ALBANY - James Obeng doesn't bring his children to the African-American Family Day just to have fun. The Ghana native uses the festival to expose the next generation to African culture in a serious way.
He finds there are precious few opportunities for his two young children to learn their roots. As they enter school in the next few years, Obeng doesn't see the public education system doing enough.
"More could be done," said the Albany resident. "It's important to be connected to your history."
An estimated 25,000 people attended the African-American Family Day at the Empire State Plaza Saturday. Some were there just to have a good time, while others came to absorb the deeper meaning of being African-American. From gospel music to hand-crafted African decorative arts, festival-goers had plenty of ways to submerge themselves in the rich traditions handed down from generation to generation.
More than 100 vendors, selling everything from spicy Caribbean food to political views, lined the plaza, offering a one-stop emporium of Africana seldom available. Dozens of acts from as far away as Maryland performed on several stages.
Started 20 years ago, the African Festival of Culture and Arts was revamped two years ago and renamed to accent the family atmosphere at the alcohol-free setting. The state's Office of General Services met with community members throughout the region to better gauge what would work best. "The response has been good," said Paula Monaco, a public information officer with the agency.
The festival has grown to be one of the largest in the state outside of New York City.
Some vendors said sales would be better if the hours were extended to 9 p.m. rather than 6 p.m. The hours were curtailed because "people didn't know how to act," one merchant said.
Monaco said the hours were shortened at the request of the community and for "logistical" reasons. She said OGS reviews the situation every year. For example, last year the festival closed at 5 p.m.
For the most part, vendors were pleased. Nene Sow, owner of African Styles, said she does well every year. The Buffalo resident said it's one of the best festivals in upstate New York.
"It's big and people spend money," Sow said. For James Thomas, the festival was a way to register voters and celebrate the community.
"There's a good bit of build-up to this," said Thomas, an Albany resident. "People talk about this as the event."
Thomas said he's even met African-Americans who live downstate and measure the region through this event to decide whether they want to relocate or not. Many find the region appealing, but are concerned about its lack of cohesiveness. "I think they find a vibrant community, but work still needs to be done," he said.
Others used the event to raise money for not-for-profit organizations designed to benefit the local community. Muata, who works for Herukhuti, the African Enlightment Council, said he sells videos and tapes at the festival to put on a once a month lecture series at the Albany Public Library's main branch on Washington Avenue.
"We promote African-centered study," Mauta said shortly after finishing a conversion on Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers. Raymond Walker, CEO of African Reflections, which sells crafts from the African continent, said a portion of all his proceeds goes back to building water wells in Tanzania and also to supporting minority entrepreneurs locally. "You really have to be here if you want to be connected to the community," said Walker. "It's a great place to be."
Dante Medina, 13, said he doesn't have a favorite thing at the festival. "There's a lot of things. It's a good time."
Many community groups lined the plaza, too, dealing with more pressing matters confronting African-Americans. One such group, Capital District Coalition Against Aids, was passing out condems and spreading the message about how not to contract the deadly disease.
"Troy is a time bomb waiting to explode," said Arthur Butler, executive director of the organization. "Troy has the least amount of services and there is a growing population."