Trenton African American Cultural Festival executive director Latarsha Burke is quick to say that she is one of many. “The festival committee is like a family. We are all committed, and it couldn’t work without that commitment.”
That commitment comes alive in the 2014 festival — one that features a Youth Sports Expo on Saturday, August 9, from noon to 4 p.m., and a full festival on Saturday, August 16, from noon to 6 p.m. — at Cadwalader Park both days.
“We strive every year to build upon the events,” she says at a table outside of Trenton Social Restaurant on South Broad Street. “So we have a Caribbean stage and an artists’ row — which is known as a community stage. And we have local music and spoken word arts that will be presented. There is also the main stage that has eight acts and the mainliner, Kindred and the Family Soul — they’re a Grammy nominated neo-soul group from Philadelphia,” she says.
Burke — a tall and thoughtful woman — says: “What I love most about this (committee) is that they advocate all year. I don’t think people understand the amount of time that goes into the event.”
The annual event was born in 2011 as the Trenton African American Pride Festival. The name change came with a decision. “We wanted to be all inclusive and make sure that all people feel that they can attend. If you attend the African American cultural festival you will leave learning something.”
In that spirit, she says, all visitors will be “educated and empowered,” while those of African ancestry will discover that “pride is the feeling that they should have about their heritage.”
Burke says that to insure a greater connection to heritage and culture the volunteer committee includes two individuals — both area residents — who guide the programs and go beyond the regular attractions often seen at community festivals. “We have a cultural consultant, Baye Kemit, who helps out with entertainment and helps with our sports expo. And Karriem Beyah is the logistics coordinator. We call him the ‘Grandpa’ of the group. He’s very much invested in making sure that anything that happens in the festival is positive, including the support. This is his baby, and he wants it to be a year out continuous event.”
This year’s event includes African drumming, crafts, musical instrument making, and storytelling provided by the National Black Storytelling Association, and the theatrics of the Brooklyn Jumbies, an African stilt walker group that will perform acrobatics while wearing African-tradition influenced costumes and masks.
Burke says that in addition to the events above, there is another that runs deeper into the community. “We do a procession of the elders — a time to honor the elders of the community. We have pre-selected people on the stage but ask the elders in the community to stand up. It is a special tradition to the start of the event.” The Trenton-based Egun Omode — children of the ancestors — will provide West African drumming to evoke both tradition and solemnity.
To make the event more relevant community partnerships will help area residents — especially Trenton’s African American population that has strong links to the North Carolina and Virginia regions — understand their heritage and community. To accomplish that the Trenton City Museum, or Ellarslie Mansion, in Cadwalader Park is providing a tent to host activities, and the exhibition “Trenton Then and Now” will be open for viewing.
The seniors from the Echo organization in Trenton will participate in a “roots roundtable” on the history of family migrations from the south to the north. The Trenton African American Firefighter Association will be on hand to share information. Health professionals will provide workshops as well as blood pressure and cholesterol screenings. And artwork will be on display by the late Tom Malloy, an African American artist who was considered the dean of Trenton artists and has a gallery in the museum named in his honor. “This is evidence of how people want to be involved,” says Burke.
This comes, she says, despite challenges that sometimes overshadow the city, particularly in the form of crime and shootings. “This is not going to control what we are doing. We are moving forward,” she says. “It’s about camaraderie and wanting to do better for our city. Our youth needs us to go the extra yard. I think from this experience it’s been one of the best experiences that I have had outside my job of interacting and serving my community.”
The job that Burke mentions is with adolescent services with the New Jersey Department of Human Services, Department of Children and Family. She has also worked as division of youth and family services (DYFS) case manager and with the Mercer County Youth Detention Center.
“I’m constantly in the community and in the homes of youths who feel that they have nothing to look forward to. Sometimes you think there’s a sense of hopelessness, but seeing the kids running around in the park with their families and the adults of the city coming together, putting on a great event, and enjoying themselves is why I volunteer. I want to be part of something that these kids and families can look forward to every year,” she says.
Burke says that her own experiences help her understand the situation and potential solutions. “My family is from Fayetteville, North Carolina, and moved to Jersey City. Every summer I went home and experienced the farming, the snapping beans, and the peacefulness of the South. It was a shock to me as a kid to move to Jersey City. It took a lot of adapting and survivor skills. My mother worked in factories in the city.” She lived with my electrician stepfather. “They were big about education. Their way out for me was to make the honor roll every year. I graduated third in my class and earned a scholarship to Trenton State College — one of the first in my generation to go college. My major was English and liberal arts with a minor in criminal justice.”
