Leisure Features

Dorothy About Town: 6.5.19

A few years ago, I noticed something going on at the World’s Fair Pavilion from a distance. It was teeming with people, music, merchandise and food. I found out it was St. Louis’ annual African Arts Festival. That was the first time I’d heard of the event, even though it’s been held since 1991. So this year, I became part of the jumble of people milling around up there, soaking in the cultural experience.

For three days every Memorial Day weekend, Forest Park’s southeastern corner becomes a showplace of our African American community. The idea is to represent the breadth of that community’s heritage, showing off everything from North African bellydancing to the food culture of Zambia. And while browsing colorful fabrics and savoring jollof rice and yam pudding is fun, the big takeaway—especially for someone who does not share this heritage—is connecting to it at a more visceral level.

Why is it important to showcase African storytelling, jewelry beading, ointment concocting, face painting and more? And to identify the exact African origins of each art form? These are small ways to reclaim heritages that were violently severed. I realized it was not dissimilar to the Jewish diaspora. In each, an entire people and their continent were uprooted, their cultures decimated. Their progeny are now scattered, and it’s not totally clear what the differences are between, say, Zambian and Senegalese customs, or Romanian and Polish Jewish customs. And while this local festival is primarily a celebration, there is also something mournful about reflecting back on the history of its people.

Reclaiming heritage is important; the past may be gone, but it’s still part of us. This year’s festival theme, Honoring Our Past—Educating and Empowering Our Future, sounds to me like a call to understand the beauty, and even the suffering, of our ancestors while still facing the future with hope.