A dancer wows the crowd as a drummer beats on a drum at Susan Campbell Park, during the 31st annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival in Annapolis, Md. This year marked a return of the festivities, despite the pandemic. photo by Christian Smooth

On a sun-filled September Saturday, Stewart Blake of Lothian sat alongside his sister while watching entertainers stir up the crowd, during the 31st annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival. Blake attended the festival for the third time as a part of a family tradition. During the 31st annual event, a friend joined the duo who came to celebrate the spirit of Kunta Kinte on September 25, 2021. They sat in a shady spot in portable chairs—with masks visible— while facing a stage in Susan Campbell Park located at the Annapolis City Dock. Despite the festival’s hiatus last year due to the pandemic, locals and individuals who hailed from near and far warmly embraced a new chance to socialize, celebrate African and Caribbean heritage, and pay homage to Kunta Kinte and the late author Alex Haley. Kinte was Haley’s enslaved descendant who arrived in Annapolis on the Lord Ligonier in 1767.

This year marked a return of family and friends reuniting in the public space after COVID-19 created a wedge in a town which is known for being a cohesive community. It was also a homecoming of sorts. Haley’s grandson—Bill Haley— had a first-time opportunity to attend the festivities with his cousins, Chris Haley and Alan Haley. Ousman Taal, Malick L. Manga, and Ambassador Ousman Sallah joined them as special guests. “I guess it has been since I lived on the West Coast that I didn’t attend the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival over previous years, although I had been to Annapolis many times. I had not been there during  the time the festival was happening,” Bill said. “I’m so grateful that our family celebrated my grandfather with The Alex Haley Legacy Round Table Discussion the day before the festival.

It covered behind the scenes recollections of his life and his journey in writing “Roots.” The event brought me to Annapolis. Being physically present, the festival brought home in a personal way the impact of ‘Roots’ and its legacy in the city of Annapolis.” Except for Chris and Alan, the other three men also attended the event for the first time. They traveled from Washington state, Los Angeles, California and another part of Maryland.

Taal is the grandson of Binta Kinte and Kebba Fofana who hailed from the village of Jufureh in The Gambia. Fofana told Alex the oral history of Kunta Kinte’s family, when the late author was researching the origin of his African ancestor in 1967, according to Bill. Sallah served as the first Gambian ambassador to the U.S. and was a close friend to Alex Haley. Malick Manga was the son of that late Ebou Manga, who was the chief Gambian cultural advisor for both Roots miniseries which aired in the late seventies.

Amid walking history, the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival’s main stage was hosted by Terrell Freeman and comedian Chris Dillard. Acts like the “Clones of Funk” returned and inspired festival goers to let the weight of masks and hand sanitizer melt away as their melodic beats eased thoughts of stressful times. A fashion show, a genealogy talk, and other activities offered more opportunities to escape for the day.

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.’s members provided community service information at a table. “We’ve done a lot of Zoom events,” Lacetta Bowman said, noting the Annapolis Alumnae Chapter’s involvement during the pandemic. “As college educated-women, we stand out, and we’re going to make a difference in the community.” Vendors like Dana Anderson—owner of Classic Desserts by Dana, LLC – met the needs of what festival goers might want to eat as sweet treats. It was the service-disabled veteran’s first time participating as a food vendor during a special event. Anderson neatly presented chocolate chip cookies, snickerdoodle cookies, sliced cake and other goodies for sale through her Maryland Cottage Food Business which operates as a home-based bakery.

“The Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival was a great experience and it allowed me to get exposed to working side-by-side with other vendors. It also allowed me the opportunity to network and get other opportunities to vend at other similar events. I truly enjoyed the experience, and it was a great day,” Anderson said. “It took me almost two months to plan, organize, bake, and get my marketing together for this event, but it was well worth it.”

Stewart Blake, left, enjoys a festive afternoon in Annapolis while watching entertainers with his sister and a friend.

Stewart Blake, left, enjoys a festive afternoon in Annapolis while watching entertainers with his sister and a friend. Photo by Andrea Blackstone

Dana Anderson

Dana Anderson speaks to a customer while vending at an event for the first time. Photo by Andrea Blackstone

A vendor assists a customer

A vendor assists a customer at this year’s Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival. Photo by Andrea Blackstone

The Clones of Funk move the crowd with funk-filled beats.

The Clones of Funk move the crowd with funk-filled beats. Photo by Andrea Blackstone