York West Indian Carnival
By Lamuel A. Stanislaus
A small step taken in Brooklyn many years ago, has grown into a great distance, with respect to the growth and development of carnival, both qualitatively and quantitatively, so that today, it is the largest, most colorful and vibrant ethnic cultural festival in city, state and nation.
Yet it must be emphasized, lest we forget, that carnival is only one aspect of Caribbean culture, which is multidimensional.
Dr. Eric Williams, Trinidad born scholar, educator and former Prime Minister of the twin island State, perhaps one of the greatest intellectuals in our time, was fond of saying, that we have a carnival mentality, perhaps a hyperbole, in order to challenge us to study and to participate in other forms of our culture such as history, literature, art, craft, drama, music, architecture, politics, folklore, etc., all of which are rich, rewarding, essential ingredients in our way of life, known as culture.
By way of the history of the advent of Brooklyn carnival twenty-eight years ago, we recall that after much hounding and harassment in Harlem by the police and other forces, as an event unworthy of Labor Day, Rufus Gorin, mindful of the changing demographics (West Indians migrating from Harlem to Brooklyn), decided upon a cultural migration also. For he knew too well the truism that "you can take the people out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the people". For it is part of their psyche and persona.
Lo and behold, Rufus Gorin's first attempt to stage Labor Day carnival on a side street in Brooklyn (not Eastern Parkway of course), was met with resistance by the police, and he was arrested upon the charge of parading without a permit.
Enter the inimitable, indomitable and likable Carlos Lezama, who offered comfort and assistance to Rufus Gorin, to the extent that the charge was dropped and carnival in Brooklyn started to grow, unimpeded by New York's finest, but instead, aided.
In order for a product or an event to be economically viable and competitive, it must be good and marketable.
West Indian carnival which is an excellent piece of intellectual property, has never been marketed before, in the true sense of the word, because we have always considered it a labor of love, just for the fun of it.
And here is where Fox TV - Channel 5, through the intervention of Mayor Giuliani and his able Deputy Fran Rieter, with television marketing skills, are attempting to let some fresh air into the carnival festival, and thus help us to arrive at the first plateau in television marketing. We welcome the Mayor's initiative.
Since television depends upon sponsors and advertisers who in turn carefully compare ratings (number of viewers), we can only hope that on an off day such as Labor Day, there will be sufficient viewers during the three hours of live television on Eastern Parkway, to make the experiment sufficiently profitable for Fox 5 and the sponsors to continue. Remember that instead of viewing, we will be pulsating and gyrating on the parkway.
Another fresh air idea consists of using the week of Labor Day and the day itself, to appeal to the massive crowds to give a minimum of one dollar for the needy children of the world, using UNICEF as the conduit.
A hurriedly organized loose partnership last year, among the following entities - CACCC Inc., WIADCA Inc., Carib News, the office of Hon. Una Clarke, Local 144, the office of Hon.Marty Markowitz, UNICEF and others, raised funds for the suffering children in the African country of Rwanda and in the island of Haiti.
This year it is our hope that with better organization, and with numerous empty water containers suitable labeled and floating in the community, our cups will overflow with dollar bills for the health, educational, social, cultural, nutritional and other needs of the children in the Caribbean.
In anticipation of a wonderful carnival, we say "Carpe Diem" (Enjoy the Day), and all's well that ends well. However, from my experience with West Indian carnival, as an observer, beginning in Harlem since 1945 and up to today, there have been many hindrances and hurdles to cross, leading up to the staging of the festival on Labor Day. But invariably, these hindrances, some from within, others from without, have been overcome. And for this, Carlos Lezama and his team deserve credit and recognition.
This is not to say, however, that there is not a need for improvement and refinement in West Indian carnival as we move into the twenty-first century. As one who has supported and admired Lezama for his love of the culture and his efforts, I have always admonished him that the time will come when we must open the window and let some fresh air in.
By this I do not mean that he should relinquish the office of president. For temperamentally, experience-wise and by disposition, he is admirably suited to continue.
What I am advancing is the notion that carnival has moved away from its historical and traditional beginnings, as simply a celebration of music, song and dance, panorama and pageantry, as it was from the first recorded carnival in Osiris in Egypt in the fifth century before Christ, down through the Middle Ages, to the Bacchanalia of Rome, where carnival reached its highest level of debauchery, ribaldry and lewdness, until through the intervention of the Roman Catholic Church, some order and refinement were introduced.
Brought to the West Indies and to the Americas by the early European colonizers, especially the French and the Spanish during slavery, the Roman Catholic brand of carnival seemed to have prevailed for a long time - "the last big fling before the penitential season of Lent."
Both in North America and in some Caribbean islands, carnival before Lent is now passe for obvious reasons. Thus a new thinking has been introduced into the staging of carnival here in New York. It is on this new thinking and the fresh air idea that I want to dwell for a few moments.
Three million people coming together along Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway on Labor Day to celebrate carnival, should conjure up considerations over and above music, song and dance, camaraderie and conviviality.
Some see it as an economic bonanza, others see it as a political feeding frenzy and still others regard it as simply a time for fun and frolic.
Of late, the Caribbean and African American communities have been viewing carnival from the economic perspective with the obvious political spinoff - new thinking of course.
Reprinted from WIADCA Journal - 1995