Q & A: David Acey

The 23rd-annual Africa in April Cultural Awareness Festival takes place April 16th through the 19th at Robert Church Park on Beale Street. Created to raise awareness of diversity and ethnicity in Memphis, the festival is the brainchild of David Acey, a professor of African American Rhetoric and Interracial Communication at the University of Memphis. >>>

What was the original inspiration for Africa in April?

Culture is important to any group, and my wife and I looked around Memphis in 1985 and noticed that every other ethnic group was celebrating its ethnicity: Memphis in May, the Italian Festival, the Greek Festival. We attended a conference and the question was raised: Why aren't African-American students learning at the same pace as others? Teaching students about culture and history, I decided that I needed to take the information that I was presenting in the halls of academia to the rest of the community. We were ahead of our time in being aware of "self." A lot of black people don't know they're African. They've been assimilated and they don't do anything to embrace their culture. If you're a cultureless person, you're not going anywhere. We needed to do something to educate our children about the beauty of Africa.

How is the festival different today than it was in the late-Eighties?

When we first started, we went down to Main Street, dressed in our African clothes. No money, no organization. We caught more hell from black people than anyone else! When they started building the mall a few years later, they told us we had to move. We actually went to Confederate Park one year. We wanted to stay downtown. Sure enough, we got the permit. I got a lot of nasty letters; it was serious business. Everybody came down for that festival. We honored Ghana that year.

It's more diverse now. This is the most diverse festival in Memphis. We draw 50,000 people over three days. We got too big for Beale Street. They wanted to cut off our music at 9 o'clock. Moving to Church Park was the best move we've made.

How do you attract new visitors to the festival?

First of all, we don't charge to get in. We've become an icon all over the United States. Everybody who comes to the festival, they go home to New York or California, and bring people back. The Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau has supported us. Every year it's grown, with more vendors and more music.

Everybody's cutting back, with the economy. ArtsMemphis asked me to put a fence around the festival this year, and charge people for entry. The whole idea was to make the arts accessible, so we're not putting a fence around it. Just wouldn't work. So we're going to have a "Pay What You Can" booth, to help Africa in April continue.

If someone is attending for the first time, what do they need to be sure and see?

We have an African vendors' market place: statues, prints, clothing, jewelry, perfumes, incense. We'll have 12 food vendors: barbecue, chicken, smoothies, Chinese. We're also going to have four dignitaries from African countries here this year. On Thursday [April 16th] we have an international entrepreneurs' luncheon. We invite all our corporate sponsors. The African dignitaries will all be there. I've invited our sponsors to do business with [these African nations].

What can you tell us about this year's honored country, Mauritania?

It's on the west coast of Africa, near the Sahara desert, north of Senegal. Seafood is big there. [Editor's note: In August 2008, the Mauritanian government was overthrown in a military coup.]

This will be the first Africa in April during which we can say the president of the United States had a father from Africa. This is significant.

Absolutely. We produce a souvenir booklet for our luncheon . . . and of course, we'll have an Obama page. Isaac Hayes and Hank Crawford passed, so they'll each have a page, too. We're doing a music tribute to Isaac Hayes at the festival.

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