The Africa in April Festival Creates a Culture of Learners | 3/11/2009, 7 p.m.

“It was like a family meeting,” said his wife, Yvonne. “We began with a number too small to count.  We had faith and we had hope -- faith that it would continue to grow.”

The festival has grown into a four-day event that draws approximately 60,000 people to Beale Street and Robert R. Church Park. The 2009 Africa In April festival will honor the Republic of Mauritania. It kicks off Thursday, April 16, and runs through Sunday, April 19.

An African American studies college professor well-known for his traditional African hats and dashikis, Acey said the festival was an extension of their belief that cultural education is the root of self-knowledge.

That concern deepened after he, his wife, and Dr. Nkosi Ajanaku, founder of the Future America Basic Research Institute (formerly the Ajanaku African American Research Institute), attended an African-American studies conference hosted by the National Association of Black Educators, which focused on why African-American children were not learning at the same rate as others.  

“They (African-American children) were not represented in the body of knowledge they were studying.  There was no cultural education, even in black schools,” Acey said. “We wanted to bridge the gap, educate them about our history and culture.  But, how?”

Dr. Nkosi, working with Acey and others, launched the project in 1985.  Acey said they decided upon a festival because it allows them to showcase music, dance, pageantry and history.  They selected April because, as Acey explains, it is the month when “everything is being born and coming into season.”  

April is also the month before the Memphis In May International Festival.  Yvonne Acey said the idea was not to compete with MIM but to offer an alternative for African Americans.

Dr. Karanja A. Ajanaku, now executive editor of the Tri-State Defender, was also among the early members working on the project.  

“We just felt that more African Americans might participate in cultural festivals, such as Memphis in May, if they knew more about their own history. Thus it made sense for the new festival to precede Memphis in May,” he said.

So, cultural awareness was and is central to the AIA’s ethnic and educational mission -- what Yvonne Acey calls “exposing African Americans to the rich, diverse and grace of African history throughout the African Diaspora.”

Africa is, said David Acey, “the first continent, the first letter of the alphabet, the first person born in the world.”  

Ah, the Africa in April Cultural Awareness Festival!  “It just worked,” he said. “It rolls off the tongue.”

During its history, the festival has honored 19 countries on the continent of Africa, including Senegal and Gambia twice, showcasing the honored country’s history, language, culture and art.  The country’s ambassadors and those of former honorees are invited to help celebrate Africa in April in Memphis.

Sponsored by FedEx, Cummins, Nike, Arts Memphis, Tennessee Arts Commission, Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, Soul Classic 103.5, and Southaven Pontiac as well as City of Memphis, Shelby County Government and the State of Tennessee, this year’s event will have international visitors from Mauritania, Senegal, Togo and Gambia.