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Oral history interview conducted by Michael Roberts
September 28, 1994
Call number: 2010.019.23
ROBERTS: Okay, for the sake of this interview I'll just ask you where you were born.
RENNIE: Trinidad and Tobago.
ROBERTS: What part of Trinidad and Tobago?
RENNIE: Manto which is Morley Town.
ROBERTS: How long have you lived in Brooklyn?
RENNIE: Well, approximately twenty-three years.
ROBERTS: And when did you come to New York City? What year?
RENNIE: 1969. 1969.
ROBERTS: And, why did you come to Brooklyn, to New York City?
RENNIE: Well, what happened during the Caribbean at that time when we finishedour exams, there was one university, only two universities in the whole of the 1:00Caribbean: Mona Jamaica and the Trinidad, and in Trinidad, the West Indies. So we were forced to come out of the Caribbean to come to a different university if you wanted to continue the education process. You were forced to come out to different universities in different parts of the world.
ROBERTS: And what did you do when you first got here?
RENNIE: Well, when I first got here, really I went to Washington D.C.,Washington D.C. Going to Washington D.C., we were faced with serious problems. One, we had to go back to high school to learn the government. Right? American government, which we did. And then you went to on to Howard, I went on to Howard University. But during that time, I spent about two semesters in Howard University, and then I came down to New York City.
ROBERTS: And what did you do when you got to New York City?2:00
RENNIE: When I got to New York City I looked for a job because I was jobless.And I did not attend school until, until in about 1973, I went to New York Community College where I obtained my Associate Diploma.
ROBERTS: What were your first impressions of Brooklyn when you came?
RENNIE: Well, my, hearing the stories that you can make money so that you'll beable to go to school. My whole vision was to make money just to get my school fees to go to school, so I can go back home. My whole idea was to go back home, so I had that behind me. But when I came here and I saw it was something completely different. It was not just to make money and go back home. You have to, to get involved with the communities, and live with the community, and adapt 3:00certain ways of living. I think that I see it was extremely dirty. I did not like it and wanted to get back to Washington, D.C. as quickly as possible. But unfortunately I was forced to stay based on my financial situation. My first job was in a factory, and I was making beds out in Coney Island. And the filth on our way to get to Coney Island, that was very depressing for me. So during that period of time I went through a depressed state. Depressed of I have to live in this filth, because I was not accustomed to living in that type of situation. But then I was able to overcome it quickly because I knew that at the end of all of this there was some goal that I had in life, which was to further my education.
ROBERTS: So, when you came here, do you feel that perhaps the large number of4:00Caribbean immigrants in Brooklyn was important to you? Did they offer you any type of support?
RENNIE: Yes. As a matter of fact, one of my girlfriends who had already had herdegree from Trinidad, she was working for the United Nations, so she housed me for approximately three, four years, four years, until I got myself on my feet. So I had that support from my friends and people from the Caribbean. One of the things that I found I needed to do was to branch off and to learn the culture of the American people, which I did.
ROBERTS: Was that easy to do, to learn American culture?
RENNIE: First, it was extremely difficult because you had to, I had to findpeople who were willing to accept me and teach me their culture. When I started 5:00going to school it became easier, because at that time New York Community College was a mixture of students. I did associate myself very strongly with the American students. I become, I became part of the student body, the governing body and I got very active on the campus. Being active on the campus, I was able to become very friendly, and be part of the culture.
ROBERTS: When you came to New York, and when you landed in Brooklyn, what wouldyou say was the most important thing to you?
RENNIE: When I landed in Brooklyn, the most important thing was to securehousing. Where was I going to stay? Because I came down without really an idea 6:00exactly where I was going to stay. When I came down, my idea was to get a job, and to get my school fees and to go back to Washington to continue, to continue in Howard. So that was the main goal, important thing, housing for me.
ROBERTS: Let's talk a little bit now about Carnival. Have you ever participatedin Carnival? I'm talking about before coming to the United States.
RENNIE: No, I did not, I did not, let me see, yes. Let's go back. I did not playmas but we took part in the Carnival festivity, and we, during Carnival season, I would attend all the tents and everything, but actually play mas, I did not play mas.
ROBERTS: But coming from Trinidad which has a strong Carnival background, that's7:00kind of difficult to understand. Do you want to explain to us why you did not want, was it family, religious, or what was the situation that meant you did not participate in mas?
RENNIE: What happened, my father was very strict and he did not believe, he didnot believe in us playing mas. But one of the things that, and because he did not allow it, he did not believe in it, we did not do it us. But one of the things that as we got older we got involved in the process of helping the mas to happen. And I say the process, as such, has been part of to work for the Carnival committees and help plan it and so we were part of that, but not actually playing the mas. Because we did not grow up playing mas.
ROBERTS: So it was in deference to your father's wishes that you did not play.8:00
RENNIE: Yes, did not play.
ROBERTS: Okay. So at home in Trinidad how did you first get in contact withCarnival? How did you get involved with Carnival in Trinidad?
