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Oral history interview conducted by Dwan Reece King
July 28, 1994
Call number: 2010.019.24
KING: This is Dwan Reece King from the Brooklyn Historical Society, and today isJuly 28, 1994, and I'm here conducting an interview with Michael Roberts for the West Indian Carnival Documentation Project. So good morning.
ROBERTS: Good Morning.
KING: And let's just start off with some really basic general questions, justfor the record. Can you tell me where you were born and where you grew up?
ROBERTS: I was born in St. George's on the island of Grenada, and I grew up inGrenada. I came to this country about, it was 1988, and I've been here ever since. I'm presently the managing editor of Carib News, which is the largest circulated Caribbean newspaper in this country and possibly Canada. We have a 1:00circulation of 87,000 and a readership of over half a million, and our target market remains primarily the Caribbean American community, even though we do cross over into the mainstream, Black community, and also have a substantial amount of White readership. We are in fact the official newspaper of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association, which is the organization that puts on the Labor Day Parade, every year on Eastern Parkway for the past 26 years, 1994 being the 27th year of the parade.
KING: OK. Let me just ask you a little bit about yourself. How did you end upcoming to Brooklyn?
ROBERTS: Well, most of my family had migrated before me and live in Brooklyn soit was natural for me to come to live in Brooklyn, and as a matter of fact, as 2:00the managing editor of Carib News, since Brooklyn remains the largest constituency within New York City metropolitan area, accounting for about 48.8 percent of Caribbean Americans who live here, it was natural that I should live in the community and serve this community because of our focus on the Caribbean people.
KING: Did you work in a newspaper in Grenada?
ROBERTS: I worked in the newspaper for quite some years, maybe six or sevenyears. As a matter of fact, since I left school I have been involved in newspaper work, and at one point in time I was general secretary of the Windward Islands Press Association, and I was taught by some of the best journalists in the Caribbean during that period.
KING: Now, how long has Carib News been in existence?
ROBERTS: Carib News is now in existence for the past thirteen years.
KING: When you came to Brooklyn and--you live in Crown Heights?3:00
KING: How long have you lived here; for the whole time that you've been here?
ROBERTS: Since I've been here in Brooklyn, yes.
KING: Had you come to visit beforehand, before deciding to live here?
ROBERTS: Well, yes. I've been to Brooklyn more than once before. When I came toNew York I lived in Queens for a while. My mother lives in Queens. I spent--I think it was exactly nine months in Queens before moving to Brooklyn. But I did come to Brooklyn before we made the decision to move to Brooklyn.
KING: Well, let's jump a little to Carnival and your involvement in that. Howmany ways are you involved in Carnival? Obviously as editor of the Carib news you always covering the event. Do you do other things?
ROBERTS: Well, one of my key roles since moving to Brooklyn and since being amember of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association has been to assist the organization in putting together the type of program that is of a 4:00professional level. In conferring with Mr. Carlos Lezama, who as you know is the president of that organization, on a regular basis, and to look out for the Carnival in such a way that when hostile interest groups decide at any given point in time that they should threaten the Carnival or threaten the elements of the Carnival, certainly, one of our main tasks, Carib News' main task, and by extension myself, is to utilize our tremendous influence within the Caribbean American community. To neutralize --I don't want to use the term enemies, but 5:00adversaries, people who oppose to the Carnival and what it means to us as a people, to deal with that at that level, and to formulate ways to handle the situation. So that is how I characterize as the political involvement of the Carnival. How do we, are we involved in Carnival again? We are involved by spreading the word, obviously, by being a media house. We be involved by spreading the word of Carnival, highlighting the possible benefits of Carnival, and of course you would know that Carnival brings to this…just the Labor Day Parade alone brings revenues well over ten, fifteen million, and the entire week-long festivities brings about between forty and sixty million dollars to the city. So as a tourism booster, Carnival is very important to the city. And 6:00we serve to spread the word, and to make sure that people don't see the Carnival and its various facets as just being wind and grind on the Parkway, and it's much more the showcase of a culture and it has an economic benefit to the city.
KING: When you mention hostile interest groups, can you give me an example? Whatadversaries are you facing?
ROBERTS: Well, straight off the bat, we have in recent years --it certainly isnot anything new, but in my view, and you can quote me there, in my view it has intensified in hostility over the years. I happen to refer to the Hasidim group, 7:00that community in Crown Heights which make up demographically, they make about a minority in Crown Heights. If my figures serve me correctly, in the Crown Heights area, there are about…I think it's about eighty-seven or eighty thousand Caribbean Americans living, in the Crown Heights area, as opposed to ten thousand Jews. And the Hasidim has had a direct and active, a sinister, and at many times a very scurrilous campaign, not only to discredit the Labor Day Carnival, but to have it removed in their own narrow and petty interest. This year is no joke, no different. They have just written a letter to Giuliani's Deputy Mayor Fran Reiter, a fourteen point memorandum coming from the Crown 8:00Heights Jewish Coalition Council, headed by a guy called Rabbi Spielman, in which they ask for all type of frankly ridiculous and childish suggestions to help to destroy Labor Day. Of course, they believe because Caribbean Americans did not vote in overwhelming majority for Mayor Giuliani and they did, that this is now payback time for the Jews. And this has been an ongoing struggle by that particular group to make sure that the Carnival is destroyed. Quite simply put, that it is destroyed. This year there was the one struggle, that they want it to be held on Sunday. Complete and total disrespect for the Sunday being the day of worship for most Caribbean Americans; the majority, the vast majority of 9:00Caribbean Americans. In complete disregard, they wanted to have it on Sunday. Next thing, they wanted it to finish at five thirty, which would me that we would have to start the Carnival at six thirty in the morning, which would mean that the city and the transport department would have to make a number of shifts and alterations to deal with mid-morning traffic, to go work. So this matter has also gone to court where they have a certain injunction to disbar the Carnival proceeding to continue. So that has been an ongoing cause of friction and hostility by that interest group in Crown Heights, and the bottom line remains that Crown Heights is overwhelmingly in the majority a Caribbean American district. There is absolutely no other statistics for that. The Jews in Crown Heights, the Hasidim in Crown Heights, make up a vast minority of the people in 10:00Crown Heights. Albeit that they get most of the privileges from the city and the state, but in respect to the Carnival, they have had a concerted, a well-orchestrated, and a direct attack on the Carnival proceedings to destroy it over the years.
