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Durag Fest is Black People’s Chance to Capitalize on Culture

After having one margarita too many — it was one, I had one margarita — I scroll obsessively through my social media feeds, as I often do after a brief binge. It’s the fifth of May, and even if you speak no Spanish at all, you know that this calendar date is celebrated internationally as Cinco de Mayo.

Alexandra Jane (Photo by Brandon Grate)

Had I forgotten between tequila sips, the holiday hashtag would have promptly aided me in my recollection. There’s a parade of sombreros down my timeline — sombreros on babies, the elderly and collegiates. There are sombreros on professionals and your average guys and gals next door; sombreros on cats and dogs; and matching sombreros on lovers. There are pinatas, Coachella-esque flower crowns, Selena memes and, of course, taco pic after taco pic after taco pic.

No, I suppose I could not have forgotten if I tried. Besides, I’m certainly far from trying. After all, I’m sitting in the midst of a numbered bar crawl stop at a Mexican restaurant in Uptown. Although I’m only here for the food, each person present is taking part in the celebration of a culture that is representative of only a small percentage of the collective gathered.

I find it interesting that Cinco de Mayo is not celebrated throughout Mexico, at least not to the extent that it is here in the U.S. Most Mexicans carry out business as usual on this day; banks and schools remain open, as well as government offices and retail establishments. Although it’s often mistaken as the Mexican Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo is actually a holiday dedicated to the victory that followed The Battle of Puebla between the small town of Puebla in East Central Mexico and French Troops. Here in the states, especially in parts of the country where there are high populations of Mexican-American citizens, there are grandiose celebrations. The best part, it seems, is that even those of us not of Mexican descent are welcome to participate in the festivities, this being the reason I am moving toward the bottom of a margarita.

I am positioned in Que Onda on West Trade Street where the tequila is flowing freely and the nacho toppings are piled high. The mood here is festive on any given day, but on Cinco de Mayo, the decor is more lively, the crowd is amped up, the music louder. There is an olive-skinned DJ in the corner spinning a mix of bachata, hip-hop and reggaeton. My hips rock back and forth in my seat as I sip and scroll as I come across a post by local artist and personal acquaintance Jimi Thompson, aka Dammit Wesley. The post contains a picture captured at the inaugural Durag Fest, held in June 2018 at Camp North End. Thompson and his dedicated team of creatives were inspired by the Durag March organized by Joseph Headen in Durham earlier that year and the durag culture that lived mainly through memes in the digital dwelling of Twitter, especially through the #DuragHistoryWeek hashtag.

Durag Fest 2018 (Photo courtesy of BlkMrktClt)

Thompson wanted to transform this simple garment into an African-American artifact to serve as the subject matter of an over-the-top, living, breathing art exhibition. Durag Fest went viral, gaining national media attention in some digital outlets, inspiring countless memorable videos and pics and birthing another hashtag that is sure to outlive us all. Travel down this bunny hole of digital documentation and you’ll see a truly safe and inclusive space where Black folx came out in droves to flex in all of their splendid glory. There were durags on babies, elders and collegiates. Durags on executives and around-the-way girls and homeboys from the block their durags proudly positioned like crowns. Black people without the burden or hindrance of respectability politics. The entire scene was an absolute vibe that I regretfully missed due to the obligations of working two retail jobs at the time.

I had no doubt that the event would be successful, as it was not this team’s first attempt at producing something on this level, but the magnitude of this success became apparent to me after a few photos and videos recapping the event were posted to the Instagram account of popular Black culture and gossip blog The Shade Room.

It wasn’t until two days later when Thompson became aware of the retroactive attention the event was getting. For the next week, his social accounts were abuzz with activity, the virality peaking when the story made its way into ESPN programming. Despite not having full control of the story, he was pleased with the attention the event did receive.

(Photo courtesy of BlkMrktClt)

With the second installation of the Durag Fest planned for June 15, Wesley’s post during Cinco de Mayo was no coincidence. This is his chance to explore his vision of a holiday with historical relevance for Black culture, made stronger by the Durag Fest’s timing, purposefully placed on the nearest weekend to Juneteenth.

