African Arts Festival Celebrates and Reflects on Identity

Destiny Africa, a children’s choir and dance group based in Kampala, Uganda perform using traditional songs, dance and drumming. (Photo by Solwazi Afi Olusola, via Amsterdam News)

Two New York-based papers focusing on the black community, Our Time Press and Amsterdam News, used the occasion of the 41st annual International African Arts Festival earlier this month in Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park to reflect on black identity today in America. The five-day festival, complete with music, dance, food, and crafts, also included a symposium on issues affecting Africans across the globe.

Turnout for this year’s festival was noticeably low, reported Hannington Dia for the Amsterdam News, but those that attended saw the event as an opportunity to immerse themselves in the many cultures of Africa.

“It is not as strong as it was years ago, I guess because of the times that we live in. A lot of the people just don’t have money,” said Ron Anderson, a volunteer attending his 32nd African Arts Festival. “But you see the traditional people. I’ve seen people come year after year after year to buy their stuff [here]. It’s the first place that I’ve seen Black women of all shapes, all sizes, all colors—and that’s a joy because you don’t usually see that around the city. This is the one place you can come and you can see that.”

The Department of Corrections worker says the festival helps Black people broaden their views. “People are just not aware of what goes on. They don’t see the type of material, the type of clothing in the regular stores, and if they come here, they see them from countries like Nigeria and Morocco. They just don’t go out of the box,” said Anderson.

For Basir Mchawi, chairman and founder of the festival, the event is an opportunity to reconsider the racial identity of those in the African diaspora — which may mean dropping one side of the hyphen.

“Back when we started 41 years ago, people were not in the habit of referring to people who were descendants of slaves living in North America as ‘African,’” said Mchawi. “So we began to popularize that in terms of just the name. Not long after, people started referring to themselves as ‘African-American.’ We don’t refer to ourselves as African-American because we feel that is in some ways kind of limiting.”

The question of nationality extends to other Diasporic locales. “People from the Caribbean, they don’t see themselves as being African-American. When you talk to African people from the continent, very often, they don’t see themselves as being African-American. So we use ‘African’ as being that term that connects us to where we all are actually from.”

Our Time Press focused on the symposium, which kicked off the event from its location at P.S. 287 in Fort Greene, directly across from the park. In its 23rd year, the forum, organized by the National Association of Kawaida Organizations, included Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News and Democracy Now!; musician Kojo Ade and Councilmember Jumaane Williams.

“We had a fabulous lineup, but low turnout,” said Bok-Keem Nyerere one of the organizers of NAKO and the symposium. “I think that the election of Obama has affected some of the activism in the black community.”

Nyerere touched upon the idea that the once-thriving African-American activist community might not be as enthusiastic as they once were now that there is a black man in the nation’s highest office. But he did not blame the low turnout on that fact alone.

“The guests we had spoke very well about their topics and it’s been very informative and good, but we just needed more people. Without the people you can’t really push ahead on certain issues,” he said.

Another one of the symposiums’ notable guests, John Watusi Branch, co-founder of The Afrikan Poetry Theatre, touched upon the low turnout.

“We invite people who support the whole concept of community struggle here. We’ve had more people in the past, but lately not so much. Perhaps it’s because it was a hot day.”

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