“I’m here because I needed to be here,” said Wilhemina Brice, referencing her presence Friday at the 34th Annual Africa in April Cultural Awareness Festival – this one held in August as a workaround forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Memphis is my home, and I grew up with Africa in April. We missed last year’s celebration because of COVID-19,” said Brice.
“But so many other things happened. The killing of George Floyd really did something to our souls. But we are resilient people, and the whole world watched. Just look around. We are here, and we are proud of our culture. This is all us.”
It was the second day of the four-day annual affair. A steady flow of festival-goers walked along the paths of Robert R. Church Park, shopping at booths where vendors cheerfully offered African garments, purses, jewelry, house wares and much more.
Like so many other festivals and events large and small, the Africa in April Cultural Awareness Festival, which is run by Executive Director Dr. David L. Acey Sr. and Associate Director Yvonne Acey, had to be skipped in 2020.
“I was so happy to see Africa in April come back this year,” said Brice. “My heart is smiling. The first thing I see is a statue of that grand lady at the Ida B. Wells Plaza, overseeing the festival today. That is history. African drums were beating at one of the booths when I entered. Two young brothers selling their Italian Ice were playing hip-hop, and down along the curve, they are playing old-school, R&B. This is all so wonderful. This is us.”
This year’s celebration runs Sunday. Each year, a different African country is celebrated, with Botswana honored for 2021.
Native Memphian Jessica Grace, a food vendor, said she just had returned from New York.
“I’ve been doing this on and off for 13 years. I don’t have a restaurant, but I set up for fairs and carnivals, special events, things like that. And this is great. It is the celebration of our culture. I just love being here, even when business is slow.”
Linda Kirkwood runs The Lemon Bar and makes seven kinds of lemonade, including watermelon and black cherry.
“I was living in Memphis, but I moved to Oxford, Mississippi,” said Kirkwood. “This is my first year, and I am really amazed. I love it. I love it. We’re coming together as a people. And that’s what I like, too.”
Patrick Smiley from Atlanta had a booth set up for his online business, Level 3 Apparel.
“This is my first Africa in April event,” said Smiley. “I usually do the Southern Heritage Classic. I’m on all social media platforms – Level 3 Apparel. I love all of this, our people, our culture. It’s cool. It’s really cool.”
Linda Rufus, proprietor of Cassie’s Corner, is from Little Rock. This year she is a festival-goer; next year she plans to be a vendor.
“I came to see if the festival is a good fit for us,” said Rufus. “And it is. I’m just loving it. I’m loving the vibe. I’m loving the atmosphere. I’m loving the people. I’m loving the attire. I’m loving the food. I’m loving it all. I came this year to see how everything flows, and it’s just wonderful.”
Cheikh (pronounced “Shake”) is a vendor living in Atlanta. He brought scented oils to sell.
“I am from New York, but I came up here from Florida to participate,” said Cheikh. “I sell authentic African statues as well. I build professional websites, and I play drums as well. This is my first year, and I’m just checking everything out. It’s all good. It’s all good.”
At one point late in the afternoon, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, radiating the newly-dedicated statue to anti-lynching journalist/activist Ida B. Wells. Just off of the Ida B. Wells Plaza, a man beat on a drum, loud and free. Just inside the place, another man was in a deep sleep.
“Let the brother sleep,” said Brice. “Who knows what he has endured. Now, he’s taking a rest. We are many things. We are resilient. Sometimes, we sleep. I love who we are. I am proud of who we are. ”
The festival unfolded on Thursday (Aug. 5) with the Entrepreneurs Luncheon at the Holiday Inn-University of Memphis.
Friday featured the International Diversity Parade and Children and Seniors’ Day.
Saturday ushered in Health and Wellness & Community Day, with the Blues Showcase set for 6 p.m. to midnight.
International Music Day is Sunday, with activities set for 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Robert R. Church Park is located downtown at Beale Street and Fourth Street.