In 1881, British colonial authorities in Trinidad attempted to suppress the Canboulay, a predawn ritual with drumming, horns, dancing and torchlit parades commemorating the end of the sugarcane harvest. When police showed up to stop the procession, revelers fought back and won the right to parade.
Over 130 years later, New York City’s Caribbean community may be living its own Canboulay moment of attempted official suppression. Canboulay’s direct cultural descendant, known as J’Ouvert, is celebrated before the annual West Indian Day Parade on the borough of Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway. Following two years of mounting criticism about gang violence allegedly linked to J’Ouvert, the mayor’s office and the Police Department have imposed harsh new restrictions. This year, the start time has been pushed from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m., alcohol will be banned, and checkpoints with metal detectors will line the parade route.
“This, for me, is another attempt at control, of keeping you in the place where you need to be, a second-class citizen at the very greatest,” said self-described J’Ouvert diehard Michael Manswell, artistic director of Something Positive, a New York-based Caribbean arts collective that performs every year with the J’Ouvert band Pagwah.
But now the heavy hand of New York City government is likely to alter J’Ouvert beyond recognition.
“The biggest thing for us is sunlight,” said Marco A. Carrión, commissioner of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Community Affairs Unit. “We believe that light is a big deterrent [to crime].”
Philip Scher, author of Trinidad Carnival: The Cultural Politics of a Transnational Festival, calls the new restrictions “draconian” and the emphasis on daylight hours an inadvertent attempt by a culturally clueless city administration to alter J’Ouvert’s DNA.
it can be a wildly chaotic scene—and intentionally so—an antidote to the increasingly tame daytime Carnival. Scores of people cram into narrow blocks, following the rhythm of the music, and out of nowhere comes a paintbrush or a squirt bottle to streak your clothes black, red, green and yellow. Vendors hawk nutcrackers, a bootleg rum punch that fuels the party.
Luana Wilson firmly believes that any violence taking place in central Brooklyn at the same time as J’Ouvert has nothing to do with the cultural practitioners who pour their sweat and energy into the event.
“It’s the people who don’t know what J’Ouvert and Carnival are all about; unfortunately, Americans take our celebration and use it for that particular time, because it us under the cloak of dawn, to settle their own personal and private beefs,” she told me via telephone this week from Pagwah’s mas camp, where she was busy with preparations for the band’s 2017 masquerade, Kritical Mas, a commentary on global political tensions and racial conflict and, to some extent, a sly dig at the new J’Ouvert rules.
The uninvited crackdown, meanwhile, does not make anyone in Pagwah feel safer. “I am absolutely uneasy about the police so-called protecting us from ourselves,” said Sandra A.M. Bell, Something Positive’s production manager.