Nkechi Ajanaku died last week at age 60. She was best known as the longtime director of the Kuumba Festival, Knoxville’s biggest annual African-American festival since its inception. With the exception of Emancipation Day, Aug. 8, which was celebrated for decades and then forgotten for decades, Kuumba has been Knoxville’s most durable African-American festival. In fact, festivals have multiplied so rapidly in this century, Kuumba is now one of Knoxville’s older cultural festivals. It’s hard to keep anything going that long, and we have Nkechi to thank for that.
I still thought of her as one of the community’s younger cultural leaders. Every loss of a cultural leader is cause for regret. We don’t have enough people with creative energy to devote their careers to enlivening the community. But when each leaves, their board just finds somebody else to fill the role.
That won’t be easy with Nkechi. She wasn’t just the occupant of an office. She was her role. She embodied it. She’s really been the creator and driving force behind much that has happened in Knoxville’s African-American community for the last quarter century.
Her interest in African culture was obvious from a distance. He was always wearing brightly colored, flowing garments that announced her chief passion even before she was close enough to tell you about it. She was the longtime executive director of African American Appalachian Arts (AAAA). It started in 1989, and at first mounted modest art “expositions” in June, with art and dramatic presentations. By 1991, it was called Kuumba—a Swahili word for “creativity” popularized by Kwanzaa celebrations—and it was becoming something different.
Under Nkechi’s guidance, it became a multidisciplinary festival, about food, art, clothing, even literature, and especially music—all forms of black music would get their turn at Kuumba, including blues, rap, jazz, reggae, R&B, gospel, and traditional styles from Africa. It was always a roving festival, originally based at Knoxville College, the Old City, Chilhowee Park, sometimes the then-new Knoxville Museum of Art. It still roams, beginning with the “junkanu” parade of stilt-walkers and African drummers on Gay Street and dance and musical performances on Market Square, but the big party on Sunday is always saved for Chilhowee.
Meanwhile, she was a passionate leader of the Haley Heritage Square movement. After garnering some city and philanthropic funding, that dream resulted in a nice park on Dandridge Avenue and what was then the largest statue of an African-American in the world, the Alex Haley bronze by the late Tina Allen. That park, completed in 1998, became a setting for many of Nkechi’s projects.
Originally from Gary, Ind., she grew up attending a white Catholic school, wondering why she heard only about the history of people other than her own. She attended the Georgia Technical Institute and eventually became a licensed substance-abuse counselor. But she was most interested in culture, and she saw a major lack of cultural opportunities for African Americans, especially here in Knoxville. She started showing up in Knoxville news stories in the early ’90s, associated with Carpetbag Theatre, the International Jubilee, and the Appalachian Center for Urban Ecology, located at what would only later be known as the Knoxville Botanical Garden.
She was not in her job because she was a professional nonprofit type. She got into it because she felt very strongly—more strongly than most folks feel anything, I suspect—that Knoxville needed a regular, conspicuous, undeniable celebration of African-American culture. She once remarked that someone without a sense of their people’s history is a “an empty vessel” or a “walking zombie.” She was here to fill some vessels.
A woman of very strong opinions and political ideals, she was a big supporter of community leader and City Councilman Danny Mayfield, who died at 32 in 2001. She always aimed high. About 15 years ago, she launched an International Literary and Storytelling Festival, to honor Haley’s tradition. It was worth a try. Kuumba, she once predicted, would be a national attraction to Knoxville, and there was a time, when it was attracting major national acts like Silk, that it seemed almost possible.
But she seemed plagued with bad luck. Kuumba suffered from no-shows, terrible weather, other personal problems. She prevailed over several heartbreaks to keep it going every year, whether she brought in a big name or not. Big disappointments can force some to reconsider a more boring career, but Nkechi was passionately intent on fixing the problems and moving on. Even if she didn’t always hit her mark, what she did achieve changed the city for the better.
Reporters who have interviewed her, as I did several times, know she was a passionate woman whose career was not a job but a calling. I don’t know what her birth name was, and it doesn’t matter, but at age 19, she once said, she decided her name was Nkechi, a word for “loyal.” She has been loyal to an ideal.
Friends will hold a celebration of her life on Saturday, June 10, at 3 p.m. at Alex Haley Heritage Square on Dandridge Avenue. Kuumba will go on later this month, June 22-25.
Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.
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