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Kinte festival honors Maryland's roots in black culture


Leonard A. Blackshear likes to tell this story about a 4-year-old Baltimore boy who was asked if he'd ever been to Africa.

"You get on the No. 14 bus," the child said, "and Africa is at the end of the line."

The No. 14 bus runs from Baltimore to Annapolis, where this weekend the fifth annual Kunta Kinte Commemoration and Heritage Festival, a celebration of African culture, begins. The chairman is Mr. Blackshear, one of the owners of AEI TeleSonics, an Annapolis telecommunications firm.

The festival, which continues with events next weekend and exhibits through October, is named for the African whose story was made famous by one of his descendants, Alex Haley, in "Roots."

"Kunta Kinte came to only one state," Mr. Blackshear said. "And we know how to appreciate him."

Kunta Kinte arrived in Annapolis Sept. 29, 1767, aboard the Lord Ligonier, a ship that carried 98 Africans who were sold into slavery. His tales of life in Africa and his belief in family were carefully tended and handed down through the American generations. When "Roots" became a best-seller and a TV network mini-series, Kunta Kinte's story found an international audience.

That story, Mr. Blackshear said, is important to all ethnic groups. Heritage, he believes, must be saved and celebrated.

"When Italians do something about being Italian and Greeks do something about being Greek, that's applauded," Mr. Blackshear said.

He believes too many African-Americans know little about their culture, and sees a great distinction between thinking of oneself as black and thinking of oneself as African-American.

"The person who's thinking about being black is functioning from a race-based thinking," Mr. Blackshear said. "When you're thinking black, you think back to slavery and you want to run away from it."

But slavery, Mr. Blackshear said, is "a period of bondage" in a culture that goes back thousands of years. "We're finally fTC awakening to the realization that we have a culture," he said. And no matter what your ethnic background, he added, "Isn't it comforting to be able to reach back and find things in your heritage to help you through?"

The festival -- whose sponsors include the city of Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, the Anne Arundel Medical Center and the Maryland Department of Tourism as well as area businesses -- includes music, dance, art, history and African-American foods. The festival grounds, on the campus of St.John's College in Annapolis, are designed to resemble an African village.

Today will be devoted to schoolchildren, with a program of music, drama and storytelling. Last year, he said, the festival's organizers expected 650 youngsters and teachers. Nine hundred showed up. This year, they've taken reservations for 2,000 and turned 300 more away.

"For an African-American kid, it's very important," Mr. Blackshear said. "He's sitting next to a white kid and he sees everybody is enjoying something African."

Kunta Kinte is the centerpiece of the events. "At one level, Kunta Kinte is a man who had tremendous belief in himself," Mr. Blackshear said. The African was determined to survive and to keep his story alive for his children and their children.

"If he was not successful, we would not have known about Kunta Kinte at all. He was able to pass his faith down over 200 years of family. If he could do that, he speaks to a certain energy that's in us all."

Kunte Kinte also "symbolizes the coming, the passage of the Africaninto America," Mr. Blackshear said. And his story, which has been published around the world, "has transcended the South and spoken to other cultures" whose people feel oppressed. "Kunta Kinte echoes what many other ethnic groups have gone through," Mr. Blackshear added. "Kunta Kinte is becoming a cultural icon all over the world."

But the festival can have more than cultural impact, the chairman said. Ambassadors of African nations have visited the events. "Cultural relationships lead to economic ties," he said. As African countries expand their trade with the United States, "in the long run, this is going to be a major contribution to the economy of Maryland and the port of Baltimore."

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