RENNIE: Well whether our parents like it or not, we were part of Carnival, wewere in contact of Carnival, because during that season the whole country was based on that Carnival type of atmosphere. So although your parents did not want you to get involved, even though there were people who were religious who did not want, it was there, the atmosphere was there, so we were part of it. In the schools, you go into the ports and see all the different mas camps, you see people making their mas, so it was there originally for you and something you did get involved without your parents knowing. So they, so the situation is such that you got involved regardless of your parents. 9:00
ROBERTS: When you came to New York, how did you participate in Carnival?
RENNIE: Well, when I first came to New York I was determined to be part ofCarnival based on the fact that my parents did not allow me and that hunger was in there to be part of this whole Carnival setting. And they no longer had control over my life. I became involved with being on the Parkway, attending Carnival, you know, going to all the parties and being on the Parkway. I never missed a Carnival. Then we decided to bring out a band, a small band, a group of us, which we call ourselves -- You know, we just used to paint up ourself, jab-jab people which is something which is --
RENNIE: Yes, which is something which was known home. So that was my first timeI played mas. I played mas on the Parkway, and it was jab-jab. It was approximately about twenty of us. Friends. We did not have any music, we just 10:00had a pan beating and going up the Parkway.
ROBERTS: That was in what year?
RENNIE: That was in 1976.
ROBERTS: And can you tell us a little bit more, what is jab-jab?
RENNIE: Jab-jab is, jab-jab really started with rebelling. It started fromTrinidad when a group of people rebelled against the system. And in doing so, they, the form of it is painting yourself in mud, in oil, running up on people, and throwing the mud on them and oiling them. Because during that time, plus too that form of mas was the cheapest form of mas. And when you come from the poor, 11:00from the countryside or the poor grouping of people, and you cannot play mas in the expensive type of masquerading type of thing, you play mas with jab-jab because, you know, anything it was, it was just the oil and the paints and so. It really got very sort of popular during the time when three teachers decided to rebel against the government and how the government were treating the teachers during that period of time. And they decided to make the jab-jab into that form of rebellious type of mas. It was three of them and be time they reached to stage there were approximately fifteen to twenty of them. What they 12:00did was link on the stage and prevent other bigger bands from coming onto the stage. So they stayed on the stage for approximately three, four or five hours which held up the mas, which sent a message to the government of what they were doing to the teachers of that time. And from then on that mas, that rebellious mas, became one of the biggest mas there is in New York City, in Trinidad, in Brooklyn and wherever there is Carnival.
ROBERTS: How do you participate in Carnival now?
RENNIE: Well, Carnival since that time have gotten very sophisticated. We haveorganizations such as the Hawks, the Borokeet, Sesame Flyers and other groups that decided to be part of the Carnival family. And whereas you have to, in 13:00order for you let's say Labor Day, Labor Day on the Parkway; in order for you to be part of this group you have to pay a band fee. And you have to actually go and sign up, so, some of us, we are computerized now so we know all those who are in the band, we know how many people are in the band, you know, we know how big our band is going to be. And you become part of that family from, from the time that the band knows whatever they are going to play which is about a whole year. You become part of that family, you start to make your costumes, you know, you, you have your mas camps; you have your mas areas, your people make mas in there, their costumes in their houses. And so then you become part of it 14:00
ROBERTS: You touched on a very important issue, the question of technology. Yousay that certain organizations that produce mas, mas bands, are now computerized. Do you see this as helping to better organize mas in the future?
RENNIE: Yes, definitely. The computerization of the mas bands will help us havemore control of what is happening on the Parkway. More control of who are in the bands and how many people, how many people are in the bands. This helps the 15:00whole parade to move smoother because we will know exactly how much to tell Lezama, Mr. Lezama the amount of people that we have in a band, the amount of trucks that we need for persons, the amount of patrol the committee officers that we'll need for policing, and --
ROBERTS: In short, you'll have ready information on a year to year basis.
RENNIE: Yes, ready information on a year to year basis.
ROBERTS: You also touched on the question of the preparation of mas from year toyear. Would you like to just tell us how people get the ideas, what is done when, for example in 1994, Labor Day is finished? According to you the mas, the mas bands and the various organizations will now begin the process of planning for the next year. How is this done? Do you have an idea how this is done?
RENNIE: Alright. Sometimes the planning for a particular mas happens two, three16:00years before the year it will take place. This year we played South Africa and Mandela, and this was planned about two years ago. From studying the history of South Africa two or three years ago, we had the feeling that freedom, you know, the freedom of Mandela from prison, would take place during the period of time. So we planned that mas for 1994, because Mandela was freed about '93, [unintelligible]. So '94 we knew exactly that we, we were ready with that mas for when Mandela was released. So it was something planned in less than three, four years ago. So most of our mas that we have played is planned mas. We sit down and study it and just wait until the right time to produce that type of mas. 17:00
ROBERTS: So what mas, the mas organizers do is they collect data and study it.
RENNIE: Yes, they collect data and study it; data of the…data of history, thecurrent events that is happening worldwide. Most of our mas is based in history, things that happening.
