Carnival come back again

Feathers, national flags and men peddling self-published books; it’s Carnival time not only in Trinidad and Tobago but also in the USA

  • Shopping for Carnival souvenirs along the Parkway. Photograph by Erline Andrews
  • Masquerader in Brooklyn`s children`s carnival. Photograph by Erline Andrews
  • The band Exotica marches down the Parkway. Photograph by Erline Andrews
  • Masquerader in Brooklyn`s children`s carnival. Photograph by Erline Andrews

To find the West Indian American Carnival parade in New York City, head for central Brooklyn—then just follow the throngs in feathers, or in matching T-shirts, or with colourful bandanas around their crowns, necks or rumps.

Emerging from the Utica Avenue subway station, a visitor might be confused, because she won’t immediately see the parade. She won’t even see the Eastern Parkway. It will be hidden by the masses of spectators.

She might wonder if she’s at a typical but crowded street fair as she fends her way among the bodies to look at the cornucopia of goods on vendors’ tables. There’ll be food, of course—roti and jerk chicken. There’ll be miniature Caribbean flags and a variety of products featuring their design: necklaces, sunglasses, even flip-flops. But then there’ll be the unexpected: a table stacked with literature on how you can “free Darfur”; a self-published author peddling copies of his work; a clothing designer offering to turn a T-shirt, on the spot, into something unique with a pair of scissors and spray paint.

If, drawn by the music, the visitor manages to squeeze her way through the crowd, find a break in the barricades, and end up with an unobstructed view of the wide expanse of the Parkway, she might be surprised at the diversity surrounding her. Stretching for miles behind the barricades, a jumble of people will wave versions of the flags of 16 or so nations. On the street, large DJ trucks will play soca in Spanish, English and Creole. There’ll be colourful, intricate costumes, moko jumbies, and feathered, sequined masqueraders—but that’s only one part of it.

Many bands are made up only of people wearing—on some part of their bodies—a national identifier. A float will pass by with smiling and waving priests from a local rectory. A group in black T-shirts will carry anti-Bush and anti-war signs and distribute copies of a communist newspaper.

If the visitor looks towards the end of the parade route she might be awed by the huge mass of people stretching across the Parkway far into the distance, looking dense and shadowy like an encroaching wave. Then, if she had any, her doubts would dissipate that this was the largest annual parade on the planet. More than three million masqueraders and spectators populate the festival, according to its organiser, the West Indian American Day Carnival Association. Marching in the Brooklyn parade last September were New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senator Charles Schumer and other politicians, taking advantage of what may be the best opportunity to get the collective attention of the West Indian population.

Last year the Carnival turned 40. It was a milestone that Brooklyn Carnival founder Carlos Lezama just missed. He died last year at 83. He resuscitated the West Indian Carnival in Brooklyn after it had died out in Harlem, where it had made its North American debut in 1947.

Since then, as the West Indian population abroad has grown—the US is home to about 1,600,000 Caricom nationals, according to the 2000 census—so has the size and reputation of the Brooklyn celebration. It is still the number-one carnival outside the region, becoming a showcase of West Indian-American creativity and entrepreneurship.

Probably the biggest sign of its success has been the number of spin-off festivals across North America. There are 38 of them and counting, according to online listings. They’re deliberately staggered throughout the year so as to benefit from Carnival hounds who can’t get enough of them.

The better known include the Caribana festival in Toronto, which is as old as the Brooklyn carnival, comes off a month before, and attracts about half the number of participants every year; the Miami carnival in early October, which pulls a yearly average of 100,000 participants; the Boston festival in late August, which draws half a million people; and the Montreal carnival in early July, which had about 50,000 spectators last year.

Among the many lesser known ones still trying to grow an audience are the parades in Schenectady, New York, in mid-August; Cambridge, Massachusetts, the day after Boston’s; Tallahassee, Florida, mid-August; and Hamilton, Ontario, mid-August.

Giving rise to controversy—and the question of how many parades is too many—is the phenomenon of multiple carnivals within a small space. Disagreement among organisers has led to two carnival parades in Baltimore, Maryland, one in July, the other in September. St Petersburg and Tampa, cities within the same county in Florida, also have one each. St Petersburg’s is in early June; Tampa’s is in late April.

Organising a parade can be a horrendous undertaking that involves gathering and keeping sponsors’ and participants’ interest. Some cities provide financial assistance; many others don’t, especially at the beginning. A few parades have sprouted briefly before fading again.

Professor Ian Smart of Howard University, explaining the importance of Carnival to an audience at Trinidad and Tobago’s Consulate General in Manhattan, said: “The festival is an important mechanism for renewing society, for healing and strengthening society.”

In an interview later, Smart, who’s written extensively on the topic, talked further about why the festival is mushrooming outside the region. “It’s a good time,” he said simply, before expanding.

“Carnival goes all the way back to the festival traditions at the very beginning of humanity in Egypt. The pharaohs understood that there could be no real society unless the festivals were thriving.”

The West Indian carnival parades in North America are more than a replica of festival in the region, a form of nostalgia. They are living maypoles, a way for West Indians to celebrate themselves, show their colours, and even engage and incorporate other cultures.

The Caribana carnival probably has as many South American elements as West Indian. And organisers of the Jacksonville, Florida, carnival have made room for Colombian, Indian, Chinese and Romanian bands, musicians and food vendors.

But for many West Indian-Americans, first and succeeding generations, carnivals are opportunities for separated friends and family to play catch up. Of a visit last year to Miami for the carnival there, Montserrat-born St Petersburg Times columnist Andrew Skerritt writes: “I resumed friendships interrupted by migration decades ago. The music, the concerts, the parades were all secondary. I was there for the old stories, for the people.” West Indian carnivals beyond the region, are, he writes poignantly, “songs of reunion.”