Smithsonian Folklife Festival to Feature Program on Oral Traditions in African American Culture

June 1, 2009
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The 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival will feature “Giving Voice: The Power of Words in African American Culture,” a program that will explore and celebrate the role that African American oral traditions have played in the shaping of American culture. The program, which will feature poetry, storytelling, humor, radio and theater, is sponsored by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open on the National Mall in 2015.

The Festival will be held Wednesday, June 24, through Sunday, June 28, and Wednesday, July 1, through Sunday, July 5, outdoors on the National Mall between Seventh and 14th streets. Admission is free. Festival hours are from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day, with special evening events such as concerts and dance parties beginning at 6 p.m. The Festival is co-sponsored by the National Park Service.

“It’s hard to imagine a celebration more powerful and more timely than this,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  “Words have the power to connect people, to convey ideas, to give comfort, to make us laugh and to call us to action. This program will take a close look at how African American oral traditions have entertained and influenced generations of people regardless of race.” 

Performance venues will include re-creations of a barbershop, a beauty shop, a porch stoop and a radio station. The program also will feature a “hush harbor,” which will provide visitors with a quiet place to rest and contemplate their visit to the Festival. “Hush harbor” was the name given to a place where enslaved African Americans would go to talk without surveillance. 

Washington, D.C., is considered by many to be the black poetry capital of America. African American poets make creative, sensitive and imaginative use of language and rhythm to make thoughts and feelings speak.

Poets at the Festival will include Sonia Sanchez, author of numerous poetry collections, plays and children’s stories; Toni Blackman, a New York-based freestyle rap artist, formerly with the Department of State as an “Ambassador of Hip-Hop”; and Washington-based poets E. Ethelbert Miller and A.B. Spellman, who will provide historical context for the performances.

Storytelling was one of the few ways enslaved persons could share memories of the African homeland as well as tales of hope and resistance. Spoken tales can be improvisational and interactive and throughout the Festival, visitors will hear stories told in a variety of different ways.

Festival participants will include Charlotte Blake-Alston, who accompanies herself on various African instruments, including the kora; Mitchell G. Capel, also known as “Gran’daddy Junebug”; Baba Jamal Koram, a recipient of the 2007 Circle of Excellence Award from the National Storytelling Network; and Valerie Tutson, director of the Black Storytelling Festival in Providence, R.I., whose repertoire includes tales from South Africa and biblical oral traditions.

Humor is an important tool that African Americans have long used to challenge, undermine and overcome the effects of racism and oppression. Comedians at the Festival will include James Hannah, who has written for or appeared as a stand-up comic on numerous shows, including “Def Comedy Jam” and “P. Diddy Presents the Bad Boys of Comedy,” and Royale Watkins, who has appeared in a number of feature films and produced “Urban Comedy Cabaret,” a national comedy tour.

Children’s and Youth Culture
The “Young Wordsmiths” section of the program will show young visitors how oral traditions are part of children’s activities and games, which often include the use of rhyme and word play. In guided workshops, children will have the opportunity to compose poetry, tell stories, act in skits and plays and become comedians. Other activities include making finger and paper-bag puppets, storyboarding and creating cultural scrapbooks.

The program will feature performances by the Asante Children’s Theatre of Indianapolis; puppeteer Schroeder Cherry, who specializes in shows highlighting events in African American history; and singer-storyteller Ella Jenkins, winner of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, who is known for her use of the call-and-response technique in performances. 

Black radio has been a vital technological and social resource for African Americans, from its postwar contributions to freedom struggles, to its current status as one of the most popular mass mediums extending the influence of black culture globally. It provides news and shapes opinion, bolsters a sense of community and promotes black music and entertainment. African American radio personalities foster a sense of black identity and mobilize African Americans around political, social and cultural issues. Festival participants will include talk-show host Lorne Cress-Love of WPFW-FM. The station also will broadcast live from the National Mall during the Festival.

African American theater is rooted in traditions of storytelling, the need to create characters and stories that properly reflect the African American community and a commitment to explore social and political issues in a compelling way. From the Harlem Renaissance, to the Black Arts Movement and beyond, African American writers and artists have brought enduring pieces into the country’s theater repertoire.

Festival participants will include Holly Bass, a hip-hop theater and spoken-word artist who has performed at Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth Theater and the Kennedy Center, and Roger Guenevere Smith, whose credits include Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and a film adaptation of his award-winning play, “A Huey P. Newton Story.”

This program is produced by the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in partnership with the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

About the Festival
The 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival will feature three programs. In addition to “Giving Voice: The Power of Words in African American Culture,” the other programs are “Las Americas: Un mundo musical/The Americas: A Musical World” and “Wales Smithsonian Cymru.”

The Folklife Festival, inaugurated in 1967, honors people from across the United States and around the world. With approximately 1 million visitors each year, the Festival unites presenters and performers in the nation’s capital to celebrate the diversity of cultural traditions. It is produced by the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The Festival’s Web site is

About the National Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture was established in 2003 by an Act of Congress, making it the 19th Smithsonian Institution museum. It is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture. The Smithsonian Board of Regents, the governing body of the Institution, voted in January 2006 to build the museum on a five-acre site on the National Mall. The Constitution Avenue site is adjacent to the Washington Monument. In April, the team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup was selected to design the museum. Early design concepts can be seen on the museum’s Web site at

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