KING: So that's one of the prime adversaries.
ROBERTS: That is the prime adversary.
KING: This memo you mentioned, this is a recent memo?
ROBERTS: Oh yes.
KING: This is more than the letter that went out in December.
ROBERTS: Yes, it is in Carib News today. It is reproduced in Carib News today,the letter. As a matter of fact, we were not supposed to have gotten that letter. It is a confidential, highly confidential memo to Fran Reiter. It was not shared with Carib News. It was not shared with the West Indian American Day Carnival Association, but we happen to have gotten a copy of the letter and brought the story yesterday in Carib News; unpublished letter in its completeness.
KING: I'd like to get a copy of that issue.11:00
ROBERTS: Oh sure, oh sure. You can get a copy of it.
KING: OK. Well, you're involved in Carnival through your professional life doingCarib News. What about personally?
ROBERTS: Well, I've played Carnival many years at home. I haven't played sinceI've come on to New York.
KING: You haven't?
ROBERTS: No, I haven't. But I've been involved with most mas camps. Most of thepeople who produce Carnival, I know all of them, and most of the mas camp --the people I was with a couple days ago, and as we prepared to do a special supplement for Labor Day, more and more I'm going to speak to them.
KING: Can you tell me what it was like to play mas in Grenada?
ROBERTS: Oh, it's a lot of fun. One, you have to have a lot of energy, becauseCarnival celebrations in Grenada, it's not a week-long thing. Literally we'd begin there about a month before with the activity in the camps, with tents and 12:00that kind of thing, and then the other variety. The fundamental difference between Labor Day and Carnival of here and Grenada is in respect to scope. In terms of style. Grenada is a small country. It's just a hundred and twenty square miles. So in terms of relative size, the scope is going to be different. But what you have in Grenada is different to Carnival on Labor Day here is that you have historical indigenous mas being played. This is what you will not see on Labor Day. You will not see big bands on Labor Day up, and you will see creativity and class and so on, because, let's face it, Caribbean Americans now live in a technologically advanced country, and that is going to come at the surface of the Carnival. But in Grenada, where a lot of the work is done by hand, and there is the emphasis on tradition, you would see a variety, and you 13:00see historically what the mas is all about.
KING: Can you give me an example?
ROBERTS: OK, for example, in Grenada there is J'ouvert morning. We don't havethat in New York City. J'ouvert morning, this is French patois for early morning, petit jour, getting up early in the morning, and that has its historical root in the slaves getting up early on the plantations, before the crack of dawn, you know, that period, that very dark period in dawn. Getting up and going to work. Having to go to the plantation. Out of that came the folklore, the superstitious folklore that that is when the Jab Molassi walk, and Jab Molassi really means French for the devil. And J'ouvert morning in Grenada 14:00is depicted the devil mas. You will not see that up here. Even in Trinidad you would not see it. You'd see [unintelligible] in Trinidad or maybe in St. Vincent. You may see it in St. Vincent but I'm not sure. In Grenada you have that. There's an emphasis on that early morning period to play the Jab Molassi, which is what the slaves felt that was so dark outside there in the folklore that the devil walked for that period of time, so the mas is replayed by being blackened all over, horn-rimmed glasses, the horns in the head, and the serpents, and all that. That has been played. That is a feature of Grenada's J'ouvert. J'ouvert also depicts old mas, where there are a lot of satirical commentary on politics and social affairs, so it is not unheard of to see J'ouvert being played with Lorena Bobbitt in Grenada. Of course, and O.J. 15:00Simpson, and somebody's going to make somebody --
KING: It's about the current situation.
ROBERTS: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. They deal with the current situation. That is afeature of J'ouvert. Old mas. They have the Jab Molassi and J'ouvert. What you would see in Grenada, again, it's been there for some years. It's called Vieux Corps. And these are all French names, the French patios names, because you have to understand that Carnival has its roots historically in European French tradition and merged with other African traditions, and Grenada, even though it's an English speaking country, has a lot of French names, and we have retained those French names up to this present time. So that's one --the Vieux Corps is a mas that's played depicting the bishop and the church, and that's feature of the J'ouvert also. That's what again --I don't know you have 16:00asked me -the Marche Gras night' we play to the kings and queens and the baron and calypso kings. Calypso Monarch competition, try to be a king or queen, which is Dimanche Gras night. The night in Grenada, in a small country like Grenada, the night --Carnival Sunday night is called Canboulay Sunday night; French for smoked food night. When you eat the chicken and the rice and peas and you make soup and so on and thing, and on wood fire outside. That's why it's called Canboulay night. That is the night before Carnival. That is Carnival Sunday night. And from Canboulay night, you go into the Marche Gras night, which is a traditional thing there, and then you go into J'ouvert in the morning.
KING: So how many days? You said a smaller scope, but it sounds kind of--
ROBERTS: Well, they are all inter-lapped. They are all inter-lapped. The twomost important days, of course, is Carnival Monday and Tuesday.
ROBERTS: But --leading up to Carnival Monday and Tuesday in the Caribbean--in17:00Brooklyn here, the celebration is one week long, and it's on Monday. In Grenada and Trinidad and Barbados, the celebration begins a month before literally, when there is Carnival in the tents, there is Junior Carnival and Monarch, there is different kind of Carnival. There are a lot of activities surrounding it in the last two weeks.