ROBERTS: Is this different from the production, for example, of mas, say tenyears ago? Do you find there's any difference in respect to the research and production?
RENNIE: No, ten years ago, this type of study about mas has been going on forcenturies. I think since mas really started. Ten years ago we were studying the world and we were playing mas according to what we see out there in the world. I 18:00remember about a few years ago, Mitchell brought out mas which was the destruction- the environmental destruction of the world. And he studied, and in his study, and in his research, he found it was important for him to bring out this type of mas because the environmental problems have become one of the biggest problems we have on this earth today. And Mitchell brought out such a mas, half-man, half crab talking about how people destroying the earth, not paying attention to what is really going to happen. So in the future we might not even have earth because of how we are living today. And he portrayed that. So he studied the environmental history of the world in order to do such a mas.
ROBERTS: So you might say then that playing mas is a combination of both past19:00and current history?
RENNIE: Yes, past and current history.
ROBERTS: It's like a commentary on--
RENNIE: It's a commentary of what is happening in our society today.
ROBERTS: What does Carnival represent to you? It may be a bit of a pettyquestion, but what does Carnival represent to you?
RENNIE: Carnival, it's a form of… I can look at it from two perspectives. One,I can look at it as someone who belong to a group that is producing the mas, producing Carnival, mas to take part in Carnival. So I look at it from the history perspective of what has happened in our community. So to me that is some way of me to vent, or to let the country know that something is going wrong, I would portray it in the mas. Right? So that is from someone who is actually 20:00making… who belongs to an organization. If issues are not being dealt with properly in my community, I will relay that message in the mas. Right? For me as a person, as an individual, Carnival is enjoyment. Carnival is a form of me releasing all the tension that happens, that is happening around me. Within that weekend of Carnival, I am so happy. Nothing seems to bother me, me as an individual. Right? So it's a form of enjoyment. It's a form of a reunion where you meet all your friends that you haven't seen for years. It's like a big family day. We have fun, and we enjoy and relax. In order for us to endure, in order for us to deal with our -- Yes, as I was saying, as the psychiatrists say, 21:00it's freedom. You're leaving all the tension that you have within you on that day. It's also helping you to mold yourself, to pick up those problems, to deal with those problems with a less tense type of attitude, or less, you know, tension in your whole setting. That helps you to deal with your problems the next day on another level because you have released that tension within you.
ROBERTS: Right, now you have defined Carnival very well for us. There are lotsof people out there who don't know that this is what Carnival is all about. This year there was a problem related to the Hasidic community in Crown Heights, and, 22:00from all reports, some of the problems may stem from an ignorance of what Carnival is all about. What do you see as important, so that next year's Carnival, or future Carnivals, don't run into a problem where you have literally a clash of two cultures, that is the Hasidic community in Crown Heights and also the Carnival culture?
RENNIE: One, I think it is extremely important for literature to be, I shouldsay released in the community about that culture, the Carnival culture. What happened, a lot of people, a lot of people that they're not from Caribbean; they do not understand the Carnival culture. As I said before, we need to feed the 23:00Hasidic community, what, the meaning of Carnival to us; where Carnival stems from, the history behind Carnival. It is very important that the Hasidic community, not only the Hasidic community, but America on a whole, that they understand it, that they get to understand, they learn about Carnival and what Carnival means to people who have Carnival, maybe in Brazil, maybe in Trinidad, in London, or wherever Carnival being held. What Carnival really means to us and how we take Carnival very seriously. Again Carnival is a form of relaxation to 24:00us. Again Carnival is a form sometime of our history, of what is happening in the world that we express during Carnival time. Carnival also, for some people, some people, is a moneymaking thing. To others it is just a way to enjoy themselves. For New York City, Carnival can be, can be one of the biggest venues to make money in New York City. Carnival also could be used as a political type of form, a political event or route for people who are seeking office. As we saw this year, this year a lot of politicians were involved in our Carnival and they are seeing it from that perspective. And I think it should be relating it to the 25:00role of such a Carnival that can be used for many different things, not just enjoyment.
ROBERTS: You spoke earlier on about your participation in J'ouvert. Could youexplain to us what is J'ouvert, and also why, why and how you became involved in it this year?
RENNIE: Alright, J'ouvert is the early part of Carnival. J'ouvert sort of openedthe doors for Carnival to take place. J'ouvert, years ago, started with people dressing up in all types of old clothes, people dressing up like political figures, which is something we don't actually do in the Carnival, in the mas parade, but this is a form of dressing up like, you know like, it's somewhat like a Halloween party that they have, that they have here up 26:00in the village. Where you have chance to disguise whoever you want to disguise like. So that is J'ouvert. J'ouvert is that you can disguise, you can be yourself, you can, it's the opening part of our Carnival. It starts in the wee, it starts about three hours, it must be before dawn, before the morning dusk falls, right, so it must be before dawn. Where we are on the streets and where it is dark and you're just having a good time and you, yes it may be seen as a religious part of Carnival whereas you find spiritually this will come and pave the way for the actual Carnival to take place. So we have a clean Carnival without any problems. So it is the start of everything. In Brooklyn we have been having Carnival for the past eight years. 27:00
ROBERTS: The J'ouvert.
