I made a mistake last week when I decided to travel to Chicago on Memorial Day to attend the annual African Arts Festival.
I should have gone on Friday, and stayed the entire weekend.
If you’re into Black art, diverse entertainment and endless product tents selling everything from the latest fashion to antique African crafts, the Arts Festival was the place to be.
And even if none of that floats your boat, the festival offered something priceless: the necessary ingredients to rejuvenate your cultural soul.
Some might say the Arts Festival was short on big name entertainers this year. That’s true, but only if you are unfamiliar with the Africentric cultural offerings of groups like Tambours Sans Frontieres, Aniba Hotep and the Sol Collective, or Morikeba Kouyae.
Of course, the African Arts Festival takes a back seat to the R&B and jazz performers who headline at African World Festival, but there were many ‘B’ list talent at the Arts Festival, including Avant and Chicago’s own Chaka Khan.
But the music is but a small part of what draws over 250,000 African Americans to the Chicago festival each year.
You could also criticize the parking situation at the festival. While the Summerfest grounds provide ample parking for African World Festival, the Chicago festival is held at Washington Park, and it’s not unusual for patrons to be forced to park several blocks away.
When it comes to the diversity of and shear number of product booths, Chicago has Milwaukee beat, even if you exclude merchants who usually travel to Milwaukee for our AFW. (One of those merchants told me that while he enjoyed the AFW, he makes far more money at Chicago’s four-day festival.) And of course the Arts Festival is light years ahead of Milwaukee when it comes to art.
What most prominently separates Chicago’s festival from Milwaukee’s is the art. Display after display after display of some of the finest and most intriguing Black art beaconed both the serious collector and the purely inquisitive.
From E. McCrary to Gabriel Ajayi, to my personal favorite, Donavan McLean, you could literally spend an entire day visiting the exhibits of some of Black America’s finest artists. And you could spend another day listening to their artistic motivations; their interpretation of Black life through pencil, paint and various unlikely materials such as wood, record albums and paper.
Black art is about Black life, and the festival provided a tapestry of creation that at times boggled the mind.
Many students and admirers of Black art travel from through out the Midwest solely for the art. It was well worth the journey.
But toss aside those comparisons when it comes to the foundation on which both festivals stand. Both festivals are grounded in African American/African culture, Black unity and pride, and sociopolitical bedrock that transcends economics, religion and educational attainment.
In that respect, African World Festival and the African Arts Festival are strikingly similar. There is an underpinning ambiance at both festivals that pricks the consciousness of participants. Interestingly, the festivals share a similar history, a similar plight and a similar level of community support.
Not by coincidence, the Arts Festival underwent the same financial crisis that all but led to the collapse of our festival three years ago.
Taki Raton, the noted Milwaukee historian and educator who maintains his ties to his native Chicago, told me the Arts Festival faced the possibility of going under last year. Only because the community responded with support, did the festival continue its 20-year run.
Milwaukee’s festival faced a similar fate, and as a result went on a two-year hiatus before returning this year with a single day attendance that equaled the last three-day festival.
Some say this year’s Arts Festival was slightly abbreviated, but from my vantage point it was as large and culturally diverse as it has been in past years.
There were literally blocks of tents offering a variety of goods, cultural items and community services. There was a tent offering a book reading sponsored by Third World Books, and dozens of information tents offering festival patrons with everything from African cooking to health education.
After attending a lecture on healthy eating habits, and another soliciting support signatures for the creation of an African television network, I stopped at a tent where the sponsors were collecting signatures for a concealed carry petition. (Yeah, I signed it after hearing strong arguments for righteous people to protect themselves and their community. It was the first time I’ve seen Black people lobbying for concealed carry.)
Another area hosted a daylong drumming exhibit. From a single beat, drummers, professional and amateur, would join in, adding and expanding the beat.
It was like an impromptu jazz session, although in this case, the infectious drumming continued throughout the day.
Almost as if it were orchestrated, sisters and brothers would amplify the experience through modified African dance. That’s not as strange as it may seem, since the blood of Mother Africa flows though our veins. In many respects, you could see the influence of African dance in every African American dance from the lindy hop to the wobble.
Even brothers and sisters who were ignorant of our roots, found themselves intoxicated by the drumbeats that provided a musical ambiance and backdrop throughout Washington Park. Truly, the heartbeat of Africa transcends time and distance.
Obviously, the worse form of slavery known to mankind, and the resulting efforts to strip from us our religion, culture and language, could not kill the African drumbeat. It may be deeply engrained in our subconscious, but it’s there, and if awakened could spark a cultural metamorphosis.
The Arts Festival, like AWF has become a super large family reunion.
I not only ran into Taki at Washington Park (which is appropriately located next to the famous DuSable Museum), but Judge Russell and Libby Stamper, and Mark Wade, the president of AFW who masterfully orchestrated the return of our festival this year. Mark said he was there to take notes, to converse with organizers and to build bridges between Chicago and Milwaukee.
But there was something offered at the festival that Milwaukee also had in abundance.
Both ethnic festivals provide something for conscientious Black Americans that is absent in our daily lives. Call it a fraternity of brotherhood, a cultural grounding or maybe a spiritual fellowship. It is something I immersed myself in earlier this summer while attending AFW. Years ago I felt it at the Million Man March.
I first encountered it in the jungles of Vietnam, where I never felt alone or in danger because no two Black men ever passed each other without greeting each other. There was a bond among the brothers in Nam that easily transcended uniforms.
It was a unique comradery of spirits, a connectiveness that we absorbed through non-verbal communications. Call it an aura of brotherhood, a family tie, or even a spiritual bond. Whatever you call it, it was evident at the Milwaukee and Chicago festivals.
Throughout the day at the Arts Festival strangers greeted us as if we were their next-door neighbors. They greeted us with the title of brother or sister. They speak to you in a dialect that transcends language.
And you could feel a sense of caring and sharing that made you feel part of a collective. It was a special bond that has transcended the Diaspora, something that links us to the Motherland.
Just as AFW is the ‘meeting place,’ the African Arts Festival is also a gathering of like-minded African Americans, comfortable tugging on our cultural string, united by brotherhood, a common link to the cradle of civilization.
The arts festival was like water to a thirsty man. Except in this case, as with AFW, it is not H2O that quenches our thirst, but brotherhood.
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