KING: So, you played mas a lot in Grenada.
ROBERTS: I played, yes, for a couple years.
KING: Can you tell me what kind of bands you participated in?
ROBERTS: Well, we played a lot of, of course, J'ouvert, which is traditional.And J'ouvert could mean anything. You can play anything in J'ouvert. And then they played what they call the pretty mas. In Grenada we call it the pretty mas, which is the costume kind of bands that you see on Eastern Parkway, coming down there. I played a lot of that, because the area where I lived, I grew up in, I 18:00was born right near to a pan camp, literally, you know, I mean, so there was steel band there, there was the mas camps all about. Being a small island, most people would have participated once or twice in their life playing Carnival, so you really --it's no big deal.
KING: So it's the same structure as it is here, you go up there and you pick acostume --
ROBERTS: Yeah, you pick a --you decide who you're playing. You see, up here, youlook for a bands. In Grenada, it depends on the area in which you live. The mas camps are located in geographic areas, so I might live in St. John's, and decide to play in St. John's. And you might be living in St. George's, and you play in St. George's. There are mas camps there. So the mas camps are basically a matter of geographical area. It's different up here in that the mas camps are just mas camps. It's more or less depersonalized up here to that extent, so that's 19:00basically some of the differences.
KING: I'm a little interested in the process, when you go and you pick yourcostume --
ROBERTS: Up here?
KING: Down there, since you haven't played mas up here, and I don't know if youreally --you're probably very busy during that time --but even just getting an idea of what you do in Grenada, you pick your costume --what is the process that you go through personally?
ROBERTS: Ok. You first decide that you want to play mas, and you go to the mascamp of your choice, and you look at what is called the sketches. So you look at the sketches, and you decide --and you take a look here. I'm just going to play in this particular sketch, or this particular section, it's called; sections. And the mas camp or the band leader will then tell you what is the cost of the section. If you cannot afford to play it, you will then pay what is called a down payment. You give them a down payment in cash, and you pay your entrance 20:00fee and your band fee, and they'll build the costume there and then you'll pay for your costume. So you collect your costume, and he'll tell you what time to come, where to go to fit, you know. In the camp, all that is done, all that is done --the fitting, the creativity, everything, the section, it's a whole group of people working together. So you will go there and get your costume fit and everything will be ok and that kind of thing. Then you pick up the costume and go to play the next day.
KING: And the play, you know what your part is, and you just let it come fromwithin, or --
ROBERTS: Yeah, but I mean, you know --you see, Carnival, for West Indians whoparticipate in Carnival, Carnival is kind of a blood thing. Nobody can teach you how to play Carnival. Nobody can teach you how to play mas. Nobody can teach. It's a blood thing. You have to understand that. Little children growing up know 21:00that when they hear a steel band or when they hear this music that is the way you're supposed to move to the music. It's a blood thing. So that then on Carnival day when you get into the band, nobody has to tell you, "Well, you have to sway to this kind of music." Everybody will know the tunes of the day. Nobody will have to teach you that, because you will have heard it in the pan tents. They will have played it on the radio, etc., and you would have been in panorama in any event and everybody will know what is the most popular song, and they will play it on the road, and they will play it in the band, and nobody tells you you have to dance to this one this way and that way. It's a spontaneous, natural thing. That's what the band that what it is all about.
KING: Now, do you kids play mas?
ROBERTS: They haven't yet. They haven't because they came up here pretty young.They came up here pretty young. Well, when we came, they came within a year or 22:00two years afterwards, so they didn't play mas. But you know, our generation up here, that's why we try to do Labor Day so much every year. To give our children who live in the United States a sense of that cultural heritage. So that's very important. My kids wouldn't know much about going to mas camp and Vieux Corps and having --some of the times the police saying that you cannot play mas, and they play, and being throwing tear gas --my kids wouldn't know that. I would. I would. That's the other side of Carnival.
KING: Well, that brings us back here to Brooklyn's Carnival, and even yourchildren, and it's a passing down of the culture. So in a sense, what does Brooklyn's West Indian Carnival mean to you? Represent to you? And also, for your children what would you hope to be passed on as far as your identity, your cultural identity? 23:00
ROBERTS: Brooklyn Carnival means to me showcasing; a highlighting of the cultureof the Caribbean. Means a reaffirmation of that cultural heritage in our adopted land, the United States. And it means the constant showcasing of our cultural heritage as we pass it on to our children. Carnival to us is as important--as important to West Indians as independence of any other nationality. There are 24:00some people in the Caribbean that will tell you, you can ban Christmas tomorrow, but give us Carnival. That's just how important Carnival is. You see, Carnival brings out the creativity, the beauty, the history. Carnival is repeated history. And it's that kind of cultural heritage that we would like to pass on to our children. In my house, my daughter sometimes; they know the Carnival, they know the soca and all of that. They played. But sometime I said, listen, "Look at what you are listening to. You are listening to Toni Braxton or somebody else." I mean, I keep going back, and what I tell them is, you get Chinese in the United States that always think about Peking or so. You get Jews 25:00live in the United States and always think about Israel, going back to Israel, or repatriation to Israel. Perhaps the only race of people that try very hard to assimilate and be like other people are Blacks. I mean, I see Blacks, I mean both Caribbean born Blacks, African American Blacks, because there is only one fundamental difference between all of us, and it is that we were dropped off in different parts of the world, which make us different in only minor ways. But in terms of that cultural assimilation, you know, we the Caribbean community has been fortunate. It has been fortunate because Caribbean people have always, because of the size of the islands; have always been an integrated group of people, and because of that integration, we live --Crown Heights as an example 26:00--in clusters, among ourselves, where we maintain those customs. For example, I can walk you outside right on Nostrand Avenue, and I can point out six Caribbean owned businesses right in a small hundred yard radius, and most of them I know, and they're all from the West Indies. This one here is from Grenada, one here is from… There are two of them from Grenada. There is one from Haiti there. In short, we are an integrated people, and that integration is what preserves culture. Of course, I mean, we eat the same foods, we listen to the same music, and we share the same interests and have the same political outlook, etc. So that the Caribbean community has been fortunate, very, very fortunate in that it 27:00has been an integrated community, and has tended to preserve a lot of the elements of its culture. That's why there are steel bands like CASYM the Rebels, Pan Rebels, or a number of them, which has essentially gone international, which has made about fourth generation Caribbean American, where you pass on one aspect of our cultural heritage to them, and this has been because of integration in the Caribbean community.
