From Eatonville's Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities in late January to Sunrise's Grace Jamaica Jerk Festival in November, Florida lures African-Americans all year long, with a calendar rich in cultural, professional and culinary events.
They come for food, friends and football, beaches and business, music and motorcycles -- at events stretching from Pensacola to Miami Beach.
In May, more than 5,000 filmmakers, executives and movie fans converge on Miami Beach for the American Black Film Festival. The three-day event is considered the "leading venue for African-American and urban content," and also features premieres of short films, narrative and documentaries.
The 2013 festival will feature the debut screening of Kevin Hart's concert movie Kevin Hart: Let me Explain at the Ritz Carlton and the Colony Theater.
For those whose visual entertainment preferences tend toward live action, May in South Florida offers up Urban Beach Week, five days of concerts, parties and unstructured revelry in Miami Beach around Memorial Day weekend.
Before that, however, winter's long chill prods Northerners and Midwesterners to turn their attention to the Jazz in the Gardens in Miami Gardens, where each March some of the best voices in R&B perform. According to organizers, more 63,000 people walked through the turnstiles in 2013. Most came from outside South Florida, hailing mainly from the Caribbean, Canada and the continental United States.
Over the years, stars including Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, John Legend, Frankie Beverly & Maze, Chaka Khan and Gladys Knight have graced the stage at Sun Life Stadium. In 2013, the Festival in the Gardens didn't disappoint. Mary Mary, Najee, New Edition, Charlie Wilson and the timeless Earth Wind & Fire thrilled concertgoers such as Grant Walker. For the Atlanta-based marketing executive, Jazz in the Gardens has become an annual pilgrimage.
Walker lived in South Florida for years but never attended the festival until after he moved to Atlanta. That first year, he brought along three friends. A year later, he brought along 35 friends. The number rose to 100 and then 130 in March 2013. When the gathering started to grow, destination planner Vanessa Adams in Phoenix, Ariz., took over the travel arrangements, Walker said.
"We come from everywhere in the country – L.A., New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, North Carolina, Charlotte, D.C., Portland – you name it," said Walker, who is part of a Facebook group that celebrates all things Jazz in the Gardens.
"We had such a good time," he said. "We invited some more friends. Everyone normally brings five or six new people every year."
This year, Walker and his group of festivalgoers arrived on a Thursday. There was a welcome dinner on Friday night. On Saturday morning, the group took the Miami Millionaire Row boat tour before a bus drove members to Sun Life Stadium for the concert. On Sunday, the revelers began the day at Gulfstream Park racetrack, then finished up with the festival's concert finale.
"It's more fun than you can ever believe," said Walker. "It's like adult spring break for all of us."
Business and pleasure
While Jazz in the Gardens and other music festivals are magnets for merriment, the annual Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit at the Waldorf Astoria in Orlando is all about business. In 2013, the three-day event attracted about 700 female business executives and entrepreneurs in big groups from "Atlanta, Dallas, New York, Philadelphia, D.C,. California -- really all over," said Alyssa Fant, events program director for Black Enterprise.
"The event was created for executive women of color. It was created so that companies would really have to invest in those women," Fant said. The conference offers sessions in professional development, such as how to negotiate salaries, and lifestyle development, including golf and tennis clinics and spa treatments.
"The idea is that a happy life makes a happy worker," Fant said. "You have to invest in their overall selves to get the best out of them."
Diversity and culture
Florida's diversity makes it a natural for many ethnic events, especially those that celebrate the state's sizable Caribbean population.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the carnival season in Florida doesn't end on Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. It heats up Memorial Day weekend with the Orlando Carnival, followed by celebrations of calypso, soca and everything Caribbean in Tampa (June), Jacksonville (September) and the granddaddy of Sunshine State carnivals in Miami-Fort Lauderdale (Columbus Day weekend in October). Among the Caribbean-flavored events is the Miami/Bahamas Goombay Festival, a June celebration of the presence of Bahamian immigrants in South Florida.
Florida's ethnic diversity is also evident at the dining table. In September, foodies can head west to Pensacola for the annual Seafood Festival. The City of Five Flags isn't called the Red Snapper capital of the world without good reason. The culinary celebration is just one of the cultural and musical reasons to visit the city of white sand beaches throughout the year.
For food tourists who prefer spicier fare, the Grace Jamaica Jerk Festival is mandatory. Held in Sunrise, the "largest Caribbean food festival in the United States" attracts about 16, 000 people, including professional chefs, home cooks and food and music lovers.
Strategically scheduled in November, the festival attracts large numbers of people from New York and people from the islands, especially the Bahamas and Jamaica, according to Eddy Edwards, chairman of the board and founder of the event.
"Folks in New York come down for the weather, and folks from the islands come here to enjoy some of their culture and get some shopping done," Edwards said. "It's never a bad time to shop."
Leo Gidding, one of the regulars at the Jerk Festival, comes to get immersed in the folk songs and food of his native Jamaica.
"They put on the best show ever," said Gidding, who lives in Los Angeles. The domino games, food competitions, rhythms and aromas transport him to a familiar place.
"It's like you see everything that you miss about Jamaica," he said. "Every year you go back you see something new. It makes you feel good."
SIGNATURE AFRICAN-AMERICAN EVENTS IN FLORIDA
Soul Roll Invitational Skate Jam – Tampa
Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit – Orlando
Jazz in the Gardens – Miami Gardens
Miami Dance Festival – Miami
Tom Joyner Fantastic Voyage – Miami
Springing the Blues Festival – Jacksonville
Seabreeze Jazz Festival – Panama City
Urban Beach Week – Miami Beach
Miami/Bahamas Goombay Festival – Coconut Grove
Tampa Caribbean Carnival - Tampa
American Black Film Festival - Miami
Jamaican Fest – Pensacola
Labor Day Blues Fest – Pensacola
Tom Joyner Family Reunion – Orlando
Caribbean Carnival – Jacksonville
Pensacola Seafood Festival – Pensacola
Miami Broward One Carnival – Broward and Miami-Dade County
This story originally appeared at the Visit Florida website, http://www.visitflorida.com.