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CARIBBEAN IN BROOKLYN. `All of we is one'

By Bill BreenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 1988



Brooklyn, N.Y.

SOME call it a parade. Others call it the largest block party in North America. More than 40,000 revelers march in fantastic outfits of brilliantly colored plumes, shimmering bolts of rainbow-hued fabric, and intricately patterned foil. As the marchers bob and swirl to live steel bands and recorded calypso music blaring from the backs of flatbed trucks, this ``parade'' soon stalls in a gyrating mass of humanity. About 900,000 spectators have turned out for the annual West Indian-American Day Carnival. The revelers eat goat roti and jerk pork roasted over smoking charcoal grills, and guzzle the water from coconuts expertly split by machete-wielding vendors. Some laugh and talk to friends in patois or Creole. Others shake their hips to the propulsive beat of soca blasting from speakers stacked on sidewalk corners.

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Groups break off from the procession and take to the side streets. Spectators jump into the procession and become participants. ``Devil men,'' wearing little more than imitation leopard skin pelts on their blackened bodies, bang congas as they move against the marchers. The celebrants strut for the allotted six hours, but many do not bother to complete the 2.5-mile route.

The carnival, held over the Labor Day weekend, is marked by four nights of calypso and reggae concerts, steel-band contests, and children's pageants on the parking lot of the Brooklyn Museum. On Labor Day, it's climaxed with the huge carnival procession along Eastern Parkway, a six-lane boulevard that bisects the heart of central Brooklyn.

The festival, linked to the pre-Lenten carnivals of the islands, is the great unifying force in New York's burgeoning Caribbean community. In a city where ethnic identity implies political entitlement, the carnival draws together immigrants from scattered island nations and stakes a major claim for ``pan-Caribbeanism.''

``Our culture can help us attain the goal of brotherhood that we want so badly,'' says Lenuel Stanislaus, Grenadian delegate to the United Nations and a 40-year Brooklyn resident. ``Carnival focuses on our culture, and brings us closer together, both politically and economically.''

Brooklyn is now thought to have the largest West Indian population in the world outside the islands. According to the New York City Planning Commission, 668,458 legal immigrants from the Caribbean reside in the city, 308,595 of them in Brooklyn.

The Carnival procession winds through a belt of communities that bear evidence of the influx of West Indians, who have stabilized and in some cases upgraded residential neighborhoods and commercial districts that were once scarred with vacancies.

From Crown Heights to the East Flatbush sections, commercial avenues are lined with West Indian businesses. Produce stands, restaurants, travel agencies, and air-cargo firms bear decals of the flags of Caribbean nations. According to Ray Hastick, president of the West Indian-American Chamber of Commerce, 45 to 75 percent of the businesses in these Caribbean communities are owned by West Indians.

All along Eastern Parkway, celebrants from Barbados, Trinidad, Haiti, Jamaica, and other island nations echo the carnival's traditional theme of unity, ``all of we is one.'' Yet the carnival's anarchic, self-mocking spirit resists those who would use it to promote partisan politics or social agendas.

``Politicians salivate when they see the size of the crowds,'' says Philip Kasinitz, a sociologist at Williams College who has studied New York's Caribbean population. ``But even Jesse Jackson can't compete with a 17-foot stilt walker.''

Last year the West Indian-American Day Carnival Association registered 160 bands of musicians and marchers. Borokeete, the largest band registered this year, claims 3,000 members. The carnival procession caps months of preparation by the all-volunteer staff of 20.