project?
Wright: I want people first off to be wowed! Wowed by the richness of our history, wowed by the immersive arts environments we have created. I want them to be wowed by the amazing local artists that have poured their heart and artistry into bringing these characters to life. I also want people to pause and reflect on our responsibility to cherishing and preserving our past and integrating it into our present and future in a purposeful and meaningful way.
Midwest BSFA: When you envision black people in the future, what does that look like?
Wright: Honestly, it doesn’t look much different from what I present with The Sankofa Experience. I see black people using our knowledge, our passion, our power, our history to make a better universe. I see black people controlling and intentionally sharing that knowledge with other nationalities and ethnicities and cosmic beings.
Midwest BSFA: What else do you want our readers to know?
Wright: That imagination is power. Imagination is freedom. If I can dream a world, ultimately I can create it in one form of another.