A Feast for the Senses, Every Year in Seattle

Summer Festival Road Trip: The city comes alive during Festival Sundiata, its black cultural celebration.

2013 Festival Sundiata promotional poster
2013 Festival Sundiata promotional poster

(The Root) — As Seattle emerges from the rains of winter and spring and heads into the somewhat less rainy months of summer, we citizens of Rain City shed the fleeces, roll down the windows and try to remember where we put the sunscreen.

It’s festival weather, and one staple of the season is Festival Sundiata, the signature celebration of African-American arts and culture in this city, the largest black enclave in the Pacific Northwest. The 2013 edition is June 15 and 16 at the Seattle Center.

It’s always a feast for the senses: the lively food court where people can sample the best of Creole and Caribbean cuisine; dancers taking the stage performing a variety of styles, combining African dance rhythms with their own riotous improvisations; quilters and other artisans showcasing work rife with the vibrant colors common to black expression; and music, from gospel to R&B to funk, hitting the air as you walk through a veritable jukebox of modern musical culture.

Festival Sundiata, now in its 33rd year, has assumed its place as an almost stubbornly enduring source of African-American arts in the Pacific Northwest, a region of the country with relatively few African Americans, and a city whose black population — the largest in the region — has declined even as other minorities have gained in numbers.

Incorporated in 1980, the festival takes its name from Sundiata Keita, the 13th-century king and founder of the Mali Empire in West Africa, whose celebrated exploits as empire builder and “King of Kings” are memorialized in “The Epic of Sundiata,” a poem passed down by generations of griots.

The Sundiata African American Cultural Association, which presents the festival, has employed a combination of corporate sponsorships, community involvement and the input of everyday people. As in past years, this year’s event, part of the center’s ongoing Festal World-Culture series, will summon artists, musicians and the city’s black residents for gospel, hip-hop, art, dance and the spoken word.

This year a Father’s Day event on June 16 will gather 1,000 black fathers for a group photograph. A car show will showcase vintage autos on June 15. At the Black History & Education Expo, festivalgoers can avail themselves of drill-team performances, hip-hop storytelling and the opportunity to meet members of the Seattle-based Sam Bruce Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen.

A juried art competition for high school-age artists will be held, with five $100 awards to the top finishers in art, design new media and photography categories.

For Terry Morgan, the festival’s co-creator, the black arts experience, thriving as it does in a city whose black population is about 8 percent of its 620,000 residents, is ubiquitous, a universal experience in ways some people don’t expect.