While she has moved on, she looks back and recalls. “I look at the kids in the city of Trenton, and I was there. I was living in the inner city in Jersey City in the 1980s, in the era of crack. My parents didn’t have the money to take me to museums. My activity was jumping on a mattress or playing stickball. Today it doesn’t seem that kids have the creativity to find ways to play. They’re getting in trouble. My philosophy is that if they can’t go to it then we should bring it to them. There are a lot of services to help the impoverished, but people don’t know where to go. So we bring people from nonprofits to the event so people can make a connection.”
Burke — a former resident of Trenton and surrounding areas — lives with her husband, Andre Burke, a postal service employee, and family in Yardley, Pennsylvania. “I celebrated a wedding anniversary July 5. I have two daughters and two stepchildren. My oldest is 25, that’s my stepdaughter, my stepson 19, two daughters, 18 and 16,” she says.
Noting that she does all her services in Trenton, “I came out to volunteer to give a couple hours of my time. I’m one who works nine to five and wanted to give back to the community. I have met some amazing people. “
She also says, “The festival has brought things out of me that I never knew I was capable of.” That includes “picking up a phone and calling a major company for sponsorship. It’s been a growing experience for me, and I’m sure everyone on the committee.” In addition to those already named, committee members also include Candice Frederick, Nina Dawkins, Brenda Evans Jackson, Regina Jackson, and Percy Mason.
Burke explains that the original festival was helped by the involvement of Trentonian newspaper columnist L.A. Parker. “(He) was our fundraiser, and he had lot of different connections in the community. Other costs were related to our concessions. L.A. left two years ago, and we had to learn on our own. It was scary, but we had to learn. To be honest we lost some (support), but we had some stay with us — and some have come on. This year is our first presenting sponsor; it’s Children’s Future presents the Trenton African American Cultural festival.”
Other support for the $30,000 event comes from Radio One (100.3 FM) in Philadelphia, the Times of Trenton, Christine’s Hope For Kids, and New Jersey Manufacturers, which will supply shuttles for out-of-town visitors parking near the Sun National Bank Center. “People are taking notice of what we are doing as a group. Each year our sponsors increase. And we deliver every year.”
Although the festival is not an independent nonprofit, it receives its charitable status through the E.E. Jenkins Ministry, headquartered in Bordentown.
“Last year we had about 10,000 people and we’ve seen steady growth,” Burke says. “This year we’re hoping to have 12,000 to 13,000. We have the major radio sponsor this year. They’re going to run PSAs on the stations. They’re actually going to be broadcasting from our event.”
Burke says that sometimes working on the event gets stressful and takes away from being with her own children, but there have been personal awards. “I’ll never forget when the Trentonian ran an article and the kids on the cover looked so happy. I cried seeing it. It was so positive seeing kids in something positive, especially African American children who are not usually seen on covers as positive,” she says.
Yet there are challenges to creating the foundation for continued success, such as getting people to buy into a long-term vision. “I believe that the TAACF can be as big as events in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York. With the fundraising that we do we can put on an event that is awesome.”
However, Burke is encouraged. “Mayor Eric Jackson attended our meetings, and he sat in and listened to our vision for a cultural festival and gave great feedback about getting sponsorship and working with us. He was very vocal and spoke with us, and we are optimistic that he’s going to follow through with his vision for the arts and culture. “
For cynics who say she may be dreaming, Burke has a claim to say she may be but in the sense others may not realize. At Trenton State College she says that she was inspired by Professor Don Evans, an African American playwright who formed the Players Company in Trenton and taught the founders of — and created works for — Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick.
The final words come at the close of one Don Evans’ play when a character steps forward and says, “An old African proverb … dreams let loose in the air, don’tcha know … become the property of the atmosphere. They hover up there in the sky … until one day … they come to rest in the heart of a brother … one who sees the world as you do. Can’t nobody own a dream. It may take generations, ages even. but somebody’s gonna tell that story. Snatch it down an’ fire the hearts of a people.”
From all evidence, Burke and the committee are busy firing hearts.
Trenton African American Cultural Festival, Youth Sports Expo, Saturday, August 9, noon to 4 p.m., sport fields of Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue and West State Street; Main Festival, Saturday, August 16, noon to 6 p.m., Cadwalader Park, main entrance on Parkside Avenue, free and open to all, to contact coordinators call 609-474-4073 or send an E-mail to Trentonaapride@gmail.com. For updated schedules and notices, visit taacf.com.