Key West Africana Festival: Inspiring

Dr. James Peterson speaks with actor, Malik Yoba, during the 2017 Key West Africana Festival…

by Arida Wright…….

Celebrity in Town

Actor Malik Yoba served as the 2017 Keynote Speaker and Ambassador for the 3rd Biennial Key West Africana Festival (KWAF) held June 22 – 25, 2017. He is known for his starring role as NYPD Detective J.C. Williams on the Fox police drama NY Undercover and the cultural classic movie, Cool Runnings.

Malik Yoba

Malik Yoba has a long list of theatre, tv and film credits but what I didn’t know is that he is also a singer and a passionate community activist (he went to Ferguson protest marches). He inspired the audience to, “Build your own generator, so when they turn the power off, you’ll still have lights.”

His topic, “The Artist’s Role in the Theatre of Public Affairs,” at the San Carlos Institute Saturday night, highlighted how he has spent most of his career being a “servant” to the community. He stated, “Actors were supposed to heal, were supposed to inspire, were supposed to serve.”

I was totally inspired listening to him. It was a unique view of an actor who is not just getting those big paychecks, living in mansions, jet-setting to exotic locations, driving fancy cars, but an actor being ‘called’ to use their celebrity to, in his words, “download divinity” as they get involved and uplift their communities. Mr. Yoba also brought his mom and his family to the event.

Key West Africana Festival

Gene Tinnie [tall man at back]. From left to right: Dr. James Peterson, Dr. Hobbs, Dr. Peterson, Christopher Norwood.

City of Key West Commissioner Clayton Lopez officially welcomed the co-founders, Christopher Norwood and Dr. James Peterson, and presented them with a flag. The KWAF is a non-profit organization that hosted 60 people in a three-day destination retreat and festival focusing on Thought, Wellness, Culture and Libation of the African Diaspora.

Their goal is to provide a destination vacation where scholars discuss their research, thought leaders present their practice areas and vacationers enjoy Africana Cultures of Key West.

Preserving Historical Institutions

Hampton Alumni Association

This year the festival partnered with the SE Regional Conference of National Hampton Alumni Association Inc. Hampton University is registered as a Historic Black College University (HBCU, a college or university that was originally founded to educate students of African American descent).

They held their breakfast conference in the Key West Historic Landmark Cornish Memorial AME Zion Church located at 702 Whitehead Street. Chris is an alumnus of Hampton and pointed out to me, “Meeting in a historic local church has value.”

In speaking with the President of the Hampton Alumni Association, Dorothy M. Lee-Murray, I learned they have been in existence 150 years since April 1, 1868. Cornish Memorial was founded 152 years ago which made the two institutions coming together a historic event for Key West.

Cornish Memorial AME Zion Church

Ms. Lee-Murray raved, “I learned so much about African culture here! Key West was an out of the box location for me and I enjoyed the education and the history. I appreciate the hospitality and delicious food provided by the members of Cornish Church and I thank them very much.”

Historic Workshop

Speaking of history, KWAF featured a workshop facilitated by Dr. Tameka Hobbs, Professor of History at Fordham University entitled “Juneteenth Revisited” for Friday morning opening session.

Juneteenth, also called Freedom Day or Emancipation Day is a state holiday or ceremonial day of observance in 45 U.S. states that commemorates the June 19, 1865 announcement of the abolition of slavery in the U.S.

Dr. Hobbs stated, “152 years later, African Americans are still dealing with the psychological and emotional damage to us during emancipation.” (Jim Crowe, KKK lynchings, black/white signs on public toilets and water fountains, not able to eat at lunch counters, discrimination in jobs, housing, voting, etc.) “Today we are working to preserve the gains of freedom, looking for opportunities in American society, and yes, there is hope.” Dr. Hobbs concluded.

For me, coming away from the conference made me think of ways to CREATE opportunities in American society instead of waiting for them to happen. The “build your own generator” theory Malik Yoba spoke of. That is the power of collective thought that the founders of the KWAF wanted to achieve.

Other workshops that were presented were wellness workshops addressing Community wellness, Relationship Wellness and Physical Wellness. Each panel was lead by industry professionals at the San Carlos Institute. Saturday events were offered free to locals.

Key West is a perfect location for Africana Cultural Tourism

KWAF visited several musical venues that featured local African American musicians.

Bahama Village, named for its many original residents who were of Bahamian ancestry. Bahamians began visiting the Florida Keys in the 18th century to salvage wrecked ships, fish, catch turtles and log tropical hardwood trees. A Bahamian settlement in the Keys was reported in 1790, but that was temporary.

Early in the 19th century some 30 to 40 Bahamian ships were working in the Keys every year. After 1825, Bahamian wreckers began moving to Key West in large numbers. Bahamians were among the first Caribbeans to arrive in the mainland US in the late 19th century. Many went to Florida to work in agriculture or to Key West to labor in fishing, sponging and turtling. Two main factors that contributed to increased Bahamian migration were the poor economic climate and opportunities, as well as the short distance from the Bahamas.

Cultural Activities

KWAF cultural activities included a visit to the African Cemetery on Higgs Beach presided by Elder Gene Tinnie, a Miami based visual artist, writer, educator, community activist and independent researcher, who poured libation (a drink poured out as an offering to a deity) to honor our ancestors.

Corey Malcom, Director of Archeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, led a tour

Corey Malcom, Director of Archeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, led a tour of the Henrietta Maria slave ship on display at the museum. Corey also hosted a movie screening of the 1956 B-movie “Carib Gold”. The movie was shot in Key West with a majority Black cast. It was Cicely Tyson’s first movie role.

I asked Chris, how he originally found out about the African culture in Key West, “I vacationed here and wanted to expose other people to the sights. Black folk don’t typically vacation here. Cultural tourism is the fastest growing industry.”

Indeed it is. According to Black Meetings and Tourism, an on-line magazine, it is a $56 billion + industry. An article from the magazine by Buck Samuels claims, “African Americans more than any other group seek out heritage tourism opportunities on vacation or added to an itinerary when attending a conference. For many of them, it is an emotional journey that brings laugher, tears, knowledge, pride and yes, dreams and opportunities.”

The terms heritage tourism and cultural tourism are defined by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as travel to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories of the people of the past and present.

I really like the premise the FWAF operates from when Chris asked a pertinent question, “Where does a person who engages in and is concerned about issues go to recharge their batteries, learn new strategies, network, build conceptually, connect to ancestors and chill in the Caribbean? We just provided a space for community advocacy and built relationships with a quality of people who are leaders in their communities and have just taken part of something that was social, educational and ceremonial.”

Of course, Chris aims to bring in big sponsors to grow the event which will be held in Key West in June of 2019. I will be there.


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