This, my friends, is my main event. In 2017 the African World Festival celebrated its 35th year, and I’ve never missed one – from its early days on Downtown sidewalks, to many years on Hart Plaza, to now. For the last three years, it’s at its best location (IMO), at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History. It is like a giant, three day, family reunion.
I wait for this like Christmas, and I do much of my best shopping of the year with the vendors here. It is a cacophony of smells and sounds – all kinds of incense in the air, all kinds of foods, soaps, oils, all genres of Black music – all at one time. Motown and Michael Jackson dominate the daytime sounds, and Gospel concerts take center stage. World music is live and the night concerts feature acts of the diaspora.
Most of all there’s African drumming that can be heard over all of the sounds and music in every corner of the fest, a throwback to the times when enslaved drummers sent messages and codes across plantations, back to the percussive sounds of Africa where the drum spoke in languages and tongues.
It’s usually hot the third weekend in August; hot the way we like it, and most years there’s a hard rain that slows things down for a while – but rarely closes the festival. In 2017, there was not a drop all weekend, the skys bright and dry. The vendors, most from various parts of Africa, are like sentries, guarding not only their wares, but protecting their genetic, existential dignity, the old ways deep in our collective DNA. They observe us as much as we watch them, our differences a chasm, but our sameness striking, resonant.
The fest is elder-friendly, unlike much of the offerings in the “new Detroit”, (and much of the old); lots of seating on the grass and under tents give the older folks a place to rest and people watch, to take in the exhibitions of dance, martial arts, and crafts. At this 2017 fest, two tiny girls were tasked with handing flowers to the elders; the calls on the stage to honor the ancestors and older ones among us is the rule of the three days.
As I, year by year, make my way closer to the elderlife, I appreciate the effort to provide comfort for those with tired bodies and sore feet, like mine.
Contrary to the belief of some that such a thing is impossible, in the throngs of Black humanity there are few, if any, negative “incidents” – no crime or havoc of which to speak; especially now that the fest is at the venerated Charles Wright Museum. The festival is strikingly safe – with virtually no visible police presence. I believe that the very presence of the Africans – silent, watchful, generational – is an unspoken admonishment to do no wrong, and forms the spiritual basis of the self-policing that marks the festival’s peaceful days.
Years ago, I witnessed a vendor who caught a kid stealing an item, and her chastisement – in her African-accented English – so sharply punctuated the din of the fest, that the kid was immediately surrounded by the other nearby African vendors – who shamed him into turning loose the item in his hand. No guns, no handcuffs, no killing; a collective, primordial slap of the village’s hand.
On the other hand, I often witness vendor moments that disallow the tendency to romantize our African visitors – like when a man from Senegal, spectacularly dressed in long robes and a tall, wrapped turban in his head, regal as a king – calmly, at the end of the festival day, pulled off his voluminous garments, and revealed that underneath he had on sharply pressed designer jeans, and a sports jacket and beret. He walked away – a completely western-dressed man.
It seems that more suburban Blacks and Detroiters – who long ago eschewed coming into crowds in the city – are attending the fest since its move to the museum – and are often agog at the convivial atmosphere and lack of “trouble” amidst our people. This bespeaks the profound division of classes and the rending of our communities, by systemic reversals that have engendered crime and dysfunction in our neighborhoods, often on the basis of class.
The destruction of entire communities for “urban renewal”, causing destabilizing exoduses, the freeways that chopped neighborhoods into dying segments; the collateral damage of the 67 rebellion – never repaired or revitalized; the foreclosure crisis that decimated entire areas; the drugs pumped into them, wreaking mayhem, crime and death – this is the reality of good portions of Detroit. The African World Festival at the Charles Wright is a revival of a vibrant, dynamic public life that was the norm at one time, before these forces devastated so many of our spaces.
The museum itself, an edifice constructed to evoke the rounded tribal homes of cultures in the motherland, looms as an ancestral bulwark against the lower energies that can plague our gatherings, its Africanesque dome rising over the packed, vibrant crowds as a call to home and higher ground. The African World Festival at the Charles H. Wright is a place for the affirmation of our better selves, in the face of the animus around us.
