Carnival: Transnationalism in Action

When we think of the Brooklyn Carnival, we often think of the colorful floats and the costumes. However, often overlooked are the forces underlying the Brooklyn Carnival. One must look beyond the colorful spectacle to realize that the event is not just about floats and costumes. It is also about Caribbean immigrants (both first- and second- generation) and the transnational ties they maintain with their homelands. Thus, it can be said that the Brooklyn Carnival is a concrete manifestation of these transnational ties.

Transnationalism: A (Very) Brief Review

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines transnationalism as the concept of “multiple ties and interactions linking people and institutions across the borders of nation-states” (UNESCO). Of particular importance here (on this website and the course itself) are the transnational ties between Caribbean migrants and their homelands. Contrary to popular belief, many migrants actually maintain close ties with their homelands. These ties can take the form of remittances to family back home as well as participation in ethnic-based, voluntary associations; the consumption of goods from the home country; or even phone calls back home.

The Brooklyn Carnival as a Concrete Form of Transnationalism

In the introduction to their book, Trinidad Carnival: The Cultural Politics of a Transnational Festival, Garth Green and Philip Scher remark that the institution of Carnival is the result of the “movement of people, ideas, and objects made possible by modern transportation and communications systems” (Green and Scher 1). Ideas and messages can easily be transmitted across national boundaries and is thus what made the Brooklyn Carnival possible. However, it is not a carbon copy of the spectacle in Trinidad. Instead, it has been adapted to reflect a West Indian-American dual identity. Thus, the origin of the Brooklyn Carnival is rooted in transnationalism itself.

However, more important than the origin is the purpose of the Brooklyn Carnival. I have found that the festivities are built on three notions, all based on the concept of transnationalism. They include:

(1) the preservation of heritage
(2) the struggle for recognition and an identity distinctive from native African Americans, and
(3) the struggle for authority and authenticity.

The Preservation of Heritage

The Brooklyn Carnival boasts over a million people in attendance.

The Brooklyn Carnival boasts over a million people in attendance. (

Simply put, the Brooklyn Carnival may be an attempt to preserve Caribbean heritage. That is, the Carnival keeps the memory of the Caribbean alive. According to Philip Scher, as far back as the 1930s, Caribbean-run churches were sponsoring smaller, Carnival-like events to “help soothe the nostalgia for the homeland” (Scher, “Mandate” 74). Thus, the Brooklyn Carnival can be seen as a way for migrants to remember their past lives (as so to speak). However, even more than that, the Brooklyn Carnival can be seen as an affirmation of the preservation of heritage. That is, the huge spectacles associated with the event signal to other groups that West Indian culture has not died out. In a way, the Brooklyn Carnival must exist. Scher put this perfectly when he said that, if the Brooklyn Carnival ceases to exist, “it will signal that a significant blow has been dealt to West Indian culture” (Scher, “Mandate” 87). This preservation may also serve to welcome Caribbean migrants to New York City.

Recognition and Identity

Due to similarities in skin color, West Indians are commonly lumped together with African Americans. As a result, many West Indians experience the same racism and discrimination that are directed toward African Americans. In order to counter this, going as far back as the early 1960s, Labor Day Carnival organizers have sought to also use the event to differentiate West Indians from native African Americans (Scher, “Mandate” 77-8).

The elaborate costumes are probably the most recognizable part of the Brooklyn Carnival.

The elaborate costumes are probably the most recognizable part of the Brooklyn Carnival. ( via AP)

Indeed, the Brooklyn Carnival emphasizes a collective West Indian identity. It is during this event that people of varying Caribbean origin come together and celebrate West Indian heritage despite any animosity that may exist between their countries of origin. Thus, it appears that under the colorful costumes and festivities, there lies the deeper goal of uniting all Caribbean people or creating a Caribbean “transnation” (as Scher puts it). Consequently, the event aims to redefine West Indian identity in cultural and ethnic rather than racial terms and promote a “newfound” recognition of West Indians being different from African Americans.

The Struggle for Authority and Authenticity

An examination of the history of the Brooklyn Carnival reveals many struggles for control of the organization and structure of the event. However, none of these movements have succeeded in taking control of the event from WIADCA. Take, for example, the most serious challenge to WIADCA’s control, the Manhattan Basin Festival in 1982. This coalition sought to hold a more “respectable” and “professional” alternative to WIADCA’s Carnival. However, this festival failed. Why? Because it was too much of a departure from the original Carnival. Earlier, I discussed the concept of the Brooklyn Carnival as a preservation of West Indian culture and tradition. Following this, the Basin Festival failed because it did not keep the West Indian tradition alive. Unlike the WIADCA Carnival, the Basin Festival had forgone a transnational foundation.

It is this transnational foundation that grants organizations (like WIADCA) authority over an important aspect of West Indian culture in the City. That is, a transnational focus allows organizations to gain some control over the West Indian voice in New York City. That is because it ensures the West Indian that a major component of West Indian culture (in this case, the Brooklyn Carnival) will not be just another cheap knock-off of the Trinidad Carnival. Instead, it will be seen as a true expression of Caribbean culture and pride.

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