The earliest known gatherings for the parade were originally held in Harlem, New York in the 1930s by a woman named Jessie Waddell. Waddell, who was Trinidadian, would hold costume parties with other Caribbean friends in large event spaces. Due to New York weather in February, these celebrations had to be held inside. Eventually due to the nature of a carnival and participants not being able to celebrate unrestricted, the first street parade is recorded taking place in Harlem on September 1, 1947. The parade continued to commence every year until 1964, where due to an issue with the permit, the parade took a 5 year hiatus. Since then, the West Indian-American Day Carnival Association committee took over and moved the festivities to Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway, where it has remained ever since. It is estimated that the parade roughly draws out one to three million people each year.
The parade derives its roots from Trinidad’s Carnival, which is held every year a few days before Ash Wednesday. The celebration, also known as “playing mas” or “bacanal”, is believed to have started in the late 18th with French plantation owners who would hold masquerade balls before the beginning of Lent. Parallel to New Orleans Mardi Gras, these gatherings were exclusively for the white upper class, that would often mock the African slaves. It was not uncommon to see these elites dressing up that were entrenched in racist notions: emulating that the black men of the country were imbeciles and unmasculine, and black women were hyper-sexualized and only seen as objects. It was also common to see masks and costumes that had themes of animalistic behavior, often snarling or menacing faces.
The slaves, unable to attend the ones being held, formed their own similar celebrations called “Canboulay”. This celebration had a direct influence on the crucial role music plays within Trinidadian culture, launching the birth of steelpan music. Within the 20th century, parades and carnivals have been adopted all over the world where there is a heavy West Indian community (Notting Hill and Toronto Carnivals also draws out millions of participants as well). The Caribbean presence in New York is tangible, palpable. For me, the parade is a cornerstone to this pride that emulates through the city on one of the final weekends of summer, a season New Yorkers take to heart.
Archival photos of the Harlem parade from 1949 by Carl Van Vechten