KING: Would you say, and this goes along with my next question about what isunique about Brooklyn's Carnival, that this integration is more so here in New York than it might be in the islands? Because the islands are a little bit more spread out whereas you talk about all the different people in this little radius. You would know this person's from Grenada, this person's from here. They're all together at one point, and you may not get that same phenomenon somewhere else. That's an issue that we talk about: About what's unique in 28:00Brooklyn's Carnival. Several people have said it brings together all these people, with this one different identity.
ROBERTS: Well, I'll tell you something. In the Caribbean, perhaps a little knownfeature of the Caribbean of course, we tend to be seen as islands surrounded by water, and there is a lot of talk about political integration, economic integration, but economic integration and inter-relation has been a fact of life for centuries. In Grenada there are Guyanese communities. There are Trinidadian's communities. We intermarry with each other. Grenada is only nineteen miles from Trinidad to begin with. Its fifteen minutes by airplane. And there has always been an inter-island trade by schooners. For example, in the oil boom years of the 1970s and late 60s in Trinidad and Tobago, when the focus was on industry, development and oil wells and oil exploration and tapping the 29:00resource of the petroleum industry, small islands like Grenada, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia, which are in near proximity to Trinidad and Tobago, reaped a bonanza by sending by every week, going down to Trinidad, boats going down to Trinidad laden with agricultural products. Because Trinidad at that time did not see its agricultural industry as being a critical industry for oil development, and what you had is that a lot of people made a lot of trade. Now, with the I'm just explaining, I hope my answer is not long-winded or meandering.
KING: It's fine.
ROBERTS: Now, with the reversal in the oil boom, and the fall, the fragile30:00nature of Trinidadian economy now, there has been a--They are now going back toward our question of economic base in agriculture. But what you see is a curious phenomenon, a lot of the factories and goods and sources produced in Trinidad, whereas Grenadians went down there, sold the agricultural produce and so forth, you now have the Trinidadians coming up to sell that type of thing jerseys, pants and other goods that are not produced in Grenada. So you have a reversal of the roles. But I make that point to mention the point about integration, and the same thing you will see in Jamaica --especially we see in the small islands of Eastern Caribbean. There has been a comp--a trade. For example, Antigua: In Antigua, there has to be a population of about 31:00fifty-something thousand people. About sixty thousand people in Antigua live; Antigua, Barbuda. There are about ten thousand Grenadians living there, easy, but Antigua impose labor, so too does Montserrat, so do St. Kitts Nevis, and a number of other countries where there are all pockets, so the integration movement, from a people's perspective, has always been there. Now, this has also formed this way in New York, where the living communities, and even if people don't have, like the St. Lucians, we now have a large Guyanese community -by living in Crown Heights area and interfacing with Guyanese, they learn that they have a lot of things in common, and they learn to start moving together. And the Caribbean identity, the Caribbean-ness of all people is a matter of record. Caribbeans are very proud of themselves. They are very proud people. They are very proud of where they come from, and they'll tell you that. If you listen to 32:00the calypsos, I mean, people like Chuck Gordon and Baron, they'll tell you about Caribbean cultural heritage, and that has been sung as far as I can remember it.
KING: Let me take this question on integration a step further. We're talkingabout Caribbeans and Carnival. What about other people starting to participate or involve themselves. African Americans--
KING: Whites. Their relationship to Carnival. Maybe --and I've heard mentionthat even Spanish speaking people from the Caribbean are starting to participate, or that wider net. What's your perspective?
ROBERTS: Well, I'll tell you one thing. Certainly Labor Day Carnival is late,very late in that form of integration. If you went to Notting Hill in England, where there is a massive Carnival in England. You see White steel bands. Of course! And you see White people blackening themselves to play Jab Molassi. 33:00That's in England. You go to Canada. You see Canadians, more White Canadians, more integrated into the system, so much so that the carnivals in London and in Canada have become what I call a mosaic. What I call the browning of Carnival. Carnival has moved from being predominantly a Black culture experience in those two countries, to be sort of a brown culture now, because it's mixed with so many different races. In New York, unfortunately, because of the deep racial distrust of things not White, you find that it's difficult. But certainly there have been moves by other ethnic groups to be involved in the Carnival. For 34:00example, the Haitians, although they are Black and are parts of CARICOM, and have the New Orleans type festival, have never participated, but have participated for the last three years I've been participating in Carnival. Belize, which is in Central America, although a member of the Caribbean nations, and considered a Caribbean country, has started to participate last year, and we have seen people from the Dominican Republic. We have not seen the Puerto Ricans in mas, but we do know that there are some plans for them to participate. So even though the integration movement with respect to the Carnival is progressing in New York; not as quickly as in other countries. Certainly it is there, and I foresee it in the future, that you're gonna have White participation and truly 35:00Caribbean flavor on Labor Day.
KING: What kind of participation do you see from African Americans?
