Congo Square Market — A Meeting Place in the Marketplace

Community - Community Projects

By Zuri Sabir

Trommelwirbel afrikanische Trommeln 2011

We can make clear what peaceful coexistence means. It means living in peace and friendship with another kind of society — a fully integrated society where the people control their destinies, where poverty and illiteracy have been eliminated, and where new kinds of human beings develop in the framework of a new level of social living.

— Paul Robeson, Paul Robeson Speaks

The Congo Square Market takes place weekly at Ithaca's Southside Community Center. Every Friday evening, its execution is simple and effective: tables for vendors are sequenced in a circle facilitating an equal flow of foot traffic to each business, and an innovative halo of protection from the sun is created by a system of wooden poles suspending white tarps, well supported by cables. Music plays through the evening, rounding out an indelible sense of home.

For three years now, with this year's run beginning Friday, May 4, Congo Square Market has provided the Southside community with fresh offerings — fruits, vegetables, juices, homemade foods from a variety of cultures — as well as cultural enrichment and inclusion in Ithaca's mayoral debates. But fresher still are the goals of spreading liberating ideals within Ithaca's black community and beyond.

At its core, Congo Square Market looks similar to that of its namesake, Congo Square in New Orleans. The original Congo Square was situated in the French Quarter of New Orleans and was a place where Natives, and later slaves, used to sell and exchange goods. In the early 19th century, these slaves expressed themselves at weekly gatherings through musical, political, spiritual and, significantly, economic exchange. What Congo Square Market founder Jhakeem Haltom desires to emphasize through this venture is the unity and liberation that those blacks at Congo Square experienced centuries ago in the midst of slavery. Most inspiring is the reality of these people, who had the least, not only establishing themselves as independent, confident producers of sustenance and expressing positive spiritual ideals, but also sharing these gains among themselves, and, ultimately, with the world.

"I couldn't offer something that was just philosophical to help heal the community," says Haltom as we talk about his motivations for the community project. "I was going to have to give something very real. So, if it is money that our community respects right now, we need to start creating it ourselves, though hopefully this marketplace will extend beyond what everyone finds so important in money. The real goal is to have a meeting place in the marketplace, allowing it to be the heartbeat of the community, where needs are met."

Original goals for the market were created in response to the ironic disconnect that black Americans, and on a larger scale most Americans, have with the land. "We're so backwards in our relationship with what the earth has to provide for us that, for now, all we can do is, in a representational way, grow a few plants in our backyards," says Haltom. "It's not enough for us to live throughout the year to provide food for ourselves, but the initiative to grow begins to represent a sense of hope. It's not everything, but it represents progress. I realized that we are in a state of emergency, and I have to do something to allow young people in the black community to see movement of what they see as so valuable — money — happening among people who look like them."

"We have a ways to go in terms of realizing these goals, but we are stepping along the path to realization," he continues. "There have been many people who have done important things — for example, Eldred and Christina's Diaspora on the Commons — connected to the movement of things regarding the selling of wisdom and doing things that create life for us. I just hope to create a coalescing point for Ithaca to come together."

This year at the market, you can expect to see Haltom and others working consistently at creating a fertile space for Ithacans to experience each other and exchange. The Youth Farm Project will be present with fresh produce and products for sale, there will be clothing, jewelry, and crafts, and you can look forward to a large variety of good food — now featuring Ethiopian cuisine! Fruits and Roots is ready for a new season of offering delicious, high-quality fruit juices and smoothies and — in a spirit much like Congo Square — the market will feature a summer concert series booming with local rhythm.

For those interested in vending, volunteering or performing at Congo Square Market, you may contact Jhakeem Haltom at 607.351.7602.

It feels like coming full circle to be writing about Fruits and Roots (the subject of the first article I wrote for GreenLeaf) and Congo Square Market, which allowed me to vend over the summer, linking me to Kirtrina Baxter, who pointed me toward GreenLeaf to begin with. This May article marks the end of my experience writing for the GreenLeaf. I must say a heartfelt thanks to editor Kristie Snyder for polishing my articles to shiny cohesiveness as well as GreenLeaf's readers, who have been a wonderful source of feedback and conversation.

Editor's note: We wish to thank Zuri for her reporting on various topics "Around Town" over the past few months, and we wish her and her family the best of luck as they move on from Ithaca. We plan to continue the Around Town column, though it may be on hiatus for a month — stay tuned!