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.
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.
In ``mas [masquerade] camps'' scattered throughout Caribbean enclaves, designers work feverishly in the weeks prior to the carnival to complete costumes based on themes ranging from fantasy to ethnicity to current events. Master designers work in a centuries-old tradition to construct the lavish outfits, which can weigh more than 40 pounds.
Morris Stewart, a muscular weight lifter and former wholesale clothing salesman, emigrated to the United States after he designed the top costume in the 1967 carnival in Trinidad. His first-place prize was a round trip ticket to New York. Mr. Stewart concocted his theme for this year's carnival, ``88 Earth to Odyssey 2000,'' while watching an arc welder at work. ``I liked the guy's mask, and I decided to use it as a model for a space hat.''
Using iridescent plumes, 16-gauge foil ringed with sequined braids, bubble-shaped plastic lampshades, wire, and cardboard, Stewart shapes the materials into suits for space princesses and warriors. His $3,500 king's costume is a 19-foot-high, 24-foot-long space monster covered with prickly scales of foil.
In New York, the carnival was first celebrated in Harlem by homesick Trinidadian immigrants. The first Harlem Carnival, held in 1937, ``was not much more than a one-night street fair,'' says Joyce Quamina of the carnival association. ``But it was a way for those who left their homes and couldn't go back to keep a bit of the islands in their hearts.''
When in the mid-1960s immigration restrictions were loosened, a new generation of Caribbean peoples streamed into New York. Their strong desire to be homeowners led many to Brooklyn, where they bought property on the decline after the riots of the 1960s and the city's mid-1970s fiscal crisis. As Harlem's West Indian population dwindled, the carnival followed thousands of Caribbean immigrants to Brooklyn.
Today, spurred by increased unemployment and overcrowding in the islands, many of Brooklyn's West Indian immigrants grab unskilled jobs and gradually work their way into positions of entrepreneurship. In all, more than 6,000 businesses in Brooklyn are Caribbean-owned, according to New York's Office of Business Development.
Robert Fitzallan Smith came to Brooklyn from St. Vincent in 1956, working in a hospital cafeteria and an oven factory, saving his earnings and making plans. Starting in a one-room storefront with a mixer, table, and a small oven, in 1961 Mr. Smith opened Allan's Bakery on Nostrand Avenue. He now employs 17 workers and is doing ``very well.''
``I saw my first snowfall a week after I got here, and I never looked back,'' Smith recalled as he walked through a kitchen laced with the sweet scent of currant rolls and spice buns. ``I came here with nothing. I was determined to make it.''
Though Smith became an American citizen, many West Indian immigrants at one time retained resident alien status and dreamed of one day returning to the islands. Most West Indians here continue to maintain an overwhelming bond to their island homes.
But observers agree that as the recent influx of immigrants raises up families of new US citizens, West Indians could become a strong force in New York's politics and culture. ``The economy, living conditions, and life style in the US are leading many West Indians to establish their roots here,'' says Karl Rodney, Jamaican publisher of the New York weekly newspaper Carib News. ``Besides, the economic conditions in the islands are so bad that you really can't go back.''
As a new generation of Caribbean immigrants comes to terms with its adopted homeland, the carnival becomes a poignant reminder of a rich cultural heritage.
``Carnival is really for our children,'' says Lloyd Weeks, a Trinidadian parader sporting an American Indian headdress. ``Most of the kids who are born here don't know anything about where we come from. Carnival is a way for the children to get in touch with their culture.''