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Sixth annual Black Eyed Pea Festival celebrates African American art, flavors

on September 17, 2019

With clear blue skies overhead, succulent meats sizzled over the crackle and pop of open flame. The sound of metal creaked as stands, tables and tents rose like fresh bread in an oven, and workers spread lawn chairs out across the campus grounds. The stage, now silent, was set for what would turn into a celebration of culture that Oakland has hosted for the last 6 years.

Saturday was the 6th Annual Black Eyed Pea Festival held at Oakland Technical High School. The annual festivities are a means of paying homage to the contributions of the Black community in the areas of food, music and artwork. Performers, activists and representatives from neighborhood establishments congregated to share their culture with the community.

As people got ready to open the festival, 73-year-old Tobaji Stewart worked diligently to prepare the disposal bins for trash and recycling. He’s the husband of event co-founder Wanda Ravernell of The Omnira Institute, an organization that puts on events in Oakland primarily focusing on people of color and the Black community. These include the Juneteenth Festival, the African American Day of the Ancestors and one of their largest, the Black-Eyed Pea Festival.

Vendor at the 2019 Black-Eyed Pea Festival prepares their stall for attendees.

“We want to organize a space where the community can come and experience aspects about African and African American culture,” Stewart said. “Black people can feel inclusive and represented. We try to primarily hire Black vendors in the area to give them exposure and to give authenticity.”

The festival gets name from the black-eyed pea, which is a symbol of luck. Black-eyed peas come from Africa, Stewart said, but in the United States, they were also a part of culinary history for slaves and southerners, thus cementing the food as a staple in African American culture. “It became tradition to eat the black-eyed pea, and they were a sign of luck because of their abundance,” he said.

In a phone interview, organizer Wanda Ravernell said the festival is meant to both educate attendees and celebrate African American creativity. “The overriding point is the legacy of African Americans overcoming the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow,” she said. “So having endured horror for centuries, nevertheless we are renowned for our creativity in the face of it. All of our entrepreneurs and vendors are also demonstrating that creativity and ability to produce in the face of trauma, difficulty. What I’m saying is we never stopped producing. We never stopped creating.”

Member of Samba Funk plays the drums during the 2019 Black-Eyed Pea Festival.

The vendors at the festival represented primarily Black-owned businesses, selling their own handcrafted goods, like soaps, bags or apparel. Others were representing community organizations, health services or political movements.

As vendors set up, a group gathered under an awning that read “Wanda’s Cooking,” preparing for the guests that were soon to come. The restaurant staff served up delights such as sweet potato cornbread, hibiscus and honey tea, and black-eyed pea chili, all made fresh for the festival. Attendees lined up and the cooking pop-up shop staff would go on to sell out their entire menu.

Others drew crowds with their ornate jewelry, which sparkled like the beads of sweat running down the faces of kids playing in between the stands.

Those who felt inclined stood up from their lawn chairs and joined in on main stage events at any opportunity. Though the performances started behind schedule, their presence brought energy to the proceedings. The subtle taps of the drums as musical act Samba Funk methodically moved in unison to their own beat sparked a fire in the crowd, which began to dance, following their pace. The smooth and soulful musings of bass player Marcus Shelby soon had the crowd grooving and dancing, with people locking arms together like close friends. 

Attendees of the 2019 Black-Eyed Pea Festival dance with performance group Samba Funk.

“Our lineup is designed to be educational, so each of those musical artists are experts in a genre of African American music,” said Ravernell. “That keeps those genres that are a part of our history alive.”

Stewart said that the goal for the events Omnira Institute puts on is to share culture in a “conscious way,” which to him means giving representation to the Black community and providing  an authentic Black voice. This relationship creates an evolving sense of community among those willing to share and those willing to listen, he said. “Everyone is invited to come and share the culture,” he said.

The Omnira Institute is planning to organize another community event in November.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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