Memorial Day Weekend marks the unofficial start of the summer, the most important season of the human experience here in Brooklyn. Summer means a renewed connectivity to the community. Barbecues, block parties, festivals, free concerts in Prospect Park, while our winter event schedule keeps us huddled into auditoriums and event spaces, our summer schedule brings us out into our world and uses the beautiful weather as the backdrop.
For our children, summer is a magical time that signifies a break from the regimented life of scholastics. It means waking up later and playing outside, riding your bike or just sitting on the stoop waiting to hear the music from the Mr. Softee ice cream truck creep through your block. Summer is also a time for family. 70% of all family vacations happen during the summer. Summer is a time to explore the world together, a time to taste new foods and experience new places. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who does not find summer the most attractive of seasons.
As a child, this weekend was always an important one. The last three-day weekend of the school year meant that summer vacation was soon to come. I’m a Gemini, so Memorial Day Weekend always means that my birthday is soon to come, and as a kid life revolves around your birthday. When you’re 8, you can’t wait to be 9. When you’re 9, you can’t wait until you’re 10. Now, I know that there is an actual holiday called Memorial Day, and I’m aware that the holiday is to commemorate our soldiers who died while in active military service, but as a kid the actual meaning of these holidays always meant significantly less than they do now. Truthfully, the actual meanings meant nothing at all. My father is a veteran, and each Memorial Day he’d make sure to explain the meaning of the day to us, but his explanation was received at best as obtuse, like trying to make a kid in Maui understand the significance of the Arctic Circle. Even if he gets what you’re saying, in most cases he really doesn’t care. In my childhood, each of the three major summer holidays were defined by the community events associated with them. Labor Day meant the Caribbean Carnival on Eastern Parkway, July 4th Weekend meant the African Street Festival (now known as the International African Arts Festival) and Memorial Day weekend meant Dance Africa.
Dance Africa was founded by Baba Chuck Davis in 1977 as a way of heightening the already-burgeoning awareness of African culture in Brooklyn. At its root, Dance Africa is a dance festival where dance troupes from every part of the African Diaspora express and demonstrate their creativity and skill through dance. It’s traditional at times, contemporary at others and always enjoyable and spiritually enriching. Even bigger than the performances though, Dance Africa is a full-on global bazaar. Vendors line Ashland Place and Lafayette Avenue throughout the weekend, and the BAM perimeter becomes a marketplace. As a kid, this is what was most attractive to me, the thing that drew me in. Imagine, if you will, your first introduction to falafel, or the first time you ever smelled myrrh burning from a charcoal burner. Imagine tasting your first gyro or witnessing for the first time in person the multitude of colors and designs of the fabrics used to make geles and dashikis. And then imagine that every vendor introducing you to these new scents and tastes all look like you, some from your neighborhood, others from an entire world away, but all looking just like you. This was Dance Africa to me as a child, an empowering lesson in the Diaspora of African peoples across the globe who adapted and flourished by keeping the thread of their roots intact. Collard greens ain’t much different than callaloo. Lemonade made by a brother from Senegal still tastes as good as the lemonade my mother makes. I always knew I had cousins in Virginia. Festivals like Dance Africa reminded me that I had cousins in Benin, too, and in Honduras, too, and in Haiti, and in Panama and even in Marrakech.
In Brooklyn, summer begins this weekend on Lafayette Avenue. Take your children to Dance Africa and let them experience the performances and the marketplace. Let them eat new things and smell new scents. No matter their background, every child can benefit from the opportunity to witness the beautiful results of the African Diaspora, for in that opportunity they will come to know that adversity and struggle can never defeat resilience and love.