It is a weekend of Detroiters at our best – our most resplendent, our most diverse, our most conscious, our most musical, our most rhythmic, our most colorful, our most educated, our most creative, our most considerate, our most beautiful, our most regal, our most mannerable, our most welcoming, our most dignified – even in ignorance, poverty and affliction – that is, our most Black Detroit.
It is a celebration of our African-ness, with many of us in our African styled finery, reveling in our aesthetic bloodlines. Even folks not prone to wear regalia don a printed scarf, a dashiki, an afro for the weekend. It is a celebration of our African-Americanness, the jubilation of witnessing the evidence of our collective beauty, experiences and survival in this land.
Then there’s dance – the entire weekend filled with a diaspora of movement, from revelers bringing wood boards on which to tap, to college kids whose amazing “step” routines honor fraternity and sorority, to huge crowds with long Hustle line dances, parading our collective rhythmicality reminiscent of tribal dances of the Mother Land. There is salsa, rhumba, Zumba, martial arts and children’s ballet. Elders set aside generational judgement and watch hip hop dancers with pride, and in 2017 there was no more “hard/gangsta” rap, making the fest even more family friendly, yet still electric.
All weekend, folks dance to techno and beat music in tight whorls of onlookers crowded ’round. Through it all, there is African dance, the baseline of our movement – on the stages, in parades through the crowds led by whirling stilt walkers, in spontaneous outbursts of the Black body free to be – just be.
The works of the hand are celebrated with demonstrations of needlework, quilting, painting, sculpting and carving – my husband demonstrates his own cane and staff making for the amazed crowds. A fabulous fashion show onstage diverts the attention from the defacto fashion show on the grounds, teeming all weekend with Black style.
It is no small irony that this is one of the most divided weekends of the region. The African World Fest is at one end of Woodward Ave. – with Blacks and a relative handful of Whites; and the suburban Dream Cruise, an iconic car show on steroids, is at the other end – overwhelmingly White, with a relative handful of Blacks. Some local news stations incessantly broadcast the Dream Cruise with nary a mention of the African fest, as if the cruise were the only event in town; incongruously – and every obviously – ignoring the very existence of the massive African World Fest – one of the largest single venue festivals in the city.
But we know, and by word of mouth – and now social media – we keep coming, year after year. There is now a vintage car show at the African Fest as well, and though it is a small collection of fine old autos, it’s a nod to the obvious – our people love old cars, too (that we played such a great part in making).
I love the new location at the Charles Wright, it is even more family friendly than at Hart Plaza. The cool green grass on the museum grounds makes for a great play space for kids – some of whom never get a chance to roll down a grassy hill – and it’s a relaxing concert venue. Having the fest at the museum allows many in the community – who might never visit – to come in, cool off, and explore the exhibits for free. Every year there is a special show of spectacular African-American made quilts.
There is another marked difference with the venue changed to the Charles Wright – knuckleheads who streamed into Hart Plaza at late night – prone to offense if jostled in the crowds, cranked up with negative energy – have stayed away from the new Museum setting. There is something about it that attracts the young but repels the gangstas, and that is a good thing. Perhaps some will be drawn to the new locale and be persuaded to change by the positive energy.
Juanita Moore was the President and CEO of the Charles H. Wright, Charles Ferrell, Director of Public Programming, and the festival is produced each year by the venerable Njia Kai and her staff and volunteers. They head an effort that is of monumental importance in our community. In 2019 there is a new CEO Neil A. Barclay and hopefully the festival will continue as an annual community ritual.
For the African World Festival is more than just music, more than shopping, more than African clothes. It is the much needed resurrection of the old street life of our city, a needed gathering affirmation of our attributes and glory. We have forgotten what it was like to engage with ourselves on crowded streets. The festival is a throwback to the days of intense, vibrant public connection; a weekend capture of the zeitgeist of long-gone Detroit places and times.
