Labor Day Carnival Is 52 Years “Young”
Do not mistake Caribbean, Trinidad-style carnival for the American Eurocentric event featuring Ferris wheels, cotton candy, dart throwing, and kids squealing loudly on nerve-racking rides. It’s none of these things – period. It’s the rule of the Merry Monarch and an event that is noted for its bacchanalian qualities. And yes, this annual English-speaking Caribbean festival, now a hybrid version in Brooklyn, New York City, for the past 52 years, started as a form of resistance to British (and French) colonialism, and a way to challenge the status quo.
According to Keith Nurse, a Trinidadian carnival historian: “Carnival is a representation of the conflicts of various social forces, displaying the “aspirations and tensions” of different groups and societies. This can be seen in Ole Mas, where players hold various signs criticizing the government and social establishments. And Philip Kasinitz notes: “It is not merely a reflection of politics – it is politics – a realm where new ideas about power relations may be articulated in the context of a public drama.” Therefore, carnival can be viewed as the unification of the subjugated masses through revelry. This idea of unity and revelry has been carried into Brooklyn’s Annual Labor Day Carnival festival.
Nurse also notes and argues that Caribbean carnivals are “inherently democratic and participatory.” He opines that carnival removes any social, economic or political borders, and thus has a wide appeal to many peoples, Caribbean or not.
HISTORIC CARNIVAL TIMELINES
1900 — 1950
The Growth of Carnival
Carnival becomes much more socially active. Drumming, costumes, and early calypso (kaiso) music begin to evolve into social and political critiques in music.
1920 — 1947
Carnival in Harlem
The first overseas Trinidad-style carnival takes place in Harlem, New York City. These indoor celebrations occurred during the traditional, pre-Lenten period (in February and/or March) and the goal was particularly designed at soothing nostalgia and, “home sickness” for the Caribbean.
The West Indian Day Parade is Born
A Harlem-based community leader and social activist by the name of Jesse Waddell obtains the first street permit, taking the still embryonic carnival from indoor costume parties to a parade in the streets of Harlem. This parade becomes the West Indies Day Parade.
September 1, 1947
The First Carnival Street Parade
The earliest known Carnival street parade is held in Harlem. Its route was relatively short taking it from 110th or 111th Street to 142nd Street via Seventh Avenue.
The Success and Peak of the Harlem Carnival
The Harlem Caribbean Carnival reaches its peak in attendance with about 250,000 people, including costumed bands and revelers. Having plateaued out, a steady decline subsequently took place in later years, perhaps due to the sizable number of Caribbean immigrants moving to Brooklyn to live (outward migration).
This is the very first record of substantial violence during the carnival parade.
The End of Harlem’s Caribbean Carnival
The New York City’s Administration became alarmed by violence in the annual carnival reacted to a bottle-throwing incident by the revocation of Ms. Jesse Waddell’s parade permit – effectively killing Harlem’s annual Caribbean carnival.
1964 — 1967
The Carnival Moves to Brooklyn
Carnival “mas man,” Trinidadian Lionel “Rufus” Gorin takes the annual Caribbean carnival out of Harlem, and brings it to Brooklyn. He forms the United West Indian Day Development Association. This early carnival parade marched on the blocks around Gorin’s home. Gorin died in July 1983 at age 80. Today, he is widely acknowledged to be the founder and pioneer of New York City’s West Indian carnival movement.
1967 — 2019
The WIADCA Years
WIADCA is now generally regarded as the primary organizers of the annual West Indian American Day Carnival Parade (and festival).
WIADCA is Formed (1971)
Carlos Lezama, the erstwhile “Father of the Labor Day Carnival Parade in Brooklyn,” obtains a permit to bring the still-growing and developing carnival onto Eastern Parkway. He forms the West Indian American Day Association (now known as the West Indian American Day Carnival Association, or WIADCA). Lezama would lead the organization and grow the event to the international activity that it is today. He served as its leader until his retirement in 2001.
Eastern Parkway Debut
The West Indian Day Parade makes its debut on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
The Failure of the Manhattan Basin Festival
The so-called Manhattan Basin Festival (MBF) was the biggest and most significant threat to WIADCA’s control of the event. The MBF promised to hold a respectable, “high-gloss” alternative to the Brooklyn Carnival. However, it failed miserably because it was too much of a departure from the original Trinidad-style carnival and could never attract support for a bastardized version of the fames carnival. Over the years (post 1982) other “minor threats” to hijack the carnival from WIADCA (and the organization’s dominance) emerged, fizzled out, were quashed, and eventually failed – miserably.
Jesse Jackson Speaks at the Labor Day Carnival
Black leader and political activist, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, makes an infamous and woefully uninformed speech at the annual carnival. According to many sources, his speech ignored the West Indian/Caribbean immigrant audience and heritage, instead treating the carnival simply as a “black event.” This served to highlight underlying social and economic tensions between Caribbean immigrants and African Americans.
1984 — 1986
WIADCA becomes a growing Political Force
WIADCA emerges as a major “ethnic leadership group,” especially after Brooklyn state senator, Marty Markowitz, was named Grand Marshall of the parade in the face of an important Democratic political primary. Markowitz would be a major and strong supporter of the carnival over this entire career as a New York State Senate.
1990 — 2000
The Brooklyn Labor Day Carnival Blossoms
Due to gradually increasing media coverage (and accompanying controversy), the Labor Day Carnival Parade (and festival) grows into a true Caribbean carnival, attracting over 1 million people to the 3-mile strip of Eastern Parkway. The annual carnival also becomes an international event attracting people from all over the world.
The Rosh Hashanah Controversy
A letter written by Brooklyn Hasidic Jewish leaders to New York City’s deputy mayor asking to re-route the Labor Day Carnival parade because of the coincidence of Rosh Hashanah with carnival that year creates anger and outrage in the Caribbean immigrant community. The granting of the permit was subsequently delayed (albeit due to unrelated reasons). However, the parade was not rerouted that year – or any year since, despite repeated attempts. Carlos Lezama, the brutally blunt and charismatic President of WIADCA would accuse the Jewish Hasidim community of acting “like the landlords of Eastern Parkway,” and threatened them with “more bacchanal” than they could bargain for. He stated that banning the carnival would trigger “more problems than the 1991 Crown Heights Riots.”
1995 — 2019
The Brooklyn Carnival Thrives
The WIADCA/Labor Day Carnival now boasts the attendance of over 4 million people – spectators, revelers and vendors – for the 8-hour event. Today the Annual Labor Day Carnival Parade is an incredible showcase of Caribbean pride, culture and heritage. But more than that it attests to the longevity and commitment of WIADCA supported by the large and dynamic Caribbean immigrant community that call New York City home.
(Researched, compiled and edited by Michael Derek Roberts)