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VOL. 131 | NO. 76 | Friday, April 15, 2016

Three Decades In, Africa in April Maintains Cultural Focus

By Bill Dries

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It was 30 years ago that David and Yvonne Acey answered a dilemma from an educators’ conference about levels of learning among African-American students compared to white students.

Africa in April founders Dr. David L. Acey and his wife, Yvonne B. Acey, serve as executive director and associate director, respectively, of the 30-year-old Memphis festival. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Why weren’t African-American children studying at the same pace as others?” is how David Acey recalls the issue.

“It was because we weren’t represented in the body of knowledge,” he said. “Slavery cut us off from our history and culture.”

He and his wife founded the Africa in April Cultural Awareness Festival in 1986 in response to that with a nod to the then-decade-old Memphis In May International Festival.

Acey recalls his wife saying, “Memphis in May is in May. We can do it in April – Africa in April.”

“It just rolled off the tongue,” he added.

“We wanted something to represent our culture and us,” said Yvonne Acey, a retired educator with the former Memphis City Schools system. “In order to get into ourselves and learn the history and teach the history and connect with the international diaspora we had to do something different.”

David Acey is a retired assistant professor of African-American Rhetoric and Interracial Communication at the University of Memphis where he was a student in the 1960s and led the Black Student Association.

Acey remembered beginning his teaching career at the university in 1972 and telling his mentors, “I don’t want to teach none of this white mess.”

“We had bought into somebody else’s culture more than our own,” he said of black students at the time.

The 30th edition of the festival opened Wednesday, April 13, with a luncheon at the Holiday Inn Memphis Airport, 2240 Democrat Road.

The festival is sponsored by the Tennessee Arts Commission, ArtsMemphis, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital as well as corporate sponsors that include FedEx Express, First Tennessee Foundation, Comcast, MillerCoors, and Cummins.

The festival shifts to Robert R. Church Park on Beale Street starting Friday, April 15, and running through Sunday, April 17.

“It’s a vendor’s marketplace for educators, for businesses, entrepreneurs, youth, families, church the community,” Yvonne Acey said.

There is live entertainment including music and dance, but with an emphasis on the arts as part of an overall experience that emphasizes the gathering of people in the park.

Like the Memphis In May International Festival, Africa in April honors a different country every year – a country on the African continent. And one of the goals is to improve business ties between Memphis and the honored country.

This year that country is Tanzania.

“Those are markets that we have not penetrated that we need to penetrate,” said Roby Williams, president of the Black Business Association of Memphis. “The possibilities are ginormous. … There is a natural affinity between African-American businesses and the mother continent – Africa.”

By the mid-1980s in Memphis, the African-American political majority that made Willie Herenton the city’s first black elected mayor in 1991 was still building. State Rep. Dedrick “Teddy” Withers made developing trade ties with African nations his political mission as well as calling card.

“He was a pioneer,” Williams recalled of Withers, who never got the kind of political traction and influence necessary to build a trade center in Memphis he proposed at the time.

The business of developing trade ties with foreign countries can require patience and rebuilding ties with different regimes over time.

When Africa in April began in 1986, the continent was emerging from the 1970s years of independence to a different kind of instability.

The debut Africa in April was four years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison in apartheid-era South Africa. And South African troops raided Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana in 1986 further destabilizing the continent.

Idi Amin had left Uganda seven years earlier.

Memphis In May leaders have had a similar experience. The festival honored Tunisia and hosted diplomats from Tunisia in 2010, just before the Arab Spring movement began with a revolution in Tunisia that changed the country’s leadership as well as many of the diplomats who came to Memphis.

When Morocco was Memphis in May’s honored country in 1999, a dancer who was among the Moroccan delegation in Memphis tried to seek sanctuary in Germantown before being talked out of it by a Moroccan diplomat traveling with the group.

David Acey says some local businesses have built trade ties with Senegal in particular in recent years.

Williams attended a breakfast meeting April 13 that featured some discussions about trade with Senegal and Tanzania.

“To date I think the mother continent may be more advantaged than are, so far, the people in Memphis who are in businesses,” he said. “That’s something we’ve got to move on.”

Williams also notes that the 2016 presidential campaigns have featured much criticism about trade agreements closer to the U.S. and debates about the impact of more open trade with those countries.

“None of the trade with African countries undermines American workers,” he said.

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