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.