The West Indian Carnival or Labor Day Parade is an annual Caribbean cultural celebration held on Labor Day in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York. It is the largest parade and street fair of its kind in North America attracting 1-3million every year.
There is historical and spiritual significance to Carnival that has its roots in a mixture of African, Caribbean and European cultures during slavery times. The African slaves who were brought to the Caribbean and Native tribes practiced masquerading and parading traditions for healing and celebration for centuries. The colonizing European Christians also held centuries-old carnival traditions to celebrate pre-Lenten times. Over time, Caribbean carnival evolved into its own distinct tradition. The freed African slaves, or mas players celebrated their freedom with exaggerated versions of their former colonizers.
The first NewYork Caribbean Carnival was organized informally by Trinidadians who lived in Harlem. Their events were held at such venues as the Savoy and Audubon Ballrooms during the 1920s. But the indoor spaces proved to be too confining. However, NYC’s carnival has a definite Trinidadian flair in two distinct ways: a unity of many different cultures and the predominance of the steel drum or pan music.
The Trinidad Carnival Pageant Committee, led by Ms. Jessie Waddle (aka Wattie), produced the earliest documented West Indian street carnival on September 1, 1947 on Seventh Avenue, starting at 110th street. The first Carnival Queen was Miss Dorothy Godfrey. The committee raised funds to finance the parade through ads sold in their souvenir journal.
But the Harlem parade’s permit was revoked in 1964 after a disturbance. Five years later, a new committee, the West Indian American Day Carnival Association, headed by Carlos Lezama received permission to parade on Eastern Parkway, where it remains today. Under his leadership major corporate and media sponsors supported the parade. When Lezama retired at 78 in 2001, his daughter Yolanda Lezama-Clark became president. Today, with less sponsor support, a band of devoted volunteers still manage to keep the parade going strong.
Events are held on the Thursday before Labor Day through the weekend, with Monday—Labor Day being the biggest event. Steel band competitions, Dimanche Gras (Fat Sunday), a children’s carnival and J’Ouvert (joo-VAY), a pre-dawn celebration are some of the highlights.
The centerpieces of Carnival are the masqueraders dancing down the length of Eastern Parkway. Each band or club selects a designer who creates flamboyant and elaborate costumes. Individuals and groups sign-up for a specific band, pay a costume fee, get fitted, rehearse and the rest is up to their spirit! Some people stay with the same group for years. Others change every year. Some bands can number in the hundreds.
Each group shows off with a distinctive king, queen and ancillary characters. These mas players produce an exuberant and exhilarating atmosphere that draws crowds from near and far.
Prizes are awarded for costumes. Steel bands and orchestras hold fierce competitions. Beside the millions of people, politicians and Caribbean celebrities, the other main ingredient of carnival is the delicious food that is available to sample for blocks on end.
Some menu items include roti, fried flying fish, curried goat, oxtail stew, jerk chicken, peas and rice, carrot cake, ginger beer and more. You will also see people waving flags representing Caribbean islands and countries. The importance of the parade is cultural affirmation and a proud showing of unity and diversity within the Caribbean community.