Crown Heights

Steeped in tradition, colorful energy, West Indian Parade struggles to shed heavy crown of violence

September 10, 2015 By Albin Lohr-Jones Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A brightly painted reveler at J'ouvert. See for additional photos. Eagle photos by Albin Lohr-Jones
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On Labor Day, a day dedicated to respite from work and school, some don their swim clothes and make a valedictory trip to the beach, desperately clinging to summer as it slips away. But for more than one million, the destination par excellence is as landlocked as one can imagine. So it was for the massive crowd of participants and spectators who lined Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights for the annual West Indian American Carnival Day.  

Since its inception in Harlem among immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago in the 1920s, the event has changed from being a typical Mardi Gras-styled pre-Lenten Carnival to a late summer festival. No less substantial has been the event’s shift toward being pan-Caribbean in scope, welcoming not only islanders, but also those of heritages from the surrounding mainland, including Guyana and Belize. By collectively celebrating a larger number of cultures and occurring on Labor Day when most are free from work, children home from school and the weather more seasonable than the wintry months proper to Carnival, the West Indian American Day Parade has blossomed into something much greater. Add to that the number of non-Caribbean New Yorkers (and tourists) eager to witness the ensuing spectacle, and it’s easy to understand how the event has become one of the largest annual public gatherings in the city. 

Around 3 a.m., long before sunrise, the celebration started at Grand Army Plaza with “J’ouvert,” a nocturnal parade on Flatbush Avenue through Prospect Park. In keeping with the spirit of traditional Carnival as it would be celebrated in the Caribbean, the festivities intermingle the celebratory and the macabre. Marching along to the sound of multiple steel drum bands and all manner of musical instrument, participants exchange volleys of paint, baby powder and occasionally motor oil. As though on cue, the head of the parade turned from Flatbush and began its march on Empire Avenue just as the sun rose ahead of it: a fitting apotheosis for an event whose name is a contraction of the French “jour ouvert” (day break). 

The parade itself, which kicked off around 11 a.m., was, at least initially, indistinguishable from any other in the city. Political groups, FDNY and NYPD contingents and community associations waving flags of the various Caribbean nations took to Eastern Parkway in a more-or-less orderly fashion. Among the celebrated guests this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo as Honorary Grand Marshal marched alongside his titular equals, including U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Kapp. Representing NYC, Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray zig-zagged Eastern Parkway greeting spectators. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Councilmember Jumaane Williams, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and other municipal figures also joined show of solidarity and merriment. 

As any veteran of the event will testify, however, the real parade — the one that draws more than one million spectators to Crown Heights — begins not with the VIP’s but with the entrance of the street dancers. Thousands of them, in costumes ranging from scant to gargantuan accompanied by tractor-trailer sized mobile sound systems, performed for the crowd. Many of the more lavish costumes worn featured twists on the traditional Carnival feathered headdress, interweaving African symbolism into design or exploding the traditional plumage to proportions that virtually dwarfed the dancers themselves and required affixed wheels to be mobile. 

For all of the good vibes associated with the Carnival, it also bears an unfortunate legacy of violence: its historic predecessor, the Harlem Carnival of the 1940s to 1960s was scrapped due to crimes associated with it, and more recent renditions in Brooklyn have also seen their share of trouble. Though the daytime activities were placid in comparison to previous years, the early morning gunshot that struck and critically wounded Carey Gabay, an aide to Gov. Cuomo, and a number of stabbings that left one dead and several injured cast a shadow over the otherwise festive occasion. 

Among the criticisms of the parade, the misbehavior of some of the younger revelers is often cited as the root cause for these negative occurrences at the festival. As many cultural heritage events in the city have dwindled away from lack of participation by youth, this doesn’t appear so with the West Indian American Day Carnival. With so many young attendants who take such fervent pride in their ancestral identity — many of whom have never visited the lands of their parents and grandparents — and delight in putting that pride on display is any indication, the Carnival will continue… changing and finding new forms of expression for that pride, but certainly refusing to relinquish its vitality.  

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