RENNIE: The J'ouvert, sorry, for the past eight years. It have been verysuccessful. This year we involved the precinct based on the situation that we were faced, based on the struggles that we have to have Carnival on the Parkway, struggles with the Hasidic and their religious holiday clashing. So that we felt it was very important for us this year to have the actual precincts be involved in our Labor Day so that they know what we're doing. I decided to get seriously involved in J'ouvert, this year, because I saw a need for a competition. Yearly we have J'ouvert but no competition. And in order -- and the reason for the Competition -- is to take the J'ouvert to another level. To let the bands -- and J'ouvert is really just steel bands, there is no DJs, it's a form of art for all steel band members to display their art, which is the steel band, so in J'ouvert 28:00it's only steel bands, the DJs are left for the actual Carnival. So what we did this year, the competition was based on the best beating steel band and the best costumed band and it was well attended, the steel bands were very happy. By Prestige, Prestige Club which is located on Flatbush Avenue, they played their tunes and they displayed their costumes. And because of this, because of the need for the competition, the need to take the J'ouvert to another level, everybody was very happy about it.
ROBERTS: You touched more than once on the issue of the police presence. Thisyear there were about four thousand policemen, in excess of four thousand 29:00policemen, to assist the parade, or to be part of the law enforcement and try to control detachment of police. What's your views on the involvement of the police this year in the Carnival as opposed to previous years?
RENNIE: Previous years the police, the police in the Carnival was more friendlyin previous years. Some of them took part in actual Carnival. You know, like, they were having fun; they were watching people having fun. This year, because of the situation of the clashing of the two cultures that took place in New York City, they were a bit more rigid. And there were some situations where people had several complaints about the police mistreating them. The next time, or the 30:00next of this, the bands were happy that the police took that type of role this year. Because for each band there were designated the officers, officers were designated based on the band, this was a request that came from all the band leaders which were from Hawks, and Borokeet. And they requested that based on the fact that they tried to see if they could expedite the bands to move very quickly on the Parkway. But there's always two sides of how things turn out. To the band leaders, to the groups of musicians, it was excellent and you will hear them saying that. To the people on the street that wanted to see. They saw the unfriendliness of the police. Which leads us to question, what are we really 31:00doing? Are we creating a situation where Carnival's supposed to be happy and jolly and freedom of the people, without really too. Let it be documented there has never been an incident on the Parkway nearby. Everything had taken place may be after the Parkway. So I think we, I don't deny we need to look at it if we're setting up ourselves to have the police stand away from the people and create for some people, this type of, a type of police state type of Carnival which we don't want. We want our Carnival to be free. We want our Carnival to be enjoyable by both the police, like they used to do in the past, and we did not have any problems then and today. But again as I said, to some band leaders it 32:00was excellent because they were able to move their band free. Now, maybe we need to educate the police on how to deal with the people, with the people on Carnival, how to deal with the band, so we can remove that hostility that we got, that the people got from the police this year. So we are saying that we have to find a ways, and work it out for next Labor Day. One, that we utilize the police properly. I think this year we did not utilize the police to the full possibility, and properly; in the line of maintaining the Carnival moves smoothly and also to the police to be friendly people. When I say friendly people I mean not to be hostile against the people. And also because when you have this type of hostility, it creates problem, it creates any type of thing to 33:00happen, if our police and they don't know the meaning of Carnival, and they are not trained to handle Carnival, Carnival crowd.
ROBERTS: Be that as it may, in cases like Canada, the city subsidizes Carnival.In places like London, Notting Carnival which is pretty big, and those Carnivals are subsidized and controlled very, very much by the governments. The government has an input in it. In New York City, that is not the case. I'd like you to comment firstly on what, if you think that that might be a good idea, and secondly, what do you think the West Indian American Day Carnival brings to New York City administration. 34:00
RENNIE: For several years, Toronto's Carnival has, the people who are involvedstated that they needed help. The government came in and they assist. But, from my observation, what I saw, I saw a complete take-over of a Carnival from the people. I think in the long run we may see the dangers of that type of take-over. But at yet we, it's in the early stages so we are not seeing, but from what I can see, the Caribbean people having no control of a Carnival which I think that they need to look at very strongly and sort of balance it out. But I don't think Toronto Carnival is well-balanced. I see a one sided type of 35:00Carnival. London Carnival I was lucky to visit London Carnival one year. It's one of the biggest, biggest Carnival that is out of Trinidad and Brazil. London Carnival is extremely big. What London Carnival was able to do was intermingle all the people within the community, all the people in London itself. Everyone took part; regardless of their race, regardless of their religious belief or whatever, they come as one during that period of time. And in coming as one and again, because in London they understand the meaning of Carnival. The police was 36:00sent to Trinidad to be trained to understand how to control the crowd. So the police are, they're people friendly in the line during the Carnival, during the Carnival season, during the Carnival season. Carnival in London is not a one sided situation. Everybody get involved. And everybody know what Carnival is about and they come as one. So Carnival in London, to me, is one of the best one that we should follow. In New York City, because of the uneducated masses of people, based on, you know, the Carnival, because they're uneducated about, well uneducated is a poor word to use. Because they do not know much about Carnival, you find that there's a problem if the government get deeply involved in 37:00Carnival, they have to understand Carnival first before they decide to get involved in Carnival, what Carnival is about. Now, they're a lot of people on the out that sees Carnival as a big money making thing and they would like to jump on the bandwagon to make that money. They see Carnival as a political, they make a political statement. But in jumping on the bandwagon to make money, or to make a political statement, it is not necessarily the best thing for our Caribbean people. We need to study how the government is going to get into our Carnival. We need to sit down with the government if we are going to do it, and we, the Caribbean people, need to decide it; not the government, because if the government decides it, then they are coming with all their rules and regulations for us to follow. It would not be like a partnership. Now we want this to be, if it is going to happen, if we think it is the best thing for the Labor Day 38:00Carnival, then we will sit with the government and layout our rules. How we expect the government to get involved. Because it is a money making thing for New York City. Right? And we just don't want everybody to jump on the bandwagon to make money out of us without us really having a say so.
