It’s been 17 years since the African Festival of the Arts started in Chicago. Patrick Woodtor, a Liberian American was the brain behind it all along. However, last year some board members stepped down for younger generations and Joseph M. Harrington, an assistant commissioner with the City of Chicago becomes the first African American board chairman of the African International House. In an interview with Adenike Oluwadare, staff writer with the Chicago Inquirer, he espoused his vision for the festival and other programs in waiting for the largest community event in the windy City.
Inquirer: How has it been going since you become the AIH chairman?
Harrington: It’s been good. I’ve been working with the festival since 1998 in various capacities as a volunteer and more recently as the chairman of the board. It is my experience with the festival and how it is run that earned me the recent elevation. I’m one of those people that started at the very bottom of the run. I started as a volunteer and some of my skills as regard organization and management were recognized and I was voted into the board. I also leadership on the board and I was able to become chairman of the board.
Inquirer: As the board chairman, what are you going to do different from your predecessors?
Harrington: What we’ve been planning of doing as long as I’ve been on the board is expanding our program pot folio. Major programs we do are the African Festival of the Arts and that how most people know about the festival and African International House (AIH). If there were no AIH at this point, there would be no festival because that was an event that was put up by the AIH. We however, need more public programs so that people have a better idea of who we are and what we stand for and what we are attempting to do. The mission of African International House (AIH) is really to preserve, promote and present the culture of the African in Diaspora. The festival is on marking programs. But there are other things we talk about by trying to get more continuity in terms of doing those programs and doing them on a regular basis.
Inquirer: Can you elaborate more on those other programs?
Harrington: We can do a number of things. We got some small programs that focus on the art. We got our gallery tour, we did one last year where we take people to various galleries of different African and Africans in the Diaspora. We believe that will expose more people to the Afro visual arts and the creative arts. We have a lot of people to come and perform at the festival. We work with the Chicago Park District and some of the entertainment they have in some of the parks on the South Side during the summer, we have a relationship we provide for the talent and entertainer or events and most of the people don’t know that to be events of the African International. They think it is something the Park District has done. We have an arrangement whereby we actually provide the artist and we can do more public in terms of music and some of the more creative arts out of the Diaspora and some of the things we’ve actually talked about doing and we’ve not done. So there is a lot we can do that we’ve not done. It requires some resources and not necessary money but people.
Inquirer: In 2006 people came from Haiti, Mexico and Africa. What are the plans for 2007?
Harrington: We haven’t really started planning for the festival this year. We will start next month. We try to come up with a theme for each year and the theme for the year for 2007 will help to drive to some degree what we are going to do in terms of the festival. The format is still the same but we may do some things different this year. The major things for us is to come up with a theme which allows us to develop ideas and concept about the festival. And also identify what the artwork will be for the festival and where the artwork will come from and the artist. Those are the two major things and that hasn’t taken place.
Inquirer: In 2007, prayers were rendered in many African traditional languages. Some African Americans took African names. Is there anyway this could be extended to the schools?
Harrington: That is always a possibility. A lot of it is influenced by the volume of resources we have. There are lots of things we can do that are limited by the number of resources available to us.
Inquirer: The festival is getting bigger and better every year. What is the driving force for that?
Harrington: There is a lot of people behind the scene that make festival what it is. Patrick Woodtor is the heart and soul of the festival. Patrick and his wife that died recently deserved much credit for the success of the festival. This festival started a little bit more than 17 years ago. It was small neighborhood community event. The festival was conducted right inform of Patrick’s old shop of Window to Africa. A group of people that loves Africa and loves the culture of Africa took it over and said there must be a public demonstration of this event. It’s grown over some time. It’s been 17 years and we are looking towards the 18th festival this year and in two years we will be celebrating the 20th anniversary.
Inquirer: What is the message you are trying to send to the community by this festival?
Harrington: We look at it as the labor of love. We put up the festival not for the board, ourselves or for money. We are really doing it for the broader community for two reasons. One, we know the people in our community that has come to love and enjoy the festival by attending the festival and also it is a way for us to expose people once again to the arts and culture out of the Diaspora. This is part of our history. Everything for the most part in parts of the arts reflect who we are as a people. Some of our African roots, you see it in the music coming out of the Caribbean, you can see it the music and dance coming out of Brazil. Our feature artist last year was from Puerto Rico. He is very much in torch with his African roots. What we are trying to do is to showcase who we truly are as a people and not let people forget that. It is very important to us.
Inquirer: Has the festival enhance a better relationship between African-American and African immigrants bearing in mind these two groups live like odd couples?
Harrington: On a personal level, I’ve been to South Africa twice. The people that I met over there are seen as my brothers and sisters even though it is unlikely there was any real slave trade from South Africa to the United States. The people that I met were very warm to me, they were very friendly to me. They look like me and they enjoy some of the same things that I enjoy. Even though I didn’t have as rich a culture as my sister who studied in Ghana, she went to the University of Ghana and had more culture experience. My African roots is more connected with West-Africa and South Africa but having gone to South Africa nonetheless, I’ve had the chance to experience the continent and become close to the people of the continent. I still have some vary friends in South Africa and I still talk to them on the phone. I got their cell phone and I can still get up and call them on my cell phone and we are still working on some things that we think are our mutual interest. On another level, at our events last year, one of remarks made really resonated with me. It says we are all branches from the same tree. We have the same roots. Our roots are Africa. Just because I may be on the left side or east side of the tree, doesn’t mean I’m not related to the branch on the west side of the tree. We are all family because we all have the same roots.
Inquirer: Congressman Danny K. Davis said two years ago when Dr Shaffdeen Amuwo hosted a his annual fund raising for him said “if African and African-Americans can come together instead of living like odd couples, most of the problems facing Blacks is Diaspora would dissolve. Is the festival working in that light or is it mere entertainment and connection with roots?
Harrington: I don’t think that is our primary purpose but I think it is something that hopefully will come about as a result of the festival. Ours is the celebration of who we are and if we could celebrate who we are, then we can really see where the commonalities are as oppose to the differences. People can come to the festival and dance and enjoy the same experience with others, it says we have something in common. Our we are closer to each other and hopefully they will talk to each other and build thing up from there.