Lichen Frittata

Smithsonian Festival: Weirder Than Usual

Posted in Uncategorized by lichenfrittata on July 4, 2009
Could be Columbia Heights/Georgetown/Anacostia.

Could be Columbia Heights/Georgetown/Anacostia.

The Smithsonian’s annual tricultural shindig on the Mall is always kind of a strange experience for those raised in a hypersensitive environment like Columbia, where no issue of representation goes un-problematized. It always has this amusement-park quality, taking the highlights of a given region of the world and translating them into fun-for-the-whole family activities—cooking demonstrations, arts workshops, concerts—with any unsavory elements simply overlooked.

This year’s, however, had an additional twist. They picked two cultures with strong representation in D.C.: “Las Americas”, somehow taking in all of central and South America; and something called “Giving Voice,” centered around African American culture. Those two areas of the Mall, predictably, were heavily attended by Hispanic and black people respectively.  To heighten the effect even further, the culture in the middle might be the whitest  thing they could have found: Wales.

The Las Americas section was the best of the three, with a fantastic mariachi group and generally a welcoming and vivacious atmosphere. Wales felt tame by comparison; it’s a very mutton-and-potatoes type of place, with much of its excitement stemming from its mythical past. Perhaps because I’ve spent the last four years so near Harlem, a large part of its source material, I found the Giving Voice section to be uniquely troubling. Tents labeled “the Barber Shop” and “the Radio Station” seemed especially odd when there are places not five miles away that they are supposed to represent. Celebrating oral tradition is great, but situating it in a Disneyfied version of the Black World raises a whole bunch of problems: are we just going to ignore the drug den that might be next door to the barber shop? Isn’t putting a musician on a stage in what’s supposed to be a still-living culture sort of an exoticizing act? As great as cultural self-examination is, I’m super uncomfortable with the idea of  taking a section of America, distilling it through the Smithsonian prism, and putting it on display.

Unlike previous festivals where the chosen cultures have been relatively removed, either geographically or chronologically—the Mekong Delta, ante-bellum Virginia, NASA—this one hits close to home. Going there and feeling like an outsider in a tent full of black people or Hispanic people, where the only refuge of cultural sameness for a white person is the section on Wales, is more an education about our own time and place than any other.

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