Before Jeannine Cook opened Harriett’s Bookshop on Girard Avenue in Fishtown earlier this year, she had been an educator. She still has a few tricks from the classroom up her sleeve.
“How do you get your student to pay attention?” she said. “You do something out of the ordinary.”
On Monday evening, dozens of people came to a Fishtown restaurant for what was billed as a sit-in for the bookshop, which had recently been the target of racist emails.
When they arrived at the dramatically lit event space, those people became part of a social experiment: civic intervention as Afrofuturist theater.
Cook, dressed in a long white gown circa 1831, a wide-brimmed, white hat and matching parasol, rose into the air in a swing suspended from the ceiling. Her sister, Jasmaine Cook, was dressed similarly — though in darker colors — and acted as the event’s MC.
Jasmaine had just arrived, as she explained, from the past. For about an hour she guided the participants through an imaginative exercise to envision what might be the future.
For the sisters, this is normal.
“What you watched was how we dressed up as kids and worked out issues we were having at home,” said Jasmaine, after the 90-minute event ended. “This is the bigger version of home.”
Fourteen selected participants were asked to sit in a circle around two chairs facing each other. Jasmaine walked the circle and tapped two of them, gesturing them into the chairs. There, they would be asked to talk with each other about a particular topic:
“If you were in a boat crossing the Middle Passage, would you jump or sail?”
After five minutes, the two were called back to their seats, and another two would be tapped.
“If the election does not go the way you want, will you be for revolution or reform?”
“How do you benefit from your position within the caste — the caste being the arbitrary bones that hold our society together?”
The event was inspired in part by the event of the past six months, including the uprisings in the name of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the appearance of a white vigilante mob in Fishtown that marched right outside Cook’s book store, the violently threatening email she received, and — perhaps most profoundly — by the publication of “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson. The nonfiction book released in August to much acclaim traces the history and sociology of race in America as a kind of arbitrary caste system.
“Isabel Wilkerson is asking very clearly for folks to break the caste,” said Jeannine. “She’s saying, the folks from this dominant caste don’t spend time with folks from other castes. Therefore they are not having authentic dialogue.”
“OK, so: Do something about it,” she said.
The participants were given prompts to be able to share, in a semi-public environment, their own biases and implicit emotional leanings, with a complete stranger. The rest of the audience was ordered not to speak or make any sound. If they wished to applaud at any time, everyone was given a black handkerchief to wave in the air.
In the dimly lit room, no one appeared to be looking into the glow of their cell phone. Everyone was focused on the theater-in-the-round in the center of the room.
“Your senses are on 1,000 at that point,” said Jeannine. “Now you’re able to take in information in a whole new way.”
Jasmaine took issue with the current culture of “wokeness,” of being aware of the injustices, both intentional and unintentional, in the world. She suggested staying hyper-aware of the current state of injustice does not allow a person to transcend it.
“When you stay woke, that is insomnia,” she said. “We are a land full of insomniacs who have forgotten how to dream.”
The event referred to a quote often misattributed to Harriet Tubman: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer.” Whether Tubman actually said that, the spirit of the sentiment pervaded the entire evening.
“What would the world look like if it was what you think the world should be? What would a world without racism look like? What would it sound like?” asked Jeannine. “If nobody’s dreaming right now, you get the results you’re getting.”
After the discussion, the two costumed sisters went outside to Frankford Avenue and led a procession around the corner to the bookstore on Girard Avenue, quietly singing “Wade in the Water.” A police escort followed. Once they reached the bookstore, the crowd quietly dispersed.
Once inside, still in all their finery, Jeannine and Jasmaine said it’s not over.
“This is what I want to dress like from now on,” said Jeannine. “I feel so gorgeous.”
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