It is the old 12th Street, the old Linwood, the old Dexter; the old West Side, the old Conant, the old Hastings; the old Paradise Valley; the old Black Bottom, the old Kercheval and Pennsylvania. Reminiscent of the time when we strutted our stuff on our packed streets, ran our own businesses, meandered up and down our blocks and stood on the corners – singing and styling and looking at our awesome, creative, hustling and bustling selves. No wonder the Big Four police would run us off of our public squares, so powerful we were.
The African World Festival takes us back to the time of public demonstrations of The Village, the collective watching of children, the respect for our myriad ways of being, for our different religions – Gospel music plays on stage, while Muslims line up to pray. We revel, as we pass one another in queues packed tight in the festival’s corridors, in our mutual admiration of our creativity and comeliness.
Now – more than ever – it is a much needed respite from the hate spewed at us, reaching us through televisions and computer screens and right in our faces. At the same time, the festival is the very definition of inclusion – a reflection of the majority Black city that absorbs and gives welcome to others who come to live among us.
I always give a social media shout-out, inviting white friends to the African Fest; for many may not know if they are welcome at such an expressly Black event. Indeed, Black folks at the fest treat Whites and others who come with unfailing welcome, and these visitors – increasingly “new Detroiters,” need to see us in an environment other than in isolation from our majority, or in the midst of ruination and dystopia – to see and enjoy the “real” Detroit, in all of its glory.
The African World Festival – located in gentrifying Midtown – is the only space where, for three days, Whites might experience a more realistic sense of their actual numbers in the city, a three-day sea of Detroit Blackness – perhaps a discomfiting reason for their relative small numbers at the fest. But it is well worth a visit by all, for it is an affirmation of why Detroit was viewed as a mecca for Black people all over the world, the wellspring of two international genres of music – Motown and Techno, and home to some of the friendliest people in the world.
The African World Festival is one of the greatest events of the year, always on the third weekend of August, and we revel in all of our colors, at our very Detroit best. Long Live The African World Fest!
Shopping at the African World Fest
The AWE is a treasure trove of jewelry and garments, not all African inspired, and you can find something from 5 bucks to hundreds of dollars. Back in the day, in the fest’s early years, it was more of a Black artist’s fair, and it evolved over the years to feature some of the finest artists vending, from Detroit and beyond.
Many African art collections were built from the AWF. Over time, however, the challenging economics in the area disallowed the development of new serious collectors, and increasingly, many buyers (folks from the community) could only afford trinkets and inexpensive wares. Most vendors adjusted accordingly, and years there was a glut of cheap products, often the same commercial goods in multiple booths, with just a few art and antiques dealers. Nevertheless, over the years I have done some of my best shopping at the AWF.
Today, the organizers are establishing a good balance, and have curated a buying experience ranging from inexpensive items to higher end collectibles and wearable art. Designers and artists are making their way back to the African World Fest. At the Artist’s Village pavilion, from whence the Black & white Charles McGhee installation, United We Stand, rises, select artists display their works and exhibit their crafts. During the 2015, 2016, and 2017 festivals, my husband, master wood carver David Philpot, demonstrated his art in the Artists Village. He passed in 2018; he’s carving in that big festival in the sky.
Friday is for vendor reconnaissance, for looking about and seeing who has arrived and who has returned from last year. Some vendors have set up shop at the festival for decades, and I am festival friends with many. We scout the tents and determine what goods to come back for during the rest of the weekend – and what we better buy right away, lest it be gone soon. Saturday is for the deep dive, a whole day devoted to the music and food – and negotiating with the vendors.
Sunday is the culmination of the three-day fest. For those of us die-hard Festivalistas, we wake up Sunday – feet hurting, hoarse from talking so loud all day over the music and din, a slight headache from so much sun and noise, hungry because we wouldn’t eat right, with so much walking around (though there’s good food). We are getting broke and trying to figure out if we can eek out a couple more treasures, or trying to figure out what other bill we can pay late. We black belt shoppers are looking for last day deals, or items that our eagle eyes somehow missed. We’re getting ready for the real, last negotiations with the vendors – AND READY TO GET BACK ON THE FESTIVAL ROAD!
The last night is a fever of money and music, a frenzy of last minute earrings and art.
Long Live the African World Festival!