ROBERTS: From your perspective therefore, who are the most important peopleinvolved in Carnival?
RENNIE: The most important people involved in Carnival are the masqueraders. Themasqueraders are the people who make Carnival happen. We could have several organizations out, we could have a Hawks, we could have a Borokeet, we could have a West Indian Day Carnival, who already are the fathers, the founders of the Carnival, the West Indian Day, the West Indian Day Association, they are the fathers of the Carnival, but they cannot make Carnival happen. It has to be in 39:00cooperation of the masses of people who are lovers of Carnival, who believe in Carnival and see Carnival as the need to make it happen. Hawks alone cannot make it happen. Borokeet alone cannot make it happen. It is the grouping of people must make it happen.
ROBERTS: Now, with what particular ethnic group do you associate Carnival?
RENNIE: As I'm watching Carnival grow through the number of years, here in NewYork City, I see an intermingling of groups. It's slowly, but it's happening. The Caribbean, the African-American, the Caribbean people are the fore leaders of this, but gradually I'll see different groups coming into Carnival. This year 40:00was the first year I saw a Japanese organization in Carnival, which, you know, is -- But gradually you're seeing different groupings of people playing mas with different bands. Also I see the vendors on the Parkway are vendors of different ethnic groups. So there are some ethnic groups that are reaping from Carnival because they are sellers on the Parkway. So I'm seeing more, gradually you're seeing it, but the masses of people are people from the African descendant.
ROBERTS: Now you've been involved with Carnival for the past almost twenty yearsor so, and what changes have you noticed in Carnival over the years? 41:00
RENNIE: Well, for the past twenty years when I first started with Carnival was asmall group of, was a very small group of people. We used to go into the park. The Carnival parade took place at a certain point and then ended up into the park. The Carnival, the bands were not as big as they are, as they are today. The amount of people on the Parkway is not as large as they are today. I have seen Carnival move from a small handful of people, to people who are making statesmen, especially politically, I seen it coming, this political type of I think for certain people. The bands are getting bigger. People are coming from 42:00all over the world now to be part of Labor Day Carnival. We need more space. We are all going that snail's pace on Eastern Parkway based on what is happening now. We, because of Carnival, we are seen that the transit authority are making a lot of money. The transit people are using, during that period of time there's a massive amount of people using the transit, the bus or what have you. We are seeing the hotels gaining from Carnival, based on the volume of people that are coming in from different places. We are seeing the toll booths can see a rise in the amount of money that they getting based on the amount of people coming in from Canada, from Baltimore, from wherever they are coming from. We are seeing 43:00stores, at that time stores are having their biggest sales that you could ever see, bigger than ever, because people are coming also to shop. We are seeing, you know, we are seeing food products. You know, one of the things we use a lot of food at Carnival time, we sell a lot of food at Carnival time. We are seeing our brothers and sisters from the motherland. They have become part of the Carnival, they are the vendors where they sell all their materials and they sell different things. So Carnival itself has expanded from the twenty years from the small grouping of Caribbean people, to a wider mass of people from all over the world. The onlookers are people from every part of the world, from every grouping of people from the ethnic background.
ROBERTS: You just made reference to people coming in from Baltimore, from Miami,44:00from Canada to witness the annual West Indian American Day Carnival, on Labor Day. We also know that there are Carnivals in the city's cities. What would you say is responsible for the number of other Carnivals that take place all over the United States? For example, I know there is one in Baltimore, there is one in Miami coming up, and there are a couple of others in different parts of the United States. What do you think is the main reason for these Carnivals developing in these cities and these places around the United States?
