By Amy Vu
“Sankofa,” meaning “to go back or take” in a Ghanian language, was the theme for this year’s African-American Cultural Arts Festival at Charlottesville’s Booker T. Washington Park, now in its 22nd year.
For festival organizers and performers, the theme represented their mission to look back at the past in order to better recognize the future ahead.
Lillie Williams was one of the co-chairs of the event that took place the last weekend in July. She said it was a great day of festivities that helped showcase African culture.
“It’s getting the families together and having a good time…there are lots of opportunities to pick up literature for different organizations, so it’s awareness of so many different things,” Williams said.
Williams said the majority of people attending the festival are from Charlottesville and Albemarle County but some came as far away as Harrisonburg.
Baba Jamal Koram, or “Brother Jamal” as he is referred to by many who encounter him, is a storyteller that travels all around the country to spread awareness of African culture, heritage, and traditions. He shared details about the festival’s location, Booker T. Washington Park.
“It’s a historic area. When you go back to the 1930s, even during segregation time, that land was designated for black folks. And so that whole park area, traditionally and historically, is where the African-American community would gather,” said Koram. “Because of the history behind it, it makes it that much more sacred.”
Koram is also very closely tied to the event’s origins. He was involved in sparking several cultural festivals over the past few decades that were instrumental in shaping the African-American Cultural Arts Festival into its current form. These include the Afro-Arts Festival in the 1970s and Sol Fest in the 1980s, which he co-founded.
Koram’s commitment and dedication to the festival were rooted in his mission to spread awareness of African culture and history within the community.
“We felt it necessary not only to display culture but to honor those that have come before us as well as give folks an opportunity to gather in a cultural environment that includes all aspects of African and African-American culture,” he said.
Koram was joined by a variety of other artists such as dance troupes and soul musicians to, in a sense, invigorate an African cultural spirit into those that attended the festival. A wide variety of food was also available for people to enhance their social and cultural experiences.
Community members even got the chance to sample authentic African cuisine two days before the actual festival, at a separate gathering called Taste of Ghana. It seemed to be scheduled as somewhat of a preview to the main event. Organizers emphasized that Taste of Ghana would provide more than just food for the body; they also wanted to infuse food for the soul.
“It used to just be you just ate but we started bringing more of an educational element to it,” said Executive Director of the Quality Community Council Karen Waters. “We see the Taste of Ghana as a great vehicle to educate the community as well as provide a social opportunity for people to enjoy each other and learn about a different culture.”
Waters, who hosted Taste of Ghana, led the audience through a variety of activities and presentations. The goal was to spread awareness of Ghanaian traditions and encourage attendees take home knowledge that could enrich their lives.
“What we have tried to bring to the Taste of Ghana QCC mission is to improve the quality of life in city neighborhoods and we work heavily in the area of prevention and wellness,” Waters said.
In addition to the entertainment and food, there was also a great focus on prevention and wellness in terms of health. Dr. Marcus Martin, Vice President and Chief Officer of Diversity and Equity at the University of Virginia, is knowledgeable about these elements given his background in emergency medicine.
“The important thing about the health fair is it’s an opportunity to interact with a captive audience of hundreds of people who are mingling at the African-American Cultural Arts Festival,” said Martin.
“The other important thing about this too is that it’s not only African-Americans that are at this festival. We have individuals from all races and it’s an opportunity to do screening in the context of preventive medicine,” he added.
The Community Health Fair held in conjunction with the African-American Cultural Arts Festival offered a variety of services including screenings for high blood pressure, diabetes and mammography. These tests can be essential in terms of prevention and treatment.
Click on the audio file below to hear Dr. Martin discuss the importance of community health fairs.
“It’s very important because, I believe it was last year, but a person…came and got their blood sugar and blood pressure checked and was actually asked to go to the hospital so it’s wonderful what they do. People respond. The booth is busy all day,” said Williams.
They weren’t alone. Hundreds of people came out and took part in the cultural experience from the time festivities kicked off at 8:30 a.m. until doors closed at 7:30 p.m. Williams hopes that festival attendees can take home valuable information from the 11-hour affair.
“In using knowledge gained about heritage and cultural connections from the past and fusing it will awareness of present opportunities, the hope is that festival attendees will possess an ample amount of resources to advance themselves into a successful and peaceful future,” she said.