KING: Because it's an interesting concept. One of the things of being in theUnited States that most people, you know, they'll lump together as Black, and very rarely you try to make sure that people know that there are differences, people who come from the Caribbean, people who come from Africa, people can be native born Blacks, your African American, and in some sense, there has to be some cultural pride for other people, because there are some similarities, just like there might be some similarities between you and myself --me being an African American and you being from Grenada --and that kind of involvement. Maybe as newspaper man, you get a sense of the perceptions of African Americans who live in Crown Heights, even though Caribbeans outnumber them. What do they 36:00feel about Carnival?
ROBERTS: Well, I'll tell you what. I'm glad you asked that question, because Iwill dispel a couple myths about our relationship to African Americans. I believe that a lot of the so-called differences, the similarities, strife and enmity between the both groups are manufactured by people who use the age-old tactic of divide and rule. That is one of the first myths that I have learned in this country, because I go a lot of places with African American, and African Americans surely are similar. There are a lot of differences. And there are a lot of differences, but only because of the differences in our experience from the captivity, and that is how it should be. African Americans have not 37:00participated in the numbers that we would have liked to have seen in the Carnival, because of one basic element. A basic ignorance of what the Carnival stands for and what it means to them, and if they should be part of it as Black people. That's the bottom line. That's the reason why they haven't participated. Not that they are different than us, in that sense, but African Americans, just like Caribbeans-- The Caribbean American Carnival is a Caribbean thing. Some African American will say, "Well, hey, that's your thing, why should I participate?" Now if there is a cross-over, a situation that said, this is not just my thing, but it's your thing, too, because it's a Black thing and it's your thing, I'm sure that a lot of African Americans would begin to participate and participate in the Carnival process. Certainly Mr. Lezama is on the record 38:00as welcoming them to the Caribbean American-- to the Carnival, because I, as one of his advisors have spoken with him on many occasion, and he wants nothing more than the integration of Carnival to make it bigger than it is now. We attract-- what? 2.5 million people on the Parkway? We want to attract 5 million.
KING: Do you think that's to be one of the goals of what --
ROBERTS: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. To make it bigger than it is.
KING: For what purpose?
ROBERTS: Well, more people participating would mean --I'll tell you one of theproblems. The problems that even though we bring this amount of money to the city, and that's been the level of our participation, the city has not been reciprocal in respect to goods and services and financial help. The mainstream media have been giving us a licking. We have not been portrayed. The other lesser functions and lesser parades by different ethnic groups that I could name 39:00off the top of my head, St. Patrick's Day parade has given all the hype and all kind of thing. And that is nothing in comparison in terms of scope, in terms of marketing, in terms of class, as Labor Day, but yet, that one is given because of a racial tint, preferential treatment by the city. This is the hope, that perhaps with greater numbers, and we know that numbers represent votes, and by extension, political power, that the powers in the city see this as a block because that is precisely how they view the St. Patrick's Day parade. That the Jewish community is so very large here, that the St. Patrick's Day march translates to anybody who can judge their political position as being guaranteed a block of votes, and they run for various agencies, or whatever political mileage they want to get off it. The Caribbean community is not perceived that 40:00way. Yet, we just beginning to flex our political muscles. We've been part of the political system, but we're just beginning to flex our political muscles. One of the goals of building a strong parade and maintaining a strong parade is the fact that politicians are going to see. And up late, in the last three years, this has been recognized. We've had the presence of people like Jesse Jackson, Governor Mario Cuomo, AI Sharpton, the Labor Day Carnival Parade is the only organization and event that I know of where all the political heavy hitters in New York City have been assembled under one room. I have never seen it. Even political enemies have been there. That is the only Carnival, the only function that I know that has happened, and I've been to a lot of them. So in that sense, 41:00we see it as a unique kind of force, and we see it as translating into giving a plain message to the political directorate that we are here, we are here to stay, and this is our numbers, and we will deal with it.
KING: You kind of already answered one of the questions that we ask a lot ofpeople. Do you think Carnival gets enough recognition?
ROBERTS: It doesn't.
KING: You do answer that directly, but it also brings up the issue of Carnival,which is a cultural and ethnic statement, but it's also an identity statement in this country, because most ethnic groups, they have to find a kind of economic stronghold, political stronghold, and one of the things that I keep hearing in a variety of ways from people is that just from pure --you know, for a capitalistic society, if we just think about money, just from the money alone 42:00that Carnival brings into New York City, that's not acknowledged. You know, forget everything else, which is equally important. If that's what you have to cater to, attention has not been brought to that part of Carnival itself. As far as political heavy hitters, do you think this is going to be the same case this year?
ROBERTS: It has to be. Already I can tell you off the top of my head, the GrandMarshall, one of the Grand Marshalls for the West Indian Day Parade is Reverend Ben Chavis of the NAACP.
KING: OK, right.
ROBERTS: And Governor Mario Cuomo. He certainly will be here, and we haveinvited Mayor Giuliani, and I don't think there is any reason why he would not show. He would take a political beating for that. He has to show. I am certain all the political heavy hitters are going to be there. You see, although there 43:00is no recognition now of it, people, the political directorate know of its growing strength. I report, of course, for the Caribbean American community. Last year, Guyana and Trinidad-- Just one second--
KING: Ok, you were talking about Guyana and Trinidad and talking about economicmuscle, money --
ROBERTS: Yes. What I was saying is that although it is not officially"recognized", one of the features of the Caribbean community, I mean, what has been said about the Caribbean community is "Oh they don't vote, they don't do this, they don't do that, and so why should we check on them." And that has 44:00changed drastically over the last five years. That has changed. For example, the recent information from the Department of Immigration, I am told very clearly, that Trinidad, Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica are the top, certainly the top five or six countries whose nationalists are now US citizens. So this has been a trend. And if you look at the level of the City Hall, you see that Councilwoman Una Clarke from Jamaica is the council woman, and Reverend Lloyd Henry is from Belize, and at the level of the Assembly you have Assemblyman Nick Perry, and other Caribbean people who treasure their roots to the Caribbean. For example, people like Annette Robinson, whose parents came from Barbados. A number of them there. So what is happening is that in recent times, certainly over the past 45:00five or six years, the focus that Caribbean Americans had when they came here, economic, because there was a reason for not participating in the political mainstream per se. Most Caribbean Americans came here, didn't have green cards, didn't have this kind of set-up. They had to give their children, like I did. You gave everything to go. Once the economic task has been fulfilled, Caribbean Americans are now beginning to get into the political mainstream, and you will see a lot of that in the next couple of years, and there is now an increased awareness by advocacy groups within the Caribbean American community to talk to people about the notion of citizenship, why it is important, and why it is important to vote. And you see that now happening in regular and large numbers. Very, very large numbers. It's a significant shift from what it used to be. So I 46:00say all this to say that in the next couple of years, the structural development of the Caribbean American community will be as such that the political directorate is going to have to deal with it. They'll have to deal with it.