RENNIE: Number one, when you migrate from a country you need to maintain yourculture. We have experienced that. From history that taught us because, because 45:00Africans who came here were not allowed to maintain their culture. There were several faults that happened throughout history right up to the present that they generally really don't know too much about Africa. We see a serious need to maintain the art and the culture from the Caribbean. Right? So like its wanting to maintain our culture that we must pass down to our children and they misunderstand what Carnival is about. So New York City was one of the first to really have Labor Day and to have it on that magnitude. There are other cities now whereas the Caribbean people see a need to bring the Carnival to their city 46:00so that their children will benefit. But there's also another group of people who see it as a financial asset to them. And in bringing Carnival into their, maybe Boston, they are bringing money into Boston during that period of time. They're bringing into the, well let's say, into Boston, the garment industry, just as New York is making a lot of money. The transportation as I said, the food industry, the beverages industry. So they see it as a money making thing. But we just see it as the way of bringing our culture, for our children to maintain our culture, to know our culture. So there are always two sides. We must start looking at it from these two sides. We must start looking at it as a 47:00culture, to maintain our culture, and we must also start looking at the economic side of it. If we want to maintain it and carry it on properly. And I think what is happening now, a lot of us start to look at it from the economics of it, and how it is bringing money into the cities.
ROBERTS: So, you don't think that the fact that more and more people from theCaribbean are settling in these cities has anything to do with the development of Carnival in these cities?
RENNIE: Years ago, migration from the Caribbean was into New York City. That'swhere the jobs were, that's where, you know, schools, or whatever you're coming for. So we knew of New York City. Most of your friends who went there will tell 48:00you about New York City. Just like in England. London was the heart of where Caribbean people migrated. Just like New York City is the heart. But as time went by and we started to develop certain levels, and we started to understand America as a whole, we started to branch out to other parts of the States. Like Boston, Baltimore. You see right now there is, you know, the increase of immigrants in Boston, increase immigrants in Baltimore, and people are moving away from the, from the hassle type of life, back into settings that we know in Trinidad, comfortable, peaceful life. So they are going to Boston, you'll find small life, the houses are more, is like the type of house of house we live in. 49:00It's just either one story. Not like the concrete jungle, like New York City, that we are forced to live into when we come here. So as we accumulate, as we get older, they have a tendency to go in this peaceful setting away from this hustle type of life. So there are Caribbean people now, the migration of Caribbean people in different cities has grown. And in going over there you are taking your children with you, and it is always important for the children to understand their culture. So in each one of these cities, you start to maintain your culture.
ROBERTS: What do you like best about Carnival?
RENNIE: The best part of Carnival for me is seeing friends I haven't seen inyears; friends from all over the world. Some of my friends who migrated to 50:00London, who migrated to Spain, who migrated to China, come in for Carnival. So it's like a big family reunion. And I love that. Although we are playing our mas, which is enjoyable, at the same time you're enjoying your mas, you're expressing yourself, you're making the costume, the friends that you see that you left behind or went to another country. And I think that is the most enjoyable part of Carnival.
ROBERTS: And what do you like least about Carnival?
RENNIE: Carnival in New York City has its faults. One, we are crammed. What Idon't like is how we are crammed on a very short street. I think we need to 51:00expand. What I don't like is how the bigger, or how New York City, are not taking us seriously with our art, and our Carnival. You know, I really think that cramming us, stifling us, creates problem and that is what I'm afraid about. That is what I'm scared about. Because when you have all this massive amount of people, on short route, it can create several problems of which we are seeing now. We are seeing that we cannot control the crowd. People are getting into the bands because people want to see. To see what is happening. And if you've ever been on the Parkway you'll see from where the bands coming down, it's packed right up to the houses, people are packed. There's no room for 52:00people to pass. If the Carnival is extended, if the route is extended, then people can go a long route to really enjoy the Carnival. But once you cram people on top of people, it creates a lot of problem. It opens for a lot of things to happen. And if we, if the government wants to come in, I think the government should come in from that part which would allow us, to give us the opportunity to expand our Carnival. I think that's one of the things I don't like. Because it's not that I know some people like to get into your band, but a lot of people would prefer to stay back and watch the band, but they are forced to be on top of the mas paraders based on space. And that's what I don't like.
ROBERTS: Have you, you said you have witnessed Carnival in London. Do you want53:00to comment a little bit on Carnival in London?
RENNIE: Carnival in London, the route is very big. Let me give you just anexample. Carnival in London, let me just sort of compare with New York City. Utica Avenue, Utica Avenue, Eastern Parkway is like in a block. Utica Avenue to Eastern Parkway to Church Avenue, that whole route to Flatbush Avenue is Carnival. It takes place, the Carnival takes place. So people can come down Utica Avenue, go across Eastern Parkway, Flatbush Avenue onto Church Avenue. At every street that is inside, in every side street Carnival takes place. So you see, people have room to express to themselves. Right? As I say again, what I like about it, everybody take part, everybody see Carnival, everybody learn to 54:00accept Carnival. What has happened in New York City, a lot of people have not accepted Carnival. And in London, people have learned to accept Carnival. And once you accept it, then you will be part of it. You will be part of it, not on a level to say take over the country, but you will be part of it with the people to move the Carnival. And because of the route, Carnival is very beautiful and very little incidents. And I say again, the police went to the country. They got training on how to control the crowd. So that's.
