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A Week of Wistful Confusion

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Every Labor Day in Brooklyn, New York, a million or more people gather on one of the borough's grandest boulevards, Eastern Parkway, to watch and participate in a unique spectacle of costumes, music, and dance known as the West Indian-American Day Parade. This year I listened to local newscasters noting, in keeping with my memory, that the parade had changed considerably since it began 42 years ago, when I was fifteen and living in Brooklyn with my West Indian father and Jewish mother.

One of the main changes is that today's parade is much more inclusive of all the islands, British-rooted and otherwise. At the beginning, it was based almost entirely on the culture, style, and traditions of Carnival in Trinidad (which is also a part of the history of Mardi Gras in New Orleans).

For those of you who don’t know West Indians or anything about them – particularly about those who, like my father, emigrated here in the 1940s and 50s and settled largely in New York City – they are heavily British-influenced black people with a nearly Edwardian sense of propriety and protocol and a corresponding moral/religious outlook. There are some cultural and personality differences from island to island, but there used to be a very definite, overall West Indian Type (and from what I hear from my one West Indian peer, things haven’t changed much).

It may surprise or interest white people to know that in my father’s day, there was considerable antipathy between West Indians and American Blacks, which hasn’t entirely disappeared. The latter were still, in large numbers, mired in poverty and the continuing social consequences of slavery, Reconstruction, and the era of Jim Crow that led to the early days of the Civil Rights Movement and the full-scale introduction of heroin into black communities (The Ghetto).

In contrast, West Indians (whom American Blacks used to call the Black Jews; this was not intended as a compliment) were puritanical, industrious, committed to education and training, thrifty (polite for cheap), good at operating small businesses, and nearly obsessive about owning property.

Indeed, before the gentrification of Brooklyn’s famous brownstone and limestone neighborhoods by yuppies and their decorators (except for the always-elite Brooklyn Heights) in the 1990s, a good many of those old, gracious houses (single-, two- and three-family homes, mostly), were owned by West Indians – including my father (the kind of limestone my parents bought for $17,000 in 1964 now sells for $1.5 million).

But after the wholesale "white flight" from other parts of Brooklyn in the 1980s, a combination of poor and working-class blacks – both native-born and West Indian – took over large new areas. And so, over time, the West Indian Day Parade became a massive street party for everybody. "Jumping up" (dancing and carousing) is the rule of the day on Labor Day for one and all in Brooklyn, residents and visitors alike.

In its early years, though, the parade was a dicey proposition; I still remember the last tense years of its planning stages. And although I never have participated in the parade – I hate crowds; it’s beyond me how I survived the Boomer years of massive demonstrations – I always felt a strong connection to Carnival in Trinidad which, to this day, is very elaborate, but now pales in size in comparison to its Brooklyn counterpart.

One of my father's closest friends, going back to his childhood, was the late Aubrey Adams, a man who for many years was the primary organizer, promoter, and most everything else for Trinidad's Carnival. Throughout my early childhood, he and his wife and their two stereotypically quiet and timid West Indian children would periodically come up to New York and stay with us for weeks, which I wouldn’t have minded so much, except the kids got my room and I got the couch.

Despite his marriage and family, Aubrey was what for decades we have generally described as Classic Theatrical Gay – a lot harder to get away with openly in 1961 than it is today. He wore silk neckerchiefs with smartly coordinated, pastel-colored ensembles that were supposed to seem entirely reasonable because he lived in the Caribbean, in the same way that we indulge old men in Florida who wear brightly-colored pants (frequently plaid) and white shoes. He was delightfully flamboyant and very funny and told wonderful stories with animation and drama at stage volume.

I adored Aubrey, who also had a keen interest in American politics. I couldn’t help but wonder throughout this week what he would have made of what is now called the West Indian-American Day Parade, so big and so wild. (The term West Indian-American irritates me as much as the term African-American; I think it would help things in general if we could just all think of ourselves as Americans.)

I can imagine his incredulity at Americans objecting to the President of the United States giving an education pep-talk to school children: "But these people are fantastic, they're mad, what's wrong with you Americans?" I can imagine his awe at listening to Barack Obama's splendid speech to the joint houses of Congress: "Carlton!" he would shout at my father, "did you ever imagine you would live to see such a day?!" (regrettably, neither of them did). I can imagine his reaction to Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst: "Does this man think he's in Parliament? This is outrageous!" And I can imagine what he might have said about the eighth anniversary of the September 11 attacks: "I still cannot believe that thing happened; I cannot even go downtown and look into that pit, it gives me vertigo!"

I didn't feel particularly connected to my West Indian heritage when I was young, and I can't say I do now, but as I watched a bit of the parade on TV this year, the sound of steel drums struck a warm chord of memory and connection to…something, which is a pleasant change from my usual feeling of free-falling through the air. I felt so proud of my President this week, and so incensed about the suspicion and disrespect he's being subjected to. And the 9/11 anniversary gave me pause this year, because I'm starting to feel that we're conducting the same maudlin memorial service, over and over again, instead of healing and taking positive action – like finally filling that empty pit, and giving the first-responders and clean-up crews the financial compensation and health care assistance that is their due.

It's been a week of such bold sensations: sweet and sad memories, pride, anger, despair. We complain about weeks of dull routine, but the exceptions sure put one through the wringer.

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About Jeanne Browne

  • I’ve been to the parade a few times – it’s so big it’s scary, but a sight (and a noise) like no other. And I’m totally with you on the shameful treatment the President is being subjected to. A man who just wants to make things better for all of us. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that right-wing hate should coalesce extra strongly against a black President. I’m still holding my breath – not sure why.

  • Jon, those of us who admire Barack Obama are all holding our breath – and we know why…

  • Jon and Jeanne,

    Yes, indeed we do.

    I’ll have to ask my son who lives in Brooklyn if he attended the parade. I lived in lower Manhattan back in 69-70, but was unaware of it. I suppose I was too wrapped up in being a drug smokin’ hippy to notice.

    I loved Obama’s speech to Congress, and I liked his address to school kids the day before. I do hope none of those kids start wearing Chairman Mao jackets, poor things.


  • Jonathan

    I loved this blending of family memories with the history of the Labor Day Carnival. Any insight into how it changed as soca developed? I believe that genre was barely incipient when the parade moved from Harlem to Brooklyn.

    I do think your portrayal of West Indian and African American historical relations is simplified to the point of inaccuracy, but that’s another story. Anyway, this Aubrey character sounds like he had major style.

    P.S. Clicked over to your blog and I’m really enjoying it.

  • Thanks, Jonathan

  • Nice story 😉

  • I never knew this parade existed. Thank you for a lovely and thoughtful article.

  • Thanks, Edel and Deby.