By: Tony Best
"Reflect with pride on your history."
As the new occupant of the White House in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama was urging more than million people from the Caribbean to enjoy themselves either as revelers or spectators along Eastern Parkway as costume bands of all descriptions and sizes paraded down Eastern Caribbean during what is America’s largest outdoor cultural extravaganza, the West Indian carnival in Brooklyn.
Two years after sending a special message to the West Indians, reminding them that their “forebearers wove their unique and vibrant culture into the tapestry of America and enriched our diversity,” the nation’s chief executive may have more things on his mind –a faltering economy, his own re-election in November 2012, the political conflict on Capitol Hill between Democrats and Republcans in the U.S. Hose of Representatives and the Senate, and his plan to put more Americans back to work – to think about the West Indian cultural masterpiece in Brooklyn this week and on Labor Day Monday.
But to the two million-plus participants and others who simply watch or stroll along the Brooklyn thoroughfare taking in the sights and the sounds that combine to make the event the showpiece that it is, putting side their financial worries for a day or two, forgetting about any social class differences in order to play mass with gusto or enjoying the different strands of Caribbean music –calypso, soca, reggae or the Haitian art form – the West Indian American Day Carnival Association’s celebration is the cultural high point of the year.
The sea of color, the excitement of being free and independent from life’s turbulent daily grind and the sheer excitement generated by the event are enough to make you want to dance in the street. Actually, that’s what’s going to happen during the 44th annual festival, the largest outdoor or indoor cultural happening in America.
It’s a celebration whose history can be traced to the 17th and `8th centuries when the brutal and abhorrent trade in human beings was an awful fact of life and death for millions of Black people from Africa and the Caribbean. Back then, the whip, chain and deprivation were the implements of terror used to keep people in line and on the plantation or farm and any respite from them was an occasion to celebrate. In some Caribbean countries the real celebration came at the end of the brutal sugar cane harvesting season and it involved quite a lot of dancing, singing and the playing of drums. Little wonder, then, that the essence of carnival is playing mas, the ability to jump up with abandon to soul-stirring music and dressed in an elaborate costume make others want to join in the fun. The mas-camps and steel band yards that dot Brooklyn at this time speak to the extensive preparations that are required to make carnival a sight to behold. They also attest to the serious nature of the approach to the festival by the bands and to the fact that the goal is enjoyment but to achieve the goal a professional approach is required without taking away from the spontaniety.