KING: Ok. You start forecasting changes for the Caribbean American community.What changes have you seen in Carnival since you've been here, and what direction do you think, from your personal perspective, would you like to see it go in? Or what works, what doesn't work? What needs to be done from your perspective, you know, as a resident, as a person from the Caribbean, from Grenada?
ROBERTS: Well, I'll tell you what--the changes I've seen in Carnival. I amamazed every year at the improvement in the level of costumes. Certainly the mas 47:00men, the producers of the mas, have harnessed all the technology that is available here in the United States, and have packaged Carnival to meet the needs of the 21st century. That is certainly a plus. It is now quite possible, quite possible, to buy a costume and have it put in a suitcase and go to another place and take off the plate, and it's just as lovely as it is--
ROBERTS: In terms of costume locomotion, you know, of course, that there are alot of big costumes, huge cumbersome ones. Again, technology, the mask designers 48:00have been able to harness technology to get movement, to make ease of movement they'll utilize different materials to make costumes lighter, which was not the case many, many years ago, and so on. So I am heartened that they have used technology in the service of developing the costumes and so forth. And in other ways, the Carnival, the Labor Day celebrations have developed in that the culture --the reggae, the soca, the zoot, the compat, or whatever you have up here --have benefit again from that kind of technology, and has benefit from the fact that overseas artists have come here and have become, some professionals, some semi-professionals. And this of course has raised these competitions and 49:00these shows to a much higher level, so therefore those are pluses. Certainly over the years, with the Caribbean American community becoming more economically viable, people have had more money to spend on Carnival, and there has been an upsurge in participation in respect to the size of the bands and so forth and so forth. So those are all plus. And the downside of that is that Carnival remains an organizational nightmare, precisely because of the scope, and precisely because of size that you're talking about, and the logistics of doing the Carnival. It remains an organizational nightmare. To this end, the West Indian American Day Carnival Association and Carlos Lezama must take high marks for taking up a function of two or three hundred and making it into the millions now over twenty six years, a quarter of a century. I mean, that is no easy 50:00commitment, that is no easy feat to deal with, and they have to take high marks. However, this is not a scathing criticism of the organization. It is just an acknowledgement of what is reality. Mr. Lezama is now, as we say in the Caribbean, no spring chicken, and the members of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association are no longer very young people. They have been there for a long, long time. While there has been tentative movement to recruit new blood and to pass the mantle on, in my opinion that needs to be seen as a priority as they face the 21st century. But in the next five or six years, the recruitment, the grooming of new talent to run the Carnival, certainly must take priority if 51:00the Carnival is to continue along the trend, because while we have no problem with the development of the mas, the culture, the talent, the people, and all that, to put all that together in one comprehensive and cohesive whole is where the talent lies; the organizational talent to run these things. And as the older leadership, which we take our hats off to, and without which there could be no historical significance to what the Carnival is all about:, as they take their -as they go down in age, it is critically important that they see the need to pass the torch on, albeit in stages, to a new brand of leadership. A younger, vibrant, leadership which can take what they have built and improve on it; that's one of the problems we see. 52:00
KING: Are there people like that out there who are going to --I won'tnecessarily say bring the same energy, but the same perspective. I mean --
ROBERTS: Sure. Lots of people. You're talking to one.
KING: Ok. I don't ask people ages all that often, but I have an idea how old you are.
ROBERTS: Yeah, there are people. There are people who can do that; lots ofpeople who have that talent. It's just a matter of --
KING: Have people tried to become a part of the association?
ROBERTS: Oh, yes! The association is a broad based association, you know. But Iam talking about, even though people are members of the association, and they work with the association, I am talking about a conscious effort to pass on the torch and to work with people, and to identify a new level of leadership.
KING: So to kind of acknowledge this change is inevitable…53:00
ROBERTS: Yes, and gradually see a changing of the guards, so the transitionshould be smooth. When the president, should he decide, to step down. Or, or you know, whatever.
KING: Ok. Getting back to the newspaper, just what you do annually for Carnival.What kind of stories do you seek to cover? What do you look for? For instance, this year, for '94, what is the interest?
ROBERTS: People in mas camps. We personalize our newspapers with differentfeature stories on the mas camp. We cover Carnival City, which is what we call behind the Museum. That's what we call it, Carnival City. We cover Carnival City from bow to stern, as we say in the Caribbean, and we look at the philosophical nature, aspects of the Carnival. For example, I have written volumes on pan and 54:00the evolution of soca and all that. Too much; volumes on it and the evolution of calypso from caliso to traditional calypso to soca. We cover a lot of things on the pan, which I consider Carnival's lost child, replaced by the DJ and I've said it all over the place. And we cover other aspects of the mas. We cover different aspects of the mas. There is the pageantry, of course there is Panorama. A whole range of different areas we cover. So our coverage of Carnival is inclusive and extensive.
