Healthy Soul

Washington, DC – Smithsonian Folklife Festival

My friend Valarie and I are on our own Black History tour aboard Amtrak, visiting heritage sites pertaining to African American history in Chicago; Memphis; Jackson, MS; New Orleans; Birmingham and Washington, DC. We began on Tuesday, June 28, 2011. Here is what we did on Day 11, in Washington, DC. It’s the final day of our trip.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival was the only item on the day’s agenda. We arrived in Washington, D.C.’s, Union Station about 9:30 a.m. Friday, paid the $40 daily storage fees for our bags and headed to the Metro system directly below the Amtrak station. Using the detailed maps and fare charts posted on the walls, we easily figured out the amount for the fare card ($4.50) for the round trip to the Smithsonian stop and which trains to take.

Challenged at reading maps? Staffed information booths were situated near the entry/exit turnstiles. At the top of each of the stairways and several places on the platforms, linear maps showed the stops on that route. Getting to the festival was very easy. It only took 15 minutes on two of the five-colored lines in the system: the Red line to Metro Center Station, then the Orange line to the Smithsonian Station.

Layout of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall.

Each year the festival features international and national cultural groups and icons. Featured this year were Columbia, Rhythm and Blues and the Peace Corps. Performances of music and dance, “conversations” about different aspects of culture, and cooking demonstrations were going on throughout the day in stages, pavilions and tents set up on the Mall. There were craft stages, hands-on activities for children, and a marketplace where music, clothing and other artifacts were sold.

The harp is the lead instrument in Columbia's Joporo music.

We started out in Columbia with food: a vegetarian dish of rice and peas with plantains for me and cornmeal tortilla stuffed with meat and potatoes for Valarie. Using interpreters, one male dance troupe explained the role of satirical dance in the carnivals held all over the country. Depicting a mother with several daughters all seeking husbands, they dressed as women and had the entire audience doubling over with laughter as they acted out their antics.

Men portrayed women in this satirical Columbian carnival dance.

From there it was to the Rhythm and Blues section of the festival. The barbecue food tent was popular, and the bands we saw – The Dixie Cups, Fred Wesley and the New JB’s and The Jewels – had most of the attendees on the dance floor jamming to Motown standards, Duke Ellington hits and James Brown songs, as well as Do Wop numbers.

The Jewels, back home in Washington, DC.

We wandered through the Peace Corps section, listening to former volunteers sharing their experiences living and working in various parts of the world, and saw many volunteer reunions. Unfortunately, the festival had to close early because of the lightning storm that started about 4 p.m. Just before going into the Metro station, we caught sight of the USDA Farmers Market across the street, but we were too late. It operated from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Fridays. We then retraced our steps to Union Station and window-shopped until it was time for each of us to catch the train home.

Carol Robertson Payton, former head of the Peace Corps.

It was hard saying goodbye after sharing 11 days on a fun vacation. Our friendship was stronger and the memories created will be shared with friends and families for a very long time. One very important lesson learned we learned: Don’t skimp if you can afford a sleeper when taking overnight trips on Amtrak.

That was our summer vacation. What’s yours?


Click here to read the other posts from Jennifer’s Black History Tour.

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  1. Fred Wesley was playing but James Brown was presiding | Auction Finds