The New York State Fair Needs More Black Vendors

Op/Ed By Kofi Quaye –

kofi_quayeOn Aug. 23, the New York State Fair will be declared open, amid the usual fanfare.

The governor, or his representative if he is unable to attend, will be there to make it a grand occasion, deliver a speech, and wish fairgoers a good time.

Publicity-seeking politicians will also not miss an opportunity to go to the fair to be noticed by the crowds, kiss babies, and ask people to go out and vote for them to win whatever office it is they may seek.

It will be another successful fair season, measured, as usual, by the difference between last year’s, and this year’s attendance numbers.

And the fair is expected to do precisely what it’s become famous for: provide a 12-day showcase of New York state’s agriculture, entertainment, education, and technology.

State fair aficionados who include the fair as a top priority in their annual calendars of must-do social activities will show up in large numbers, to enjoy the sights and sounds of the fair.

They will go to the fairgrounds, rain or shine (often rain, given the fair’s history of rain soaked days), and others will travel to Syracuse from as far away as Canada and other parts of the country, drawn in by what the fair offers, which is supposedly the best of New York state, packaged and presented as entertainment.

These fairgoers will include many black people from cities across Central New York, as well as throughout the state, and the country.

They will converge at the fair with friends and family, to buy stuff, to eat, attend concerts; have big fun with games and rides, and end the visit with a sense of gratification, knowing it’s been time and money well spent.

It would not be unusual to see people make multiple trips to the fair.

It would also not be presumptuous on my part to say that black people love the state fair, and can’t wait for it to get here.

The state fair is certainly one of the biggest annual events in Central New York, and it is usually one where ethnic consciousness rarely comes into play.

The fair also presents the perfect opportunity for people who may want to make extra money over a short period of time to work different kinds of jobs for long hours, and still get paid reasonably decent wages.

Ironically, those jobs that bring in the most money seem to be the ones which place workers in spots where they can receive the most tips.

And, these are jobs which don’t require a college degree, or any special skills.

For instance, I know people who’ve worked at the fair whose only task was to take care of the restrooms.

They brought home hundreds of dollars in tips alone, every day, from generous fair goers who showed their appreciation.

I also know someone, a black female who used to return to Syracuse each year all the way from Florida, just to work at the fair.

She was a former Syracuse resident, and said she made enough in tips to cover all the expenses she incurred on food, transportation and accommodation, with a lot more left to take care of other bills for a couple of months.

Last year, she looked forward to coming back, to work and enjoy the fair, to make some money, and to visit with her family.

Not anymore.

Her application was denied.

This year, she didn’t apply, and has so far not been given any reasonable explanation.

I know others in the black community who’ve also tried to get black businesses and organizations to participate in the fair over the years as vendors, but who have not made the kind of progress they had in mind.

However, one effort, in particular, has successfully focused on creating a greater black presence at the fair.

Specifically, I would like to cite Vanessa Johnson for the role she’s played in making sure that the African-American community is represented.

She, and others like Irving “Bongo’ Hanslip of Jerk Hut Restaurant, Kwesi Owusu of Timbuktu Imports, and many more, have made significant contributions to maintaining a section called the Pan African Village at the fair, which puts on performances by African drumming and dance groups.

These individuals have succeeded in making the village one of the fair’s biggest attractions, by offering West Indian cuisine, African-American art, fashions, and music.

Mike Atkins, a well-known community leader, has also been involved in coordinating a number of initiatives that have been designed to benefit minority businesses at the fair.

Last year, data suggested that over a million people attended the event, and, this year the number is projected to surpass the previous one.

But, although the fair has grown exponentially in terms of the activities which take place during the event and the businesses that participate in the fair, there has not been any noticeable increase in the number of black businesses serving the public as vendors.

That’s where the big money is, yet, unfortunately, black vendors seem to be missing the action.

Fair management appears to have made an effort to employ black people, not only for grounds work, but in high-profile positions over the years. And, community-based organizations, like Time of Jubilee, have been known to give out free fair tickets to community residents each year, with support from the fair. The fair has also paid for advertisement in black media over the years.

And so, the question remains: why aren’t there more black businesses and organizations vending at the state fair?

All I can say is; we’ll see if it changes this year.

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