Beyond January 6, 2021: What is the future of a festival in the shadow of the Capitol?

A view of the Smithsonian Folklore Festival at the 2014 National Mall.

Photo by Francisco Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Editor’s Note: In the fall of 2020, festival director Sabrina Lynn Motley attended the Schleswig-Holstein Global Seminar. What is the future of the festival? He contributed the following thoughts to the final report of the seminar published in February.

What is part of this thought bears little resemblance to my original draft. The first edition was buttoned and edited correctly to suit anyone who works for an American cultural organization. It was an imitation of creativity amid a global epidemic, civic instability and an alarming number of environmental crises. Encouraged by my time at the Salzburg Global Seminar Program What is the future of the festival?, I have developed poetry about the role of festivals in bridging, connecting, and healing. It wasn’t award-winning prose, but it was a heartfelt reflection of last year’s online conversation.

And then.

On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, I found myself in digital communication with millions of people around the world. Together, we have seen the blockade at the symbolic heart of American democracy with stunned disbelief.

After listening to scholars for hours on end expressing everything from confusion to anger, my thoughts floated towards creating the festival. I admit that I have asked myself more than once: “What’s the use?” It was not just a philosophical question.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which I currently oversee, is held at the National Mall in Washington DC. Since 1967, saving one person every summer, we have created a makeshift city on the same land where Martin Luther King Jr. called us to the beloved community. We’ve brought together artisans, musicians, chefs and more to share their stories with their hand and heart work. We gather hundreds of staff, interns, and volunteers online and online to meet the needs of our visitors. We are also stone throwers from the Capitol.

The place where we pitched our tents was the gathering point for those determined to “take back their country” by violently ignoring the good of the common people. So, again, my question was not non-existent. That Wednesday, a line seemed to have been crossed. Is it worth all the good that comes out of the festival that people will suffer as a result of coming to the path of suffering?

The approach was needed and fast.

West view of the US Capitol building, with crowds of protesters moving forward.

Black Lives Matter Protest, Mall June, 2020 at National Mall

Photo by Albert Tong

The pressure of time is long and not always linear, but a willing teacher of history. Fifty years ago, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival was created as a reformer of a country broken by racism, discrimination and war (the term is known?). Its founders wanted to make a statement about who contributed to the American promise, and who deserved it. They realized that how we respond to the need to see and see, hear and hear will lead us to connect and heal or to destruction and terror.

Then, as now, creative expression and cultural production played an important role. Holidays that are full of complexity are neither fun nor comfortable.

To be useful, lessons from the past must be tied to questions about what will happen in the future.

At its first meeting What is the future of the festival?, Salzburg Global Vice President Claire Shine challenged us to think about our work with “the radical work of restructuring”. How do we reconsider programming that creates innovative responses to racism, segregated discrimination, and environmental degradation and ignites respect, potential, and I dare say, joy? How do we create a space for mutual learning and transformational engagement?

The Salzburg Global Program provides a significant reminder of the patronage of creating festivals when we ask ourselves questions that “inspire new thinking and action, and … connect local inventors to global resources.” It is here, when we face the underlying injustice and deal with our collective grief, that we find a steady force in this work – and, ultimately, the point.

Yes. Really the future of the festival.

Sabrina Lynn Motley is the director of the Smithsonian Folklore Festival.

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