Vibrant. Massive. Invigorating. These are three words that describe Brooklyn’s 45th annual West Indian Parade that takes place on labor day every year. A tradition that dates back to the colonial era, the West Indian Parade incorporates both African and European elements that have evolved over time. For weeks, I had been hearing about the parade; the feathered and glittered costumes, the dancing, and of course the infamous pre-parade party J’Ouvert. Despite all these very enticing elements, I was mostly excited to see the different Caribbean regions come together and celebrate their culture. The Diaspora united! What could be better?
Now, not to say that I didn’t enjoy myself because I did, but I was unable to close my critical eyes. Let me give you a brief rundown. The mayor, city councilmen, the governor, and various West Indian organizations started off the parade. Then came two groups; one dressed in 18th century garments and the other representing creole tradition and playing the steel band drums. Just these groups alone revved up the crowd and amplified anticipation. But what was to follow after that was a series of trucks promoting various clubs throughout the boroughs and sporadic moments of feathery jeweled women dry humping male counterparts on the pavement.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am down for a good party and music just like the next person. There are certain songs that come on and all you want to do is back it up on the nearest brown specimen and lose yourself in the beat. But this isn’t club Paradise, Flirt, Sutra or any of the other clubs that they were so obviously advertising. This is a parade! Well, at least that is what I thought.
I remember glancing around and watching the expressions of non-caribbean/non-black spectators and their looks were of awe and (more frequently) shock and disgust. When the Soca/Reggae infused beats boomed in the air, propelling those in the parade and crowd to grind and wind, it was impossible for them to hide their contorted faces. And I began to realize that as I was watching them, my reactions slowly began to reflect their judgments. My gaze was altered and I began to view the parade as they saw it, which was Black people acting a mess! Suddenly, I became concerned with how other, non-black people would view us, Black people.
Would they see a tradition that was born during the enslavement period in Trinidad, a festive celebration that was influenced by african rituals and folklore? Or would they see thousands and thousands of afro-caribbean people half naked and dancing provocatively? I became so obsessed with what others might be thinking that I couldn’t even enjoy the event. I was blinded by my own fears and assumptions that I became embarrassed by a cultural attribute that all people of African descent share; dance and music. Dance and music is what binds the Black community together and allows us to explore the diversity of Black culture. And yet, at that moment I was ashamed of my culture, my tradition because of what other might think. So I begin to wonder, as a person of color in America, are we always responding, reacting, or thinking according to how others think and feel?
For me, and it is a sad omission, the answer is yes. At least to some extent. On interviews or when handling bills, I pull my twist back into some sort of contained bun in order to appeal to a less ethnic crowd. Not only do I change my hair but I change my voice, intonation, and pronunciation in order to sound a certain way. Why do I do these things? I guess to appear consumer friendly. To receive less judgment. Or perhaps to get somewhat of an equal opportunity.
To get to the point, the West Indian Parade showed me how much my feelings and reactions were tied to another’s. I was afraid of that the parade would be judged as one conglomerate of stereotypes instead of cultural tradition acknowledging the different nations in the West Indies. This is not an unfounded fear, considering how stereotypes have framed historical and social images of people of color. However, it is something that I have to work through and an example of how the West Indian Parade prevailed.
Though the historical context of the Brooklyn carnival may have slipped through the cracks, the parade represented the many nations of the West Indies without fear of judgment. They danced from the early hours of morning into the late even unapologetic and unabashedly, proud of who they were and where they had came from. Perhaps this is what freedom looks like.
Check out the pics below!!!