Black-Eyed Pea Festival celebrates African-American culture
on September 13, 2016
Paula Marie Parker stood on stage and told the audience that she was frustrated.
“I went to the library and I could only find a couple of books about black-eyed peas,” she said. “Since I do storytelling and singing, and I like to put songs in my stories, I got kind of frustrated about that. I said, ‘You know what, I think black-eyed peas deserve a song.’”
She then sang her song to the audience: “Black-eyed peas, black-eyed peas/Mama says you’re good for me/Black-eyed peas, black-eyed peas/I see you looking at me/Black-eyed peas, black-eyed peas/Bring me good luck, oh please/History, prosperity, come along when you eat those black-eyed peas.”
Parker was one of many performers at the third-annual Black-Eyed Pea Festival, a daylong celebration of African-American history and culture that took place at Oakland’s Mosswood Park on Saturday. Throughout the day, musicians, dancers, and speakers took the stage, with performances ranging from New Orleans-style second-line brass music to children’s storytellers to hip-hop. Approximately 45 booths surrounded the festival, staffed by health, political and community organizations, as well as vendors selling artwork, jewelry, clothing, hair and body care products, and food––including, of course, black-eyed peas.
Parker, the assistant director of the festival, says what differentiates the event from similar celebrations of African-American culture is that it “really tries to hone in on the essence of the tie between the continent of Africa and early African-American culture, and then move it forward.”
According to Wanda Ravernell––the director of the event and its sponsoring organization, the Omnira Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to showcasing the cultural and spiritual traditions of African-Americans––the black-eyed pea is thought to have been brought to the United States from West Africa by an enslaved person who hid it in their hair. At first, she said, black-eyed peas were something that only poor or enslaved people ate, but with the shortage of food after the Civil War, they became popular among all Southerners. She also said that the peas, which had been associated with abundance in Africa, are now a symbol of luck for African-American and white Southerners alike and are eaten as a traditional New Year’s Eve dish, along with collard greens and ham.
But, despite the festival’s food-focused name, many of the day’s events revolved around music. “We tell our story through music,” Ravernell says. “Each era of African-American music is expressing a level of creativity and a level of resilience.”
On the festival’s stage, the Omnira Institute’s choir, Awon Ohun Omnira, performed a traditional African-American ceremony called a Ring Shout, in which musicians sing while moving low to the ground in a counterclockwise circle. Khafre Jay, the founder of Hip-Hop for Change––a nonprofit that advocates for socio-economic justice through hip-hop music and culture––interspersed his hip-hop performance with spoken-word poetry. MJ’s Brass Boppers performed New Orleans-style second-line numbers, which they said were meant to honor their ancestors. Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir sang covers of Al Green tunes, children’s songs from the Gullah Sea Islands, and moaning songs that they called “black sacred music.”
Tory Teasley, another festival performer, sang soul covers as the leader of Tory Teasley and the Teasers, a local R&B and soul band. For him, music is key to bringing the community together. “I want [the audience] to enjoy themselves,” he said. “I want them to laugh. I want them to dance along. And if you know the tune, sing along. And if you don’t, hum along. It’s an inclusive thing. That’s the consciousness that I walk in. How can I bring people together? How can we all come together? How can we show support? How can we show love? And how can we elevate?”
When Teasley danced on stage while belting out Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder songs, several attendees, young and old, black and white, danced with him.
Some attendees said they came to the festival specifically for this feeling of community; others said they were just passing through to check it out. Glen Jackson, Sofe Mekuria and Gwen Osbourne said they came to explore the festival after working at a nearby community garden. Jackson, who lives in West Oakland but spends a lot of time in this neighborhood, said, “It seems like a lot more things happen in this park than used to. There was a festival here a few weeks ago too. It’s just great to see this park getting put to use and to see people hanging out.”
Others, like Dawnyelle Harris, who came to the festival as a visitor from Georgia, said she sought a celebration of black community. “I’m really into my culture––I’m African-American––so it was great that I saw that there was an African-American festival going on,” she said.
Describing what the festival meant to her, Harris said, “it means family, it means bringing our culture together, trying to be a little bit at peace, even though everything is going on right now.”
The event planners acknowledged the deaths of African-American men in law-enforcement shootings by inviting Oscar Grant’s uncle, Cephus Johnson, onto the stage to speak. Grant was a 22-year-old African American man who was shot and killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle in 2009. Johnson asked for a moment of silence for Darren Seals, an African-American activist from Ferguson who was recently found dead in a burning car.
Carolyn Riley, who was attending the festival for her third year, said she’d like to see more events like the Black-Eyed Pea festival that bring people of different races together. “We need laughter and smiling,” she said. “We need that now, desperately.”
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