Arts & Culture

Iowa's African American festival moves online to continue celebration, education for 22nd year

'I'll Make Me a World in Iowa' festival first held in 1999

Your Queens, an authentic African Storytelling troupe based in New York, shares the stories of ancient African queens an
Your Queens, an authentic African Storytelling troupe based in New York, shares the stories of ancient African queens and kings through word, song and dance. The ensemble will give a virtual keynote presentation during Saturday’s Celebration Day for I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa, the state’s African American festival. (Your Queens)
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Organizers thought 300 people might come to the inaugural I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa festival on Jan. 30, 1999.

Instead, 1,000 people flocked to the State Historical Building in Des Moines for a daylong event showcasing African American arts, culture, soul food, exhibitors and a national headliner.

Planning began in 1998, when Iowans answered the nationwide challenge to create local events inspired by the PBS and Blackside Productions airing of the “I’ll Make Me a World” mini-series. Slated for February 1999, the series highlighted the history of African American arts in the 20th century, featuring Vanessa Williams, Spike Lee, Wynton Marsalis, choreographers Bill T. Jones and Arthur Mitchell, and other Black trailblazers living and deceased.

Over the years, Iowa’s festival expanded to two days, adding education components and touring collaborations. Attendance grew to more than 20,000 people from across Iowa, the Midwest and beyond, and as it grew, it outgrew so many venues that it finally landed in the spacious Iowa Events Center in downtown Des Moines.

“It’s really been a gathering point for Iowa’s African American community — but not just the African American community — many people who wanted to learn about the culture and also for many people who appreciate diversity in our state,” said Betty Andrews of Des Moines, the festival’s executive director and CEO, which she describes as “chief empowerment officer.”

“Empowerment” is a watchword for the two-day event, building bridges between races and building off the theme: “African American history is every American’s history.”

“We gather to honor a culture rich with pride, hope, resilience and joy,” Andrews posted on the event’s Celebration Day Web page, worldiniowa.com/celebration-day. “We gather to honor those who have toiled and paved the way and those that now push powerfully forward. We gather to lift spirits and touch hearts. We gather to remember, to share, and to educate. We have made our world in Iowa and we gather to celebrate.”

Virtual realm

With the continuing pandemic, however, this year’s free festival is pivoting to an online platform Friday and Saturday.

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“We have a saying: First we educate, then we celebrate,” Andrews noted, so Friday morning’s Education Day will put history and learning in the spotlight. It’s typically open to middle school and high school students who come to the festival site in person, but this year, it’s open to all grade levels online. About 1,500 students have already registered, and even though the website says registration ended Monday, Andrews said schools and parents can enroll interested young people through Wednesday at worldiniowa.com/education-day

From 9 to 11 a.m., the youths will embark on a virtual field trip offering cultural and STEM keynote talks, workshops, and oratory and business pitch competitions.

Saturday’s free Celebration Day runs from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., featuring cultural workshops with local and national experts, virtual vendors and exhibitors, Black history facts, engagement activities and entertainment.

At 10:30 a.m., viewers can get up from behind their screens and join fitness experts for a morning pump-up. Registration is required at worldiniowa.com/wellness-expo

The festival also marks the premiere of the video series, “It Is My Right: Stories of African American Civil Rights in Iowa.” Led by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, the project documents oral histories, undersung heroes and overlooked sites in seven segments: activism, education, employment, housing, legal history, politics and government, and social life.

As host for the video series, Andrews even learned a thing or two, especially about the origins of one of the festival’s collaborating organizations, the African American Museum of Iowa, located in Cedar Rapids.

She said the idea for a museum grew out of Black history facts Dedric Doolin would share with worshippers at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids. The members rallied around the idea of preserving these memories, and in 1993, the church provided space for the fledgling museum. The current facility, at 55 12th Ave. SE, was built in 2003, then repaired, rebuilt and reopened in 2009 after taking on 5.5 feet of floodwater in 2008.

“(Doolin) actually is the inspiration for the African American Museum of Iowa, and I found that out filming this documentary,” Andrews said.

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Festival attendees also can learn from cultural workshops on tracing African American roots; the Black church; celebrity chefs and soul food makeovers; educating the Black child; entrepreneurship; finances; improving health risk factors; mental health; the state’s African American politicians; sports; social justice movements; and “Rediscovering Buxton: The Black Utopia of Iowa.”

“Throughout the day, we’re going to be addressing health in our community,” Andrews said. “One particular section we’ll be talking about is COVID-19 and the vaccine, because there is a lot of concern about whether or not African Americans would like to take — or feel comfortable taking — the vaccine. Historically, there have been some medical nightmares when it comes to African Americans and experimentation, thinking about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment,” she noted, as well as the Henrietta Lacks cancer cells harvesting controversy, forced sterilization and other issues.

ENTERTAINMENT

The event also will include artistic and cultural performances and discussions, as well as these national keynote speakers:

• Christian Keyes, an actor and producer with more than 40 stage performances and more than 1,200 theatrical shows through national tours. His television credits include “In Contempt,” “9-1-1,” “The Rookie,” “Supernatural,” “The Boys” and season 5 of “Saints and Sinners.”

• Your Queens, an African Storytelling troupe based in New York. Through word, song and dance, they share the stories of ancient African queens and kings from Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt, including Cleopatra, Nefertiti, the goddess Isis and King Tut.

• Nikki Boyd, an entrepreneur, author and social media lifestyles influencer, with more than 1 million followers. Her business, At Home With Nikki, began on YouTube. She also has written a book, “Beautifully Organized: A Guide to Function and Style in Your Home.”

Past festivals have attracted such headliners as Anthony Anderson, Shemar Moore, Blair Underwood, Vivica A. Fox, Billy Dee Williams, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Hill Harper, Lynn Whitfield and Ruben Studdard, season 2 winner of “American Idol.”

The initial intent was to bring in former Iowans, “but we ran out pretty quickly,” said Andrews, who joined the festival planning one month after it started 1998.

And when she reaches out to the stars, the reaction is pretty much the same. “It’s like, ‘Iowa — really? There are Black people there?’ Then when I share a little bit about who we are, they’re blown away.”

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Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

About the African American Festival

• What: I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa: Iowa’s African American Festival

• When: Friday and Saturday

• Where: Online at worldiniowa.com

• Cost: Free

• Education Day: 9 to 11 a.m. Friday — for students; cultural and STEM keynotes, oratory and business competitions (registration closed), workshops, Black history sharing and video, college readiness and cultural presentations; parents and schools can register students through Wednesday at worldiniowa.com/education-day

• Celebration Day: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday — cultural workshops with local and national experts, virtual vendors and exhibitors, Black history facts, engagement activities, entertainment, premiere of video series, “It Is My Right: Stories of African American Civil Rights in Iowa,” and 10:30 a.m. wellness experience; registration required by Saturday at worldiniowa.com/celebration-day

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