This past Labor Day weekend marked an opportunity to experience Black Raleigh in full force at the ninth annual African American Cultural Festival of Raleigh and Wake County. Though the numbers aren’t in yet, an estimated forty thousand people participated in the festival this year. Artists came from as far as Denver and New Jersey, as well as from down the road in Greensboro and Goldsboro.
coordinator for the last six years, says the activities and programs were designed to cultivate a sense of community and provide a ‘family-friendly event.” And from accounts, tweets, Instagram, and FB postings, they succeeded.
Lending a helping hand were over 240 volunteers of diverse backgrounds, including Drea from Durham. She struck funny poses for my camera as she sold festival t-shirts and waited for her boyfriend to return from scoping out the various food vendors. This was Drea’s second year as a volunteer and her boyfriend’s first time attending. I asked her the obvious question: What would she say to non-African Americans like herself who might think this event is not for them?
“I would tell them that
all types of people here, and it’s a way to soak up some culture and really learn about other people, and just be part of the community,” she replied.
The idea of community is what drew me out—and my own personal need to connect with a critical mass of African Americans. Since coming to Raleigh in 2010, I have found the black presence elusive and scattered. Although African Americans comprise 29.3 percent of the city’s population, their presence is rarely visible.
Sometimes, I just want to be surrounded by the magic of black culture. So on Meetup, I volunteered to sit at the table for the Triangle Friends of African American Arts on Saturday, the first day of the festival. In the process, I got to meet new people, observe interactions, and make the decision to volunteer next year for the festival itself.
I experienced personal joy seeing an event that catered to every age group, from young children who could create masks or get their face painted (lots of Black Panther faces in the crowd) to seniors. The festival has become a destination event for African Americans and anyone who appreciates art, music, and exposure to different cultures’ foods, clothing, jewelry, and books.
According to David Baker, a local attorney and chair of the AACF board of directors, the notion of community keeps expanding and is reflected in the range of vendors and the types of programming at the festival. He described the festival’s vision this way: “We see Raleigh as the largest family reunion; at the festival, we’re all family, and we are mindful of keeping a family-friendly environment.” This focus has led to the decision not to serve alcohol; it might be a money maker, but those in charge of the festival feel it would change the atmosphere.
“There is a delicate balance,” Baker told me. “We want to see [the festival] grow, and one of our challenges is raising money each year. But it is a question of how to do that without losing the quality and character of the festival. For example, I attended the festival in Baltimore and found it very commercial. Here, we want people to experience blackness in an authentic way—young, old, family—positive energy, a place of peace.”
The catalysts for the AACP’s development nearly a decade ago were the departure of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament, where local HBCUs like Shaw and St. Augustine competed; and the failure to secure the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference, of which N.C. Central and Winston-Salem State were members. Both of these events draw large African-American audiences.
The city, led by then-mayor Charles Meeker, council member Eugene Weeks, and others, supported the AACP in an effort to fill the void left by the CIAA and MEAC with Raleigh’s own destination event.
The festival showcases Durham’s and Raleigh’s African-American cultural history and lifts up their present. There are spaces to learn a bit more about that history at locations like the Pope House Museum, which is only open on Saturdays. This little gem tucked away on South Wilmington Avenue is not in the festival’s footprint, but there was signage (literally shoes) that led me there. I learned that the museum was once the home of Raleigh’s first black doctor and the first black candidate to run for mayor in the early 1900s. Shaw Univesity is down the street from Pope House, but it seemed to have no real connection to festival events this year.
Vendors and artists who attended the AAFC told me they were satisfied with the results, which sometimes had very little to do with making money.
At least, that’s what Barton Hatcher of Greensboro said. Here for the second year, he says that while “showing my art is very important to me, I want to be here to take in the culture. I will be back next year.” His commitment was echoed by African vendor Lillian Danieli’s, owner of Nashona Boutique in Goldsboro; she had found just the right spot to display and sell her fashions from Tanzania, “sewn with love” by women there whom she employs. Her profits from this event support a sewing enterprise and an orphanage.
festival coordinator for the last six years, sums up the experience best: The festival “reminds me of how important it is to make sure we stay together, all backgrounds, not just African Americans, all backgrounds, just making sure that we keep that sense of togetherness, because that’s the only way we can keep things moving forward, if we work together.”
Irma McClaurin is a freelance writer, anthropologist, and served as president of Shaw University from 2010–11.