Saturday wasn’t the first time I’d been to the Denver Black Arts Festival. I went last year and enjoyed watching the Over the Hill Drill Team, among other things (my apologies for the blurry point-and-shoot picture). But this year the 23-year-old festival was under new management and promised change, in the form of the Health Is Wealth Pavilion and the Gift of Green Pavilion. There were also two food courts, as well as numerous arts vendors scattered throughout the park.
I’m not sure the arrangement of the festival in City Park differed from last year’s. It seemed the same to me, but then I did enter from 17th and Colorado this year, instead of walking over from the farmer’s market on Colfax at the esplanade.
I paid the “voluntary” $1 donation at the gate and spent another $2 on a raffle ticket. My first stop was Joda African Village, a discrete area with its own small stage and a few booths. I arrived at the end of M’ Shaka Fusion’s performance and didn’t feel compelled to wait for the next act, so I moved on to the F. Cosmo Harris Gospel Stage, where a dance group was performing to recorded music.
One thing I like about the Black Arts Festival is its location, actually IN a park instead of on the street surrounding a park (like Cinco de Mayo). But if you’re going to put a festival in a park, why not set up stages closer to shady areas so that festival-goers don’t have to hide under umbrellas?
The Black Arts Festival wends its way through City Park from 17th and Colorado toward the lake, with most booths set up along the paved paths and stages in the grass. I stopped for lunch at the Jerk Joint, one of two Caribbean food vendors, for the jerk pork dinner, with moist shredded pork, rice, and red cabbage coleslaw. The BBQ sauce tasted of vinegar, but my favorite condiment was the sauce marked “very spicy.” Yes! Then I finished with ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, which always makes me think of growing up in Kansas City. This food court also featured BBQ and the chicken-on-a-stick I enjoyed at Juneteenth. In the second food court, closer to the lake, I passed a Greek food both, the first I’ve seen at any festival, but I was full.
From across the park this building beckoned me, but as soon as I walked in I realized I had entirely mistaken it. I was expecting exhibits about nontoxic paint and compact fluorescent light bulbs, but instead, the HUD Healthy Home explained how to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning and how to seal cracks to keep out bugs. I wondered why I’ve never seen this exhibit at any other festival; I had the same reaction to my second encounter with the car crash exhibit (the first was at Juneteenth).
Finally I reached the Kuumba Main Stage, located down the hill from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. While the crowd there waited for the SOS Band, they were entertained by local radio personality Reggie McDaniel and the members of Slam Nuba, a competitive performance poetry team that regularly competes in the National Poetry Slam. Their theme was relationships, and the second reader asserted that words are magic, both good and bad: “Your marriage is mangled because you misused your magic!” My favorite reader was the Original Woman, who asked the crowd stretched out on the lawn if they were tired of the fairy tales they told their daughters, tired of the stories in which all the woman are evil. She said she wanted to tell a story in which a princess wakes up a prince.
At that point I wished I had more than a couple of hours to spend at the festival. It wasn’t nearly enough to sample the rich variety of offerings. I was heading back to my truck when I remembered one final errand: I wanted to dispose of an extra copy of Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places, a book written by photographer Dudley Edmondson in an effort to coax more African Americans into national parks. The value of this book for white people lies in sections like “Being a Face of Color in Remote Places.” (You should buy it just to read the story by the Yosemite park ranger about taking a KKK family into a cave.)
I stopped at the booth for Urban Spectrum: Spreading the News About People of Color, thinking they might want a copy of the book to add to the selection of books already on their table. Rosalind Harris, the publisher, suggested I donate it to the Black American West Museum and was generous enough to escort me through the festival in an effort to locate a woman who worked at the museum. I truly appreciate her kindness.