African-American celebration ties in inauguration with Black History Month

Freedom theme runs through African-American festival  

jshaffer@newsobserver.comJanuary 26, 2013 

— The Jonkonnu drummers marched in pounding on gumba boxes and djembes, dressed as fancy men and ragmen, wearing bull horns, raccoon skins and straw hats, chanting “Hello, somebody, hello!”

And even if the 2-year-old boy, the middle-aged woman and the homeless man in the audience didn’t know all the proper terminology, they knew it was time to dance.

“Hello, somebody, hello!” shouted James Reaves, leader of the Tryon Palace drummers, dressed in a top hat and vest, inviting the crowd into folklore. “There’s somebody knocking at the garden gate. Hello, somebody, hello!”

So began the 12th annual African American Cultural Celebration, which swaggered into downtown Raleigh on Saturday despite icy streets and an hourlong fire alarm delay at the N.C. Museum of History.

The celebration’s overall goal is to promote black literature, music, art and experience in North Carolina, acting as a springboard to February and Black History Month. But each year’s event takes on its own theme, and 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

“It’s something our country is thinking about,” said Emily Grant, youth programs coordinator for the museum. “The movie ‘Lincoln’ came out. The first African-American president got re-inaugurated. We’re talking a lot about the right to bear arms. What does it mean to be free?”

D’walla Simmons-Burke, choral and vocal studies director at Winston-Salem State University, read from President Abraham Lincoln’s landmark document, noting that it did not provide complete liberty. It did not apply to the border states, for example, and turning its words into reality required military victory for the Union forces.

With that, she introduced the Burke Singers a cappella group, who performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” in six-part harmony. As they finished and launched into “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a homeless man in the audience sang along, mouthing the words well into the third verse.

In past years, the celebration has drawn as many as 10,000 people, said Freddie Parker, history professor at N.C. Central University and chairman of the African-American Heritage Commission. “The numbers may be down just a little bit today,” he said, noting the weather, “but the show must go on.”

Sherrod Gresham showed off his collection of African-American themed stamps, telling schoolchildren that Rosa Parks’ stamp will be issued in February. He also shared stories from President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, which he attended.

“What was the most powerful thing to see was at the end,” he said, “when he walked back into the Rotunda, and he looked back at all those people. That’s the last time. He won’t do that anymore.”

Bennie Baker of Raleigh displayed his handmade pipes, carved from red cedar, dogwood and ocean driftwood.

“On occasion, I also use black walnut,” he said. “Although they’re beautiful, they don’t last long.”

In the hallways of two museum floors, visitors could make cowrie-shell necklaces or talk with Brunswick County author Clarence Willie, who wrote a book of personal accounts from black soldiers and Marines who served on Iwo Jima during World War II.

Or, if you’re a shy 2-year-old, you could sit and listen to Reaves pound on his djembe drum, taking your first stab at joyful dance.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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