AFRAM: Family Fun in a Changing City

Summer Festival Road Trip: The weekend celebration remains a wholesome event in troubled Baltimore.

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AFRAM in 2012 (www.africanamericanfestival.net)

(The Root) -- My fondness for street fairs and cultural festivals goes back to my childhood growing up in Baltimore. The mix of people, food and arts and entertainment is an atmosphere I thrive on. Each summer my mother took me to every ethnic festival we could get to on public transportation, and one of the highlights was always the African American Festival, or AFRAM. "I wanted you to be exposed to all that the city had to offer," she recently told me. "Especially if it was free."

AFRAM was where I discovered African art, clothing and jewelry and where I could get my fried-dough fix. After more than 30 years, the festival is still going strong. Since it moved from its original locations at Hopkins Plaza and Rash Field, with a stint at Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore along the way, AFRAM has flourished in its current location at the Inner Harbor in the parking lots between Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Stadium.

The free, two-day weekend event -- held July 6 and 7 this year -- has grown to attract nearly 500,000 visitors and includes more than 150 African-American and African food and retail vendors, children's activities, health and wellness seminars and two stages of live entertainment by R&B stars like this year's headliner, Patti LaBelle.

Not all of my visits to AFRAM have been smooth sailing. In 1994, the summer before I moved to New York City, I went with a friend. That year Gerald Levert performed, and right in the middle of his doo-wop-accompanied rendition of "Casanova," the now-deceased chubby crooner bolted from the stage after a disturbance in the crowd broke out. Someone yelled "fight" or "gun," and the packed crowd quickly followed Levert's lead. My friend and I ran for about five or six blocks before we said a word. Finally, when we reached a safe distance, we asked each other, "What happened?"

Perhaps that misstep for an otherwise progressive, family-oriented event that had always, at least in my experience, been peaceful is indicative of what has happened to Baltimore as a city. I didn't grow up during a time when mentioning that you were from Baltimore automatically prompted people to ask if it was really like The Wire.

I grew up in the '70s, which was a kinder, gentler time in general. I never felt afraid living in the city, and back then knuckleheads were the exception and not the rule. The Baltimore of my youth was a place where members of my community -- a solidly middle-class black community -- pulled together, and where cultural festivals like AFRAM reinforced that unity.

I miss that Baltimore. Then again, I don't live there anymore. I only get glimpses of how the city and my neighborhood have changed -- for better and for worse -- when I visit on sporadic weekends and holidays. I have, however, been back to AFRAM since the Levert incident.

A few years ago I accompanied my best friend and her children. There are a lot more soul food sellers than there used to be, and I recognized some of the same fried-fish, greens and mac-and-cheese vendors from the DanceAfrica Bazaar in Brooklyn, N.Y. But the proud community vibe was still strong, and it was full of beautiful, positive black folks. I'm glad that my friend's kids got to experience AFRAM that way -- the same way I experienced it when I was their age.

While you're in Baltimore, check out the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum (1601-03 E. North Ave.), the nation's first African-American wax museum. With more than 100 life-size, lifelike wax figures, the museum displays historical and contemporary personalities of African descent. A haunting highlight is a full-model slave-ship exhibit that depicts the horrific history of the Middle Passage and the transatlantic slave trade. Admission is $13 for adults, $12 for seniors and students, $11 for children ages 3 to 11 and free for children ages 3 and under.

For another taste of black culture in the Charm City, visit the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center (847 N. Howard St.), named after the Baltimore native and legendary ragtime pianist and composer. This nonprofit organization supports visual- and performing-arts education and development opportunities for children and adults in Baltimore's African-American community through dance classes, jazz workshops, a film series and an annual Kwanzaa celebration. The center also has an art gallery, which is available to rent as an event space. Admission is $5.

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