In a recent article and illuminating short film by the talented folks at VICE, “J’ouvert: Brooklyn’s Dirty Masquerade” we are introduced to the reality and significance of J’ouvert by the people, both participants and onlookers.
With the recent conclusion of Trinidad’s Carnival, New Yorkers look ahead to a day that has become synonymous with violence and chaos.
Every September from Grand Army Plaza to Midwood Street (the Crown Heights neighborhood if you’re not hip), hundreds of thousands of Caribbean/West Indian Americans join together in celebration of their vibrant culture. In Brooklyn alone, people who ethnically identify as members of the Caribbean community account for almost 23.8% according to a 2010 census. Just last year, New York City was deemed to have “the largest population of black immigrants and descendants of immigrants from the Caribbean (especially from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Guyana, Belize, Grenada, and Haiti)” according to NYC.gov‘s NYC population estimates.
With such an expansive community of Caribbean city-dwellers, it’s no surprise that J’ouvert is an integral part to the culture of the people and the city itself – after all, the people are the city, and the city is its people.
At its roots, J’ouvert was developed in Trinidad in the 17th Century after being introduced to Carnival’s by French settlers. After being banned from the elaborate French masquerade’s, slaves rose above the racism, hosting their own celebratory activities right in their backyards. In doing so, the enslaved people shed light on the glory of their cultures, incorporating their own folklore, music, and rituals during the parties. In an attempt to achieve some sort of catharsis amidst the constant abusive suppression from their master’s, the people were courageous enough to defy their bondage and honor their cultural identities.
In essence, J’ouvert represents freedom, rebellion, and the power of a people.
Centuries later and many generations passed, the people of New York uphold the tradition and carry on freely throughout the streets. Summer heat, the smell of oxtails, roti, the graceful wave of various island flags, and the rainbow of melanin parading through the streets IS J’ouvert. It is summer, it is the people, and it is Brooklyn.
Sadly, the beauty of the festival has been contaminated by violence; just last year, 2 young people were shot and killed during the street party. Beyond the tragic and senseless loss of these two people, many women claim to experience sexual misconduct and unwarranted aggression from men during the affair. Culturally, the characteristic wining, gyrating, and scant dress on the day, is widely accepted and embraced as an aspect of the community. Unfortunately, this behavior paired with civil unreliability in the community, alcohol/drugs, and gang affiliations, yield a relatively hazardous environment.
The circumstances are complex and the root of the issue is even more convoluted. Nonetheless, the negative stigma attached to the day has deeply polluted the beauty and historical significance of the day as many continue to calmly enjoy the day as it was originally intended.
The word J’ouvert can be translated to “dawn” or “daybreak” – perhaps this serves as a positive reminder of the light withheld by both the people and the festival and in turn negating its disheartening image.
Read, watch, and re-think this boisterous Brooklyn-Caribbean institution.