I’ll admit, I was unaware of the inaugural Durag Fest’s connection to Juneteenth. I know of Juneteenth in the same way I know of my aunt’s husband’s brother’s nephew. The memory is hazy. I know he came around in summer, maybe there were hot dogs? My mother was no Black Panther, but she made it a point to take me to events in my hometown of Greensboro that would connect me to my African-American heritage. I do recall attending a Juneteenth celebration once in a large park where there were drums being played, dominoes being slapped, food being grilled, bubbles being blown. I also recall there being a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, is a celebratory observance of the complete abolishment of slavery in the former Confederate states in America as of June 19, 1865. These celebrations included activities such as barbecues, rodeos, sports, games, prayer circles and discussions surrounding education and self-improvement, with participation growing with every new generation of descendants.

Throughout the decades, popularity of Juneteenth celebrations continuously see-sawed. This happened as folks lost their land during the Great Depression and space to claim was hard to come by. The Civil Rights movement of the ’60s and Black liberation movements of the ’70s brought about a resurgence of the celebration as pride and empowerment of Black peoples were at an all-time high, only to be met with a decline shortly thereafter. Finally, the commemorative date became a national holiday in 1980 through the efforts of Al Edwards, former member of the Texas state legislature.

Juneteenth is our holiday. Juneteenth is our independence day. I have more memories, however, of celebrating the Fourth of July than the Nineteenth of June — more memories even of dressing in green as to avoid getting pinched on Saint Patrick’s Day, hand-traced turkeys on Thanksgiving, exchanging treats in honor of St. Valentine and, dare I say, sporting a pilgrim costume in a background role of a Columbus Day play.

This is troublesome to me. At once, my mind conjures images of top hats and hearts, bunny rabbits crucified and resurrected, turkey feathers falling over the bodies of screaming Native children, leprechauns dancing around a fire of roasting elves and somewhere in the far corners of my mind, fireworks explode in rapid succession. I am sobered.

(Photo courtesy of BlkMrktClt)

With my attention focused back on Thompson’s post, it is clear to me the point that he is trying to get across. The “woke” among us already realize that every major U.S. holiday is rooted in consumerism. There are greeting cards to stamp and mail, decorations to adorn our homes, clothing to adorn our bodies, food to purchase and prepare, etc.

If the holiday is additionally rooted in the history of a particular culture, then in order to guarantee yourself an authentic celebratory experience, you more than likely (and hopefully) patronize businesses owned by people of that culture. Comparatively, while people of all ethnicities indulge in the labors and creations produced by Black culture, we are rarely the financial beneficiaries of this indulgence.

In the caption of the Dammit Wesley post, he reiterates that point: “This is more than durags in a park, this is about rebranding a Black holiday into an economic staple in the American lifestyle. Imagine people spending as much money on Juneteenth as they do for V[alentine’s] Day, St. Patrick’s, The Fourth [of July], Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas? It’s about time we profit off of our own cultural celebrations.”

I couldn’t agree more. My only pushback here is that if this vision manifests itself in the way we see it, Black people would have to grant it permission to prosper. What I mean is that as a culture, we have become quite sensitive to the idea of non-people-of-color (NPOC) participating in behaviors and rocking styles that mimic Black identity. We are quick to call out a “culture vulture.”

(Photo courtesy of BlkMrktClt)

It is my personal belief that cultural appropriation triggers us not because of its existence, but because of the context surrounding that existence; because more often than not, when we see gelled edges on magazine covers, it is called bold and trendy, because when the latest accessories are reported as being oversized gold-hoop earrings, we know good and well that when our sister walked into the office last week with an identical pair, she was ridiculed and called ghetto, because so often we feel as if NPOC have waltzed into our homes without invitation and borrowed everything that belongs to us while claiming it as their own.

I believe that community dialogue around ethical and culturally responsible participation in necessary, and Juneteenth could be that invitation to share in both traditional and modern aspects of Black culture. In turn, this participation would translate to dollars poured into the pockets of the Black community by way of supporting Black-owned restaurants, businesses, venues and other endeavors; Black stylists, DJs, venues, dancers, barbers, vocalists, poets, muralists and more. The profits could then be funneled to the families of these creatives and entrepreneurs, giving them — us — a way to pull ourselves up and out of the barrels we are trapped inside.

I have heard many times that you have to pay to play, but tell me, when have Black people ever had the opportunity to be dealt into the game? The way I see it, if society repeatedly tells us that it is our responsibility alone to free ourselves from economic oppression, we are at least owed the chance to do so.

Durag Fest takes place on June 15 from 4-10 p.m. at Camp North End, 1776 Statesville Ave.; Tickets range from $20-45.

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