KING: So do you reach a larger bands and the smaller bands and Jamaicans whomight be involved in reggae night--
ROBERTS: Well I tell you, the Jamaicans are the new kids on the block forCarnival, you know. Them only a couple years. Most of their Carnival has been 55:00imported. It comes from Trinidad. Jamaicans are not--which is a unique historical phenomenon to the Caribbean. They, above all, didn't have Carnival bands, and didn't know much about steel bands. Now, it's just trying to catch hold. It's going to be some years until you can consider Jamaican Carnival, despite what people say in all the media hype and all that. It may be quite some years until you can consider Jamaica Carnival as being a crowning success, as being Carnival. Because Carnival in Jamaica is not indigenous to the people and that is a feature of Carnival. Carnival must be indigenous to all people. Carnival is a grassroots thing. Carnival is all about the priests being seen in a [unintelligible] taken around with the servant. And the minister of government sure will be beating a pan with the fisherman. That is what Carnival is all about. Carnival has nothing to do with distinction and class. In Jamaica, 56:00because of its imposition, that is what Carnival. Carnival is upper-middle class, phenomenon in Jamaica, and that really, not no Carnival. You can quote me as saying that. Despite the hype it's a middle-class function. The only time Carnival will take route in Jamaica is when ordinary people begin to play Carnival. Carnival was designed for ordinary people, it is run by ordinary people, and it is going to remain that way. And if it has to be pushed, that's the only way we're going to push. In Brooklyn Labor you don't hear about no big name in Carnival. Who makes Carnival? Them little band leader down in Church Avenue and on Utica Avenue, Coffee Boys and them boys out on President Street. That's who run Carnival. And any time Carnival is run by upper-middle class people, who have money to spend, Carnival becomes meaningless. In a Jamaica context, I'm just saying that in a Jamaican context, it is associated. People have this big thing about Jamaican Carnival. Jamaica Carnival is merely a name. It's not yet a Carnival. It's only played in a certain part of Jamaica; it's not 57:00the entire island. You can go to no Caribbean country where Carnival is really Carnival. Where, you say, the merry monarch is king, and then you are going see what it's all about. It's played all over the country. You're driving across the place, you see mas up there. It's all, and it's people oriented. So that, basically, is that.
KING: What about Jamaican involvement in West Indian Carnival here?
ROBERTS: To the level of --they're involved not as deep as you would have likedthem to, because they don't have a Carnival culture and a Carnival tradition. But they're involved at the museum in the reggae and so on. What you're seeing is a lot of the first generation Jamaican people, youth who were born here, are getting involved in Carnival, which is a plus. It is they that will bring it back down to Trinidad, or back down to Jamaica, but don't do your research 58:00reporting Jamaica, or the situation in Jamaica, as an indigenous Carnival. It's not. It's going to be some years before they reach that. Its imported Carnival, out of our tradition, and also, Carnival has not yet reached the stage in Jamaica where it has been the domain and under the control of the common man. It's a middle-class function. It happens every year. It's my opinion.
KING: What about --we talked a little bit about Haitian involvement. I know someyears ago someone was telling me that they tried to reach out the Haitians, and it wasn't as successful as they wanted it to be.
ROBERTS: Yes, that's true. There's a reason for that.
KING: What's that?
ROBERTS: Simply put. The Haitian cultural tradition, Haiti, I might preface mystatement by saying this: Haiti, of all Caribbean countries, perhaps most of the 59:00countries, except from parts of Brazil, in the Western Hemisphere, is perhaps the only country that has a unique retention of the heritage of Africa. There are no doubts about that. And Haitians suffer the same persecution now that Africans have suffered many years ago, and it's almost--the parallel could be drawn at that level. Culturally, Haitians are really a fantastically cultural people, as we talked about, but like Jamaica, they have never had a real Carnival tradition, because of political reasons, and the involvement of Haitians in Carnival --last year there was some involvement by a number of 60:00Haitian bands. The involvement of bands like Taboo Combo and Phantome and Boukman Eksperyans and those bands, in Carnival, have made the Haitians begin to participate in the West Indian American Carnival Day Association. And certainly Carib News' outreach that Haitians are Caribbean people, are members of CARICOM community, and that our interests are linked inextricably to them, have served to do a lot of the work with the Haitian community, and they are beginning now to participate in--not in the scale that we would like them to participate, but they are participating in Carnival, and in fact, sooner rather than later, you will see Haitians coming together a lot.
KING: Ok. You've told me quite a bit, and I don't really have any other--Yeah, I61:00do have one more question. This is something I had in my head when you were talking about Notting Hill, the Carnival in London and--
KING: The one in Canada.
KING: Caribana, and we were talking about more Whites participating. What kindof effect do you think that has on Carnival?
ROBERTS: I'll tell you what. Carnival, at the level of Notting Hill, Caribanaand Labor Day, although the basis and origins remain Black, there's a commercial and economic side to it. And in places like England, where the majority population is White, and where Caribbeans are so integrated that they are marrying a lot of White people, you know, and that kind of thing, it is only --it's a social phenomenon. As more people become less ignorant about your 62:00culture, and begin to like it, there is going to be a need to participate. And this is what has happened in Canada and England. More so in Notting Hill, where there has been a serious move --I mean, you've seen bands, I mean, it's almost unreal. White steel band? I mean, unprecedented up until a couple years ago, now taking place in that scenario and working. I don't see it happening in the United States in the distant future.
KING: You don't?
