Growing up in Baltimore, there was a standard set of festivals that I could rely on every year. My grandmother was my lifeline to Black culture and the arts both. Neither were highly regarded in my childhood home; my love for theater, books, dance, was never appreciated. I couldn’t wait until school ended and the summer months stretched ahead, each month was full of cultural enrichment or art in every format. One of my grandmothers favorite was the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival.
As a treat, my grandmother would often take me to different festivals in the Maryland area, she even dared the “unwelcoming” parts of Maryland, taking me to Annapolis for the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival a few times. As a child, I’m sure it must have looked larger than it really was, perhaps back then it was larger. The late 80’s and early 90’s was a time of great pride in African American & African Heritage, perhaps Black people flocked to Annapolis in droves.
However, that was not the case this past weekend as I left Baltimore and traveled to Annapolis for the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival.
Annapolis is the capitol of Maryland, on the waterfront, it’s also home to the port where many slaves where many Africans were brought into America on slave ships. Kunta Kinte was one of the slaves brought in through the Annapolis port, that is why his great, great, great grandson, Alex Haley, who told the story of Kinte’s family, is honored with a statue there.
As we drove into Annapolis, which is not a very big town, my driver got nervous at the lack of Black faces. He made a few comments about the area, one of them being that this is the type of area his father always warned him about. Being a 60-year-old Black man, I understood his feelings but assured him that when we got closer to the festival, the atmosphere would change.
As we got closer to the waterfront, I lost hope. The first thing I noticed as we approached the water near te traffic circle, was a group of white people taking pics with the statue of Haley. Staying optimistic, we looked for a place to park. As we circled the community for 25 minutes looking for parking, we noticed residential parking signs on nearly every street. The signs said that you couldn’t park on the street any longer than 2 hours without a permit. The city has one large public lot, we parked on the upper level, which luckily had space. By the time we left the parking garage was full.
Walking through the waterfront area, we were confused as to where the festival was, there was no signage along main street, no signage near the status of Alex Haley, no signage in any visible place. As we walked, we finally saw that towards the actual dock, removed from the busy activity and hundreds of people on main street, was the festival.
Upon walking into the festival area, disappointment immediately started to set in. There was a vendor’s area set up near the front, you walked through them before reaching the welcome table. At the welcome table sat three women volunteers, non-smiling and looking like they were forced to be there. There was no activity in the opening area, no festivities. A banner welcomed you, but otherwise, there was no indication that there was a celebration happening.
The allotted area for the festival was larger than the people who filled the space. I tried to not feel discouraged. I was hungry, I didn’t leave before I left the house because to me, festival means food. I just knew I’d be able to get some authentic African food, my heart was set on Samosas particularly. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I entered the food vending area. There were so few food vendors that other vendors were actually set up there. In fact, there was so few food vendors that there were only 2 actual food trucks. Besides the two food trucks, there were three food stands, one from a local church and another selling some African and some Jamaican cuisine. Other than the stand with the basic African and Jamaican cuisine, there was no other cultural food. I ended up getting a rib platter at the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival, I was mad but the food was good.
There were plenty of vendors but not enough people to buy from them.
As far as entertainment, I was confused. I saw two stages advertised but try as I might, I only saw one. I’d hate to think I missed something but there was one visible stage and surely no music coming from any other direction. The entertainment was so-so, I can’t say it was bad because some of it was very entertaining, but there was nothing I’d tell people it’s a shame they missed, at least while I was there.
In fact, the entertainment highlight for me, was a group of senior citizen line dancers. Their spirit was so strong and beautiful, one of the women even had an oxygen tank. I loved it. Speaking of senior citizens, that was the demographic. I was hard pressed to find people My age or younger out enjoying the festivities. There weren’t many families. Not that everyone there was geriatric but the demographic was primarily 40 and up.
As I left the festival, which felt more obligatory than heartfelt, a client called and asked to meet with me in downtown. Baltimore. I agreed and arrived almost a full hour early. I had forgotten that the Baltimore Book festival was happening at the same time.
The Baltimore Book Festival, though always a popular local attraction, recently became a huge tourist attractions, and attracted a more diverse local audience as well. Until a few years ago, the festival had been in the Mount Vernon area, now it’s held at the Inner Harbor Baltimore’s biggest tourist area. There were thousands of people around the harbor, thousands, literally, of all race, age and nationality.
There was a food court as well as individual vendors along the festivals allotted space. The entertainment lineup was crazy. There were multiple stages, some for panel discussions, some for cooking demonstration, some for meet the author type things, poetry, and the main stage boasted non-stop entertainment.
Not only is this festival widely attended, funded, and sponsored for 3 full days, but it’s widely advertised because it’s a major money maker for the city. I found myself wondering why so little advertisement is done throughout the Maryland area for the Kunta Kinte Festival, like the book festival, it’s a city event.
No one I talked to in my own circle knew about the festival, even as I talked about going people asked was that it’s real name. Odd for a 28th year anniversary. Now I’ll admit, though there was a little over 100 people (maybe) there, Annapolis is a predominately white area, it very well could have been every local Black in attendance. My mind couldn’t help but ponder though what the turn out would be if the festival was advertised in Baltimore, where there are millions of Blacks, or nearby P.G. County, a predominately Black community right outside of D.C.
I know, and the Annapolis government and community all know, that if Black people actually KNEW about the festival, there’d be a different outcome. I bet that’s what they fear, what would this community do with so many “outsiders” in a place where the parking signs make it clear you’re not welcome before you can even make it out your car.
I told my friend, next year, I’m renting a bus and organizing community trips out there. Next year, I encourage you all to stand up and show out as vendors and entertainment both. I had actually applied to be a vendor at the Baltimore Book festival this year but was told I couldn’t have the day I wanted and refused to accept the day offered. Only because I was turned down, did I have the time to even attend the Kunta Kinte Festival, for that I’m grateful. Next year, I know where I’ll be setting up my table. I hope to see you there.
www.KuntaKinte.org to keep up with when registration opens.