ROBERTS: What problems, what kinds of problems regarding Carnival, in New York,have you seen come up over the years?
RENNIE: Carnival itself is not just Labor Day. It's not just the Monday on the55:00Parkway. There are a series of different celebrations that take place before the Carnival. Like for instance, at the back of the Museum, you have the queen, the crowning of the queen, you have the masqueraders, individuals and several different things. I think that there is a serious need for the celebrations behind the back of Museum to grow, and to organize. Maybe the back of the Museum have gotten too small, because with the Children's Carnival, because Children's Carnival as a part of traditional Carnival has grown, that means our children understanding our culture. And the back of the Museum seems to be getting extremely small for what is really happening right now. So that's one of the things, you know, that need doin'. Also I would like to see judging points 56:00closer than at the end part of the Carnival. I think that creates too much problem because its most of the band, because of the time that you have, because you remember Carnival's only, how many hours, about four, five hours, for all the bands. And because it is so big. Just imagine, Hawks only had, we had about a thousand people or more, two thousand people took part last year. This year we had less because of the struggle we had to maintain the Carnival on the Parkway. And people did not come out to play the mas because they were not certain of what was happening. But last year, and several years ago, there were thousands of people in one band. That alone will take almost two hours to get to the judging point. So I think if they bring the judging point lower, or even expand 57:00it, then it would be. And that's one of the things I dislike.
ROBERTS: Do you think that the West Indian American Day Carnival Association,which is running the Carnival, is doing a good job and what would you like to see them do different in the future?
RENNIE: The West Indian Day Carnival group of people as us who came, whomigrated in this country, had to learn methods of how to do things. This is how we, politically we are learning about this country now, is so that organization is learning and has learned how to do things. Along the line of learning, there are several faults which, you know, you make a mistake and you correct it and these type of things. The West Indian Carnival I have to give it, you know, the 58:00tap on the back, for an excellent job throughout the years to maintain something as the Carnival on the Parkway. But there are faults within the structure of the Carnival which needs to sit down and to work out how logistically we can make this Carnival better. As I said, they were growing, and as they're growing everybody make mistakes. As we were growing politically in this country, we made several mistakes. So now that we won't make those mistakes any more. Gradually, I saw this year, I saw one of the steps to correct some of the mistakes. I saw the West Indian American Day Association involved masqueraders and band leaders. 59:00So therefore they are correcting one mistake. The involvement was not total, but there were involvements so that means there was a step to correct, their on steps to correct certain mistakes. And involving the grassroots people who are really make Carnival happen, I think in the next four, five years Carnival will be a solid, you know, a solid entity in this community. But gradually, they are changing to suit the people. I think also it's the people themselves. They become aware, as politically, our people, a lot of our people are sleeping, and they finally wake up politically and from a cultural perspective of what has 60:00really happened to us and how far we can use our culture to move our people in New York City. And I think it's happening, it's an awareness of everybody now, so everybody getting involved.
ROBERTS: Do you think Carnival gets enough recognition in Brooklyn?
RENNIE: No, it doesn't, it does not. When, this year, was the first year that wewere able to advertise on the subways, Transit allow us to advertising. That every other parade, like the Puerto Rican Parade, you saw the, all the, you know, all transportation, mass transportation, you saw the advertising. This year was the first year that we got that, so that is a step. Somehow we seemed to be blocked from TV coverage, proper TV coverage. And this is not from the 61:00West Indian Day Carnival trying, because they have tried in the past and they were turned down. I remember there was one organization, one talk show host that they went to and asked to use the spot because that talk show host, their show comes on the same time Carnival, the Labor Day, it's in the right moment, and was refused. Again because, we're not taken seriously about our Carnival, I think, so it is not really. But now it is happening, again everything is happening in a process. Now the transportation have it, and then you'll see more. We, within the Caribbean community, we, it's among us, you know, but outside the Caribbean community it's not really well publicized. 62:00
ROBERTS: So one of the things you'd like to see is more recognition?
RENNIE: More recognition and more respect for our Carnival. More respect for theart. Because a lot of people think of us, of Carnival, oh they're just having a good time; they decorate themselves and jump about. It's not that. And they do not respect the art, our culture. They do not respect, as a matter of fact, a lot of them do not even know, they say steel drums, they do not understand it is a steel pan. It's not drums. You know when they start to understand that part of it, the history of it; they would not say steel drums. You know, there is, it was pans, yes, the drums were discarded by the people who were controlling but then we made it into something. The only instrument made within this century is 63:00ours, the steel pan.
ROBERTS: What do you think about the fact that all Carnival brings together somany different types of people: Trinidadians, Jamaicans, Canadians, African-Americans, as you say, Japanese. What do you think about that?
