A small room covered with the history that inspires the future. The Sankofa exhibition opened Friday, Sept. 10 at the African American Cultural Center (AACC) and it was an experience like no other.
As the doors of the exhibition opened, the guests were greeted with music and photography of important moments of Black students at North Carolina State University. The photography featured was from a range of times and conveyed varying emotions. One photograph featured NC State’s first Black homecoming queen, Mary Evelyn Porterfield, being crowned in 1970. Another photograph featured the protest put on by Black students in June 2020. After guests were seated, Toni Harrison Thorpe began telling the story of the AACC. Thorpe did not just focus on the AACC’s history but also on her own personal stories from her time at NC State.
Once done telling stories about the AACC, Thorpe told the story of Sankofa. In summary, Sankofa is constantly told that she is the most beautiful bird in her village, she receives non-stop compliments and is confident in herself. That is until her curiosity gets the best of her, and she goes outside the village to see what others think of her. Sankofa meets an all-black bird who insults her colorful feathers and calls her the ugliest bird that they have ever seen. Sankofa lost all sense of self. She is reassured by her mother and elders, who then push her to confront the bird who insulted her. Sankofa stands up for herself and the bird who insults her gets smaller and smaller until they disappear.
Thorpe engaged the audience by interacting with them as well as including humor, sadness, and confidence in her retelling of the story. This fictional story paired with the real ones of the AACC was impactful, there were some audience members who were even crying afterward.
We spoke to some of the people behind the exhibition to get a better understanding of how it came to be. The program coordinator for the AACC, Isaiah Lucas, wanted to create something that celebrates Blackness for students. Lucas spoke about the pressure that he felt as this was the first exhibition for 2 years. He wanted to create a ‘transformative’ experience for the Black community of NC State.
The event planning team chose to focus on the theme of how Black students could learn from the past to build the future. They worked with University Libraries, Victor Betts, and Jacqueline Perry to try to capture this theme. Archival photos were used to tell a story.
Lucas states, “Each picture in the gallery tells a story- tells our story that’s rooted in joy, rooted in pain.”
Lucas also experienced his own pain as his father passed the Tuesday before the exhibition, and the passion and perseverance he showed for the exhibition are clearly reflected in it. Lucas invited Thorpe to take part in Sankofa. Thorpe’s performance was inspired by her time at NC State, as well as the students she got to see during that time. Thorpe’s ‘memory walk’ and storytelling captured the audience and in a sense, it really was the past connecting with the present.
The exhibition seemed to leave a lasting impression on its viewers. Many people stated how they were moved after leaving the exhibition. It was a display of the history of black students at NC state. Sankofa will run through October 10, 2021, from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, at the African American Cultural Center gallery at Witherspoon Student Center.