AN INCLUSIVE TABLE: What Festivals Taught Me About The Value Of Diversity

Festival season in the Mahoning Valley has always been one of my favorite times to create memories with my family. Youngstown’s multitude of neighborhood and cultural festivals allow us to reinforce our unique community by allowing us to share our varied traditions and support each other’s businesses.

As a child, I don’t think I appreciated how my worldview was being shaped by having events like the Italian festival serve as a backdrop to my life. These festivals introduced me to Italian food, which in this area is more authentic than in many other parts of the country.

Our local Italian American community comprises business owners like the late Fernando Riccioni of Wedgewood Pizza, who made a home here immediately after leaving Italy. Like the Italian community, our local Slovakian and Greek communities — to name a few — are all made up of families that arrived here within the past two generations. It keeps cultural authenticity at a high level and fosters a better cultural education environment.

While people think of coastal cities like New York and Boston as early immigration hubs, Ohio has always had a significant immigrant population. According to Ohio History Central, by 1860, the state was home to 328,249 foreign-born residents. By 1900, the number of immigrants had grown to 458,734, though the foreign-born percentage had dropped to 11 percent. This means that, despite having immigrated to the United States, many of these families have held fast to their cultural identities.

Festival season in Mahoning County allows you to experience authentic cultural diversity in real time. So many ethnic communities open their cultural celebrations to the rest of us, allowing us to learn, partake and share in their traditions in a way that gives us a sense of ownership. But for me, the experience also carries a bittersweet undertone.

Like most African Americans, I cannot trace my family’s ancestry to a specific set of pre-American traditions. Though some enslaved Africans could maintain and pass down a few cultural norms, so much of slavery was built on dehumanizing Black people that many of these traditions have been lost to history forever, even when we can pinpoint our family’s African origins on a map.

I say it’s bittersweet because, like all other cultural groups that make up the Mahoning Valley’s population, Black Ohioans have certainly created our traditions that encompass food, music and many contributions to the state’s history.

But there is a broader lesson to be learned here: According to the most recent census, Mahoning County’s racial makeup was “81.04% White, 15.87% Black or African American, 0.17% Native American, 0.47% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 1.03% from other races, and 1.38% from two or more races.” Your Morning Matters Sign up for our morning newsletter, where we break down the Valley's must-read stories and why they matter.

These figures say nothing of our community’s rich cultural diversity, particularly our African American residents. Contrary to popular belief, Black people are not a monolith. While we may share similarities, nuances across our traditions, food and dialect are distinct and should be respected and appreciated as such. Let this festival season serve as a reminder to see your neighbors as more than the color of their skin.