RSS FeedFacebookSearch
Gary Younge
The West Indian parade

In October, mayor Michael Bloomberg boycotted the Italian-American Columbus Day parade after organisers barred two of his guests - Lorraine Bracco and Dominic Chianese, otherwise known as Dr Melfi and Uncle Junior of The Sopranos. The organisers had banned all Sopranos actors for casting Italian-Americans in a negative light. More serious has been the ongoing dispute over the exclusion of lesbians and gays from the St Patrick's Day parade. Despite protests, Bloomberg attended the segregated parade in March.

This weekend's West Indian parade is the biggest of all: a two-mile shuffle through the heart of Brooklyn, cheered on by hundreds of thousands of spectators standing in the drizzle while the scent of jerk chicken and curried goat wafts from the stands that line the streets. Here again, Bloomberg was in trouble. As New York senator Hillary Clinton pushed ahead, waving to crowds calling on her to stand for president, Bloomberg lost his customary place at the head of the march.

But that would be least of the parade's problems. As the carnival was winding down, a masked man on a float shot an overexuberant spectator who tried to board it, then disappeared into the crowd. Shortly afterwards another man was stabbed in the neck.

The possibility that the entire event would be tarnished by a handful of random brutal moments was not the only comparison to be made with the Notting Hill carnival. Making your way through the crowds involved the same awkward shuffle with your nose pressed up against a stranger's back (which was less of a problem at Notting Hill this year since so few people turned up), and by the evening, the New York Times website had pictures of large women embracing goofy-looking policemen.

But the differences are starker. For a start, the goofy policeman in question was as likely to be black as white. Indeed, there were far fewer white people at the event in general - testament to the fact that while there might be more ethnicities here, that doesn't necessarily mean that there is more ethnic mixing.

But the West Indians' desire to lay claim to where they had come from did not seem to impede their ability to identify with where they were. Before the various steel bands did battle on Saturday, we were asked to stand for The Star Spangled Banner, which ended with a cheer. One need only guess at the kind of reception the British national anthem would get at Notting Hill.

Most surprising, however, were the flags. Inspired by Trinidad's carnival traditions, Notting Hill is a Caribbean festival: an illustration of the way the various islands' pre-immigration identities have dissolved, although never completely disappeared, into one complex cultural and political landscape. "It was only in Britain that we became West Indians," says academic Stuart Hall.

But in Brooklyn those island identities remain. I have no recollection of flags at Notting Hill, but over the weekend the national emblems of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, St Vincent, St Lucia and others were turned into bandannas, wristbands, skirts and shorts wherever you looked.

And so I found myself on Eastern Parkway, clutching the first and only flag I have held since the red banners of May Day in the mid-80s: the Bajan flag of my parents' island, which I have visited all of six times in my life. A Briton in America at a Caribbean carnival, displaying a diasporic patriotism I never knew I had.

If the transcripts of emergency calls on September 11 revealed the heroism of many of the city's public servants, they also offered a glimpse of the pen-pushing pedantry of a handful of others. One port authority employee, identified only as Brian, continued doing routine work when a caller informed him that the first tower had been hit.

"You're just doing routine things," asked the caller. "So it ain't no big deal?"

"It don't affect me," said Brian, knowing that something was wrong, but not how seriously. "You know, I'm working. So I don't really care about that now."

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
Dispatches From The Diaspora
latest book

'An outstanding chronicler of the African diaspora.'

Bernardine Evaristo

 follow on twitter
© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc