The West Indian Labor Day
By ADIKA BUTLER
Decked in elaborate costumes that shimmer in the summer sun, West Indian Americans dance through the streets of Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn to the delight of millions, who flood the area fervently waving the flags of their respective homelands. It has been a familiar scene come Labor Day for over three decades now.
The annual West Indian Labor Day Carnival and Parade has given friends and family members an opportunity to partake in the cultural traditions of “back home”. With each passing year the annual event garners more media attention and generates more cash for the entire city of New York. However, as organizers begin to look at the event—now in its 35th year—from more of a business standpoint, they all find themselves asking one question: “How much of the money generated by the carnival and its related events is being funneled into the surrounding community?”
In the United States, the black community has long struggled to enjoy the full economic benefits of its creativity and culture. The West Indian Labor Day Carnival is just another example, though it is one that now garners particular interest as the big day draws near.
United States Steelband Association (U.S.S.A.) President Horace Morancie, once administrative assistant to Mayor John Lindsay, remembers convincing the former mayor to bring the parade to Brooklyn in 1967 after it was held in Manhattan for some 20 years. Morancie struggled to persuade Lindsay and a few of his associates that it would be a better idea to hold the parade on Eastern Parkway as opposed to Fifth Ave. in Manhattan.
What followed those heated discussions now belongs to the annals of New York City’s illustrious history. Thirty-six years later, the civil engineer by day is concerned that the black community of Crown Heights has not been able to cash in on the prodigious event the way it should.
“Carnival brings in $300 million for the city of New York,” said Morancie during a recent telephone interview. “Some of that money should come down to the people who make it possible”.
Morancie said that in order for the black community to enjoy more of the financial benefits of the carnival, the event must be looked upon by its participants as not only a source of entertainment, but also a means of building economic and political muscle in the metropolitan area.
Morancie said that the U.S.S.A. has issued invitations to the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA) to discuss how to better manage the Labor Day Parade, but WIADCA has refused to answer his call.
WIADCA President Yolanda Lezama Clark was repeatedly contacted for comment but did not return phone calls. Public relations person, Jean Alexander, also could not be reached.
However, Caribbean American Sports and Cultural Youth Movement (C.A.S.Y.M.) President William Jones said during a recent telephone interview that Clark has been dedicated to the West Indian community since she has been president of WIADCA. Jones—whose band C.A.S.Y.M has been a first place winner in WIADCA’s last two Pan-O-Ramas—said that Clark has met with several school officials in Brooklyn concerning the revitalization of their music programs through steelbands.
Over the years the bands have provided young people with an outlet for self expression, especially during the summer months, which is when many are most prone to trouble. Jones also said that with the financial assistance of the New York Daily News, seven high school graduates in .C.A.S.Y.M have been given grants to pursue their college education. "Each child [in the band] that has graduated from high school receives at least $1,000 in grants,” said Jones during a telephone interview.
Still there is more work to be done in community development. For the West Indian community there is a thin line between entertainment and politics. That’s why Morancie especially frowns upon West Indians who refuse to look at the advantages their culture offers from a political standpoint. He stressed that politics pervades all aspects of life, and he will dismiss anyone who attempts to convince him otherwise.
“Anything that’s not political in this world, I’d like to see it,” said Morancie, pointing to the host of elected officials that hit the parkway pavement every year. “You’re political from the day you’re born to the day you’re dead.”
President of J’Ouvert City International, Yvette Renny, had similar sentiments. Renny coordinates the J’Ouvert (which means “Day's Opening”) celebration, a pre-cursor to the parade that takes place early Labor Day Morning, beginning at 2:00 a.m. and ending 11:00 a.m. that morning.
The costumed participants exuding Trinidadian pride, lead a dancing procession from Eastern Parkway and Flatbush that concludes at Midwood. From Renny’s perspective, “there have been gainers and losers” involved with the carnival celebration. The gainers, she said, are the city’s hotels and transit system that rake in millions from the event.
“The real losers of this cultural gold mine,” she said are the advertising organizations, “that bring the enjoyment to the people”. Renny also said that the carnival’s revenue must trickle down to the average man and woman in the street, some of whom are involved in either the steel or mas bands.
Renny said that J’Ouvert City and other community groups will be focusing more on strategies that will “develop the economic and political strength to control the money in the community”.
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