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Sunday, September 1, 2013
Every year round this time, Carib folk from and around Brooklyn, NY take over Eastern Parkway to celebrate the annual West Indian Day Parade. I used to go as a child when the Parade was a gigantic/awesome gathering with floats showcasing each Caribbean flag/music along the sidewalks filled with on-lookers and food n souvenir vendors who, in turn, showcased the matching flavors. I stopped attending when the event became more of a dangerous place to be caught in, what with gangsta wannabe's turning it into an excuse to shoot at one another. It became something both residents and visitors tolerated, until NYPD decided to curb the ra-ra. Now the floats pass through Crown Heights and down to the plaza circle with a more controlled threat of violence in the air. Efforts by po-po to be friendlier to the natives also helped. But it backfired last year when Blue was caught on video sexually fraternizing with some of the floaters and then bragging about it, even using racial tags to add to the insult. But no one talked about the insult that the men and women had already put on themselves.
Maybe I'm just getting older. But I want more from us. Too much compromising of what Black pride looks like. I know. What's wrong with just having a good time? Nothing, if you consider a good time bending your back forward to let another dry fuk you for all to see, or cheering a 5yrld girl for gyrating her privates in front of grandma. Or better yet, a group of males bumrushing a female to show what they do when the lights are out, while the female drunkenly grins at the mere spectacle of it all. If we're okay with teaching our daughters and sons that showing your ass is showing our pride, then let's not act surprised when non-Family members don't take us seriously. Older boys, especialy, who use our flags as gangsta face masks are not expressing Caribbean pride but emulating gang mentality which have nothing whatsoever to do with forward movement, but everything to do with misguidance and identity crisis.
I'm bringing this up cos I'm wondering if we're at a crossroads in defining our collective pride. Those who see a parade as an opportunity to display their flags and colors, and those who see it as a chance to wile'out. Reminds me of the debate over 'gays' who see pride as exhibitionism and those who'd rather push with their clothes on. I'm just sayin...
Look, I'm not trying to force my words on you. And from a photographer's standpoint, the more outrageous the fun, the more interesting the shot. But I'm celebrating my West Indian pride by remembering our Maroon, Yoruba and Taino heritages, the meaning of the conk shell, and the fact that Ayiti gave the rest of Carib and Latin America the blueprint for independence. Our West African traditions still show in our ways, food, and parade costumes like the one here representing the Devil. Devil Man is called upon by painting the body either blue, red or black; sometimes mud, but the one color is smeared from head to toe and the horns add to the drama. This is all part of the Jab Jab, an offshoot of the Parade that actually occurs before sunrise. The idea is that the Devil walks through town warning people about not paying for their wickedness. It's all mythology, of course. But the myth got hyjacked by marchers who sexualized the character (FYI-- The island of Grenade is considering banning the sexually provocative 'devil man' from their carnival, while supporters are siding with freedom of expression).
The full coloring of bodies or tarring began as a form of collective protesting when male slaves smeared themselves with tar, mud, paint or molasses so their masters wouldn't recognize them. As in, I'm stealing the very molasses I'm forced to cultivate for my keeper. Colonized French called it Jab Molassie while Black Brits named it the Jab-Jab. All of that got lost with the rest of the old folk tales, with some grown men who do recall and make sure we don't completely forget. Even the ones who paint themselves green or purple, who are just doing it cos they saw someone else do it, somewhere in their psyche they know it's a form of beautiful protest.
Sometimes on-lookers gotta wait between floats cos the gaps can be a block long. That's when some of us show their ass the most! All that jump off space and liquor to join you, until the next float comes or police regulates. The beauty queens try to get some of the attention by waving at the crowd, the way Queen Elizabeth waves at her subjects or how Marie Antoinette looked like she had a following but in reality didn't. Most times on-lookers remember the crowns. These times we wanna hear the noise and skip the symbols. I like to watch the White politicians try to look like they belong while hurrying to get the fuk outta there! Makes me laugh to see what someone will do to get a vote that's already taken for granted, but expected.
Ayiyi (Haiti) usually comes last. We're the final reminder of West Indian marching. A militaristic forward two-step that can be very intimidating to newbies and euros, but as familiar as DNA to those who honor their West African ancestry. Not everyone can get in on the whip cos you gotta do like the doubledutch girls be doing when they're ready to jump them ropes. You gotta prep yourself, keep your legs sturdy and feet ready as you wait for the right second to add yourself into the mix. Come in at the wrong time and you get pushed back by overwhelmed arms or aggravated elbows, unlike in doubledutch where everybody gotta start over on account of you. (And everyone in the neighborhood will know it!) Here, there's no stopping for you. You either know what you're doing or don't, but the Ra-Ra gonna keep moving with or without you. Our way of calling on the first Shango to push the French out from us. Our determination to withstand the tides of imperialism and global economic punishment for having the audacity to stand for something; for believing, still, in a free, self-reliant Black nation, even if crime lords and egotrippin government officals in Port-au-Prince are blocking progress.
So I'm gonna sit this one out. But I do find it interesting that the word RaRa made it from Gonaive all the way to Crooklyn; that it started as a march through Haitian villages and now a jump off. Stop that ra-ra means stop acting out. Keep the RaRa moving means cultural pride. We're at a crosssroads in defining pride. And I want more from us.