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Putting African Culture on the Main Stage

September 03, 1993|RON HARRIS

I concluded shortly after we sat down that I had been set up, tricked by a friend into having lunch with a crazy man.

He didn't look crazy, at least no nuttier than all those lunatics Downtown at 1st and Spring. (I mean the ones inside City Hall.)

Actually, he looked good in his pin-striped gray suit, light gray shirt, dark tie. He produced a business card--James Burks, director, William Grant Still Art Center. Nice.

Burks is the director and creator of the African Market Place and Cultural Fair that's taking place this weekend near La Brea and Rodeo.

That was a point in his favor.

It's a wonderful event. I've been going every year almost since its inception. Every August, Burks and his cohorts re-create an African village environment in which vendors flood in. It is a celebration of African culture spanning the diaspora--African, Haitian, Brazilian, Caribbean, Belizean, African-American. Nearly 300 vendors hawk a dizzying array of African-inspired clothing, paintings, pottery, sculpture, jewelry and books.

A food court features meals that run the gamut from New Orleans to Jamaica to Nigeria. Numerous performance stages feature various dance troupes, actors and musicians. By the last day, an estimated 300,000 people will have participated in the celebration.


Burks started it all back in 1986, on a shoestring budget of $1,000. Now, he figures the production costs about $700,000 annually. As he told me about the event's success, I realized that's what had sent him around the bend and caused him to come up with this crazy idea.

Burks is trying to create a permanent African Village, a $150-million theme park spread over 20 acres that would run year-round. He's talking a hotel, stores, food courts, parades, festivals. He's even talking about breaking it up into little lands, a la Disney. Something like Caribbean Land and Brazil Land and Sub Sahara and Egyptian lands. Oh, it's elaborate.

He had mentioned the idea the moment I met him. That, he said, was why he wanted to meet me. That was how I knew he was crazy, and I told him just that. He just smiled and took another forkful of scampi.

"I hear that a lot," he said.

"Look," I say. "I love the African Marketplace. It's wonderful. And it's going so good that you've expanded it from two weekends to three this year. So what? We're talking about a Disneyland based on black folks. Who's going to come? There's not enough money in the African-American community to support this thing. And do you think those other folks are going to seriously come and support something called the African Village? Maybe once, out of curiosity."

He just smiled politely again. I hate it when crazy people do that.

"And you're going to need corporate sponsorship and major tourist dollars," I say. "Somebody is going to get on a plane and fly to Los Angeles so they can hang out at the African Village? Gimme a break."


Burk dabbed at his mouth with his handkerchief. It was time for me to shut up and let him give his spiel.

"They will support it, because they already do," he said in an even tone. "African culture is bought and sold every day, by the film industry, the music industry, the clothing industry, the tourist industry. We're just not the ones doing the selling.

"Think about the millions of tourists who travel every year to participate in the festivals that have grown out of the African experience--Carnival in Brazil, Trinidad and throughout the Caribbean; Junakanoo in the Bahamas; John Canoe in Belize; Festival of Boa Marte in Bahia; Festac in Nigeria, and Notting Hill Gate Festival in London, the biggest festival in all of Europe.

"As much as this would be a cultural center, however, it would also serve as an economic center. Much of our resources are fractionalized and not focused. Just as the Korean community has Koreatown, the Chinese community has Chinatown, the Japanese community has Little Tokyo and the Mexican-American community has Olvera Street, this provides a base, a synergy."

He continued, but I didn't really hear him. My mind began to drift. I began to think that maybe this guy is onto something. The only reason I hadn't seen it right away was because in my stupidity, I had inadvertently devalued my own culture, my own heritage.

In all the years I had gone to the African Village, I still hadn't gotten it. African culture is not some sideshow. It belongs on the main stage. It is a world event.

As I dropped my credit card on the check, it dawned on me that my initial impression was right. I had been having lunch with a crazy man--me.

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