RENNIE: It's, this is a proving what the truth sense of Carnival is; harmony,people having fun, people enjoying each other. Right? By bringing all the different groups of people. And also Jewish people I see them having fun. I know my Jewish friend who will be in the bands, who come around with us. People from the Italian, Italians also and the Irish. You see them coming around, they're enjoying Carnival. It's a form of harmony. Right? It's, and if we really utilize 64:00it properly, maybe we may have some peace in Brooklyn. If we decide, we would to decide to use the Carnival in a way that we could bring people together, maybe Brooklyn would be peaceful, we would not have so much division, and you know, this group and that group fighting among ourselves.
ROBERTS: In the Carnival, Eastern Parkway has become famous through the WestIndian American Day Carnival which happens on that stretch for the past twenty-seven years. Do you think that Eastern Parkway should be renamed Caribbean Parkway?
RENNIE: Yes. Definitely. I am one that advocate for Eastern Parkway to berenamed Caribbean. Not only for the Carnival, but there are several other 65:00reasons why. At the present moment, if you do a study of Eastern Parkway, the majority of people who live on Eastern Parkway are Caribbean descended. Statistically, it have been proven. Right? And that is the main stretch for us. Anybody who coming from another country, from another city, knows Eastern Parkway as Caribbean, as where the Caribbean people are. And what about Crown Heights where the Caribbean, well more so they can identify with Eastern Parkway. And because of that, because of that, and because of the Carnival, 66:00because of the people, and because of something for our children to look proud at, to look forward to, I think we should rename it. I'm not saying so in order to push anybody away. Other groups that feel like we are pushing them away when we want to rename Eastern Parkway. It's not that. It's a Parkway that should be recognized as Caribbean Parkway. Without trying to hurt anybody, or trying to step on anybody's toes. But we have been carrying that Parkway. We have given that Parkway the mileage for the past twenty-seven years, so I think we should be rewarded for giving the Parkway the mileage.
ROBERTS: Finally, what kind of statement do you think Carnival makes to New York City?
RENNIE: That we, the Caribbean people, are here to stay. Therefore, we are67:00bringing our culture to you and it would be nice to you to intermingle your culture with our culture. It's also, it's also bringing, it's also making a statement that everybody can come and enjoy themselves in peace and harmony beneath one umbrella, one culture. That I can enjoy myself, you know the Caribbean, the Caribbean envelope, the Caribbean [unintelligible] I can go to Chinatown, I can enjoy myself with the Chinese people their culture. I can go to the Italians and enjoy myself. I go to Little Italy and enjoy myself with the 68:00Italians in their market. Their name is Little Italy. So that's why it's important for the Caribbean Carnival. They try to understand what Little Italy means, so they must try to understand what Caribbean Parkway means to us. And, so, I think the statement that really, that is saying, that take us seriously. Not only they should take us seriously through the arts, which is a key to everything. Politically, take us seriously. Making use of our art to do a lot of political things within this community. And, as a people, they make a statement. 69:00Although we come from different islands, although there may be a difference in our way of doing things, we can come as one people, as a Caribbean people. So that's the statement.
ROBERTS: I want to thank you very much on behalf of Brooklyn Historical Societyfor spending your time with us.
Oral History Interview with Yvette Rennie
Yvette Rennie was born in Manto, Morleytown, Trinidad and Tobago. In 1969, she immigrated to the United States to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1970, she traveled to New York, where she settled in Brooklyn and attended New York Community College. Rennie soon became involved in the West Indian Day Carnival festivities, where she played mas with Jab Jab performers. As of 1994, when the interview took place, she was an active participant in Carnival.
In this interview Yvette Rennie discusses her immigration to the United States, the struggles of gaining a footing as an immigrant, and her early participation in the West Indian American Day Carnival. She defines the purpose of the Carnival and suggests that a wider knowledge of its history would relieve the community tensions the Carnival creates; this includes the lack of respect and recognition she feels the Carnival receives. She also explains Jab Jab, a masquerade form, and J'ouvert, the predawn precursor to the Carnival parade. Rennie notes the contributions of the Carnival participants to the character and economy of the city. She reflects on the police presence at the 1994 Carnival and the possibility of the New York City government subsidizing the event and becoming more involved in the Carnival's organization. The interview concludes with a discussion of what would improve the Carnival. Interview conducted by Michael Roberts.
The West Indian Carnival Documentation Project records include photographs, oral histories (audio and transcripts), publications and research, and ephemeral materials relating to the Carnival and the project itself. The materials were collected and created within the context of a documentation project undertaken by the Brooklyn Historical Society in 1994, which later culminated in an exhibition. Exhibition materials are not included in the collection.
CitationRennie, Yvette, Oral history interview conducted by Michael Roberts, September 28, 1994, West Indian Carnival Documentation Project records, 2010.019.23; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- New York (N.Y.). Police Department
- Rennie, Yvette
- West Indian American Day Carnival Parade (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
- Caribbean Americans
- Ethnic identity
- Trinidadian Americans
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Eastern Parkway (New York, N.Y.)
- London (England)
Finding AidWest Indian Carnival Documentation Project records