ROBERTS: No. Carnival will remain for the next couple of years, in New Yorkcertainly for the next ten years, as far as I'm concerned. It has to do with my understanding about the racial polarization between Black and White, in this city, and whether or not --while we move and hope for integration, I call 63:00--there is integration and a tolerance of things Black by the power structure. I mean, if you look at the pockets where we all live in Brooklyn, apart from the past laws that apartheid had in South Africa, we're really not no different politically. I mean, not in terms of the quality of life issues, but in terms of politically and that kind of thing. Bensonhurst is still a place that Blacks can't go after a couple years, and Blacks are still looked down on, Canarsie is still a place where they would firebomb Black people. There was one Grenadian house was burnt out by people in Canarsie. Parts of Ocean Parkway still remain the enclave of White, Jewish settlers. Crown Heights, with Kingston Avenue between Kingston and what, Utica and up there? It's still perceived as an enclave for White, Jewish interests, and all over. Mean, I don't have to tell 64:00you that. You know where they are. I know Black people are relegated to the projects in other areas. Corralled into project houses and that kind of thing. That is going to be a fetter for any social phenomenon where White people are enjoying with Black people. How you going to join Caribbean people who are living in the projects when you are living out in Bensonhurst and living on Long Island? I don't see the next ten years. In England, it's a different ball game. In England, the levels of integration, even though there is racism and a lot of racism, but the levels of integration, both in England and Canada has been as such, has been much more deeper than it is in the United States. It is still rare to see White people marrying Black people in the United States, come on! Are you gonna tell mommy you're bringing home a Black man like me from the Caribbean? Especially one speaking like me.
KING: I don't know. They say those numbers are rising. It's interesting, because--65:00
ROBERTS: I certainly don't doubt that those numbers are rising, and it couldrise ten every ten years, you're rising, as opposed to next year. But I'm talking about the pace. The rise is not the point. The acceleration and the pace, the quickness at which these things are done is what's important. In England in thirty years England White people participate in Carnival not because they feel it's a diversion, but because they really like to do it. And in Canada it's the same thing. Let me tell you something. When White people from England and Canada come down to the Caribbean to participate in Carnival, you would believe that they were probably Black. It's not like --there's no reason, for example, for the society up here to ostracize. There are White Americans who 66:00come down for Carnival. They love it. They get drunk with the boys, they drink the drink, they eat the food, they play half-naked in the bands, and they behave. But do you know the reason why? There is no society to ostracize them tomorrow morning. They jump the plane and come back here. But if they here--
KING: You can go away, do it, and come back to business as usual.
ROBERTS: Exactly. Business as usual. But if they're here, somebody is going tosay, "How you behaving disgustingly native!" Because they think it's a native thing… And the guy's going to say, "No, it wasn't me!" You know, you can always say. "What the heck! Barbados, Trinidad, who's gonna see it on television?" Nobody. Up here, un-unh, Somebody's going to ostracize you tomorrow. That's the reason for no integration of Whites in this society, I think. The few Whites you see there are those who are liberal and essentially working class. Those you would see in the West Indian Day Carnival are liberal 67:00Whites, essentially working class Whites.
KING: You think working class?
ROBERTS: Oh, absolutely!
KING: Not middle class?
ROBERTS: No, ma'am. Them at the bottom of the social level, social realm. No, interms of working class Whites, working class Whites. I mean, I'm serious. Middle-class? Come on! It's not a middle class function! Could never attract them. Let me tell you something. There are some Black people --I'm not going to call them no name who come to enjoy the Carnival, them guys literally wants to come in a jacket and tie, and I'm like, why are you doing this? Come in a jacket, please! Not to enjoy Carnival. That's the notion of the middle class. I don't know it so. Carnival is all about forgetting everything else and getting 68:00into it. [unintelligible] All the time I'm seeing it. Where you get these guys from? And they want all the photo ops and all that kind of thing; it's a big laugh you know the middle class element. But you know the Black element I see. That middle class element is going to be there. I have no doubt that they're going to be there, but the vast majority, you see those Whites walking up and down the Labor Day, buying things on the sidewalk like anybody and eating the roti and trying to eat something and come to play like they's West Indians. Them is working class Whites, working class Whites. You might see the Whites standing up with the camera and silent and they don't really want to mix up. You see some of that. But I'm talking about those that go up and down Eastern Parkway and hang out; working class Whites.
KING: Are these people primarily local, do you think?
ROBERTS: Yeah man. Local. We had a lot of people come down that are Canadians69:00and so come down, and the English.
KING: Do you go to other carnivals? Do you have time?
ROBERTS: No. Time. This is normally one of our busiest times of the year.
KING: Toronto is coming up.
ROBERTS: This weekend.
KING: That's this weekend.
ROBERTS: This guy that just called me, he is one of our popular DJ's, he'stelling me that he's going out of town for this event; he's going up there tonight.
KING: I see. Is it fair to say that one of the strengths of the--
ROBERTS: Can I offer you something to drink?
KING: Oh, I'm fine. Is it fair to say that one of the strengths of the Carnivalis that it happens right in the heart of the Caribbean community in Brooklyn?
KING: Ok. So, Carnival's getting larger and larger and larger. There are thosewho's saying it needs to have a larger route. You know, some of the bands are not getting judged. Some people think you should stretch the route. Some people think a stadium should be built. It seems conceivable that someday it could 70:00outgrow its current location.
KING: What do you think are some of the alternatives?
ROBERTS: Oh boy, that's a hard one. That's a difficult one. The way we aregoing, we don't want to move it from its traditional thing because --its traditional location, because that has been tradition. I think what we have to do is, there are some people who think that it should wind its way, I don't know, somewhere down to Atlantic Avenue or thereabouts.
KING: Yeah, I've heard that. Certainly, the planners are going to look atalternative routes. If we can find a large enough park or whatever to complete part of the Carnival certainly is a good idea also. I don't think there are any easy answers to this question. I think what is going to have to happen is that as the Carnival develops and gets larger in terms of public participation, there 71:00is going to have to be a serious look at what route we take and what alternatives there are. I don't have answers to that one.
KING: OK. I just thought I'd throw it out. I know it's on people's minds.
ROBERTS: Yes, it is.
KING: The more people who get involved.
ROBERTS: I've spoken to Carlos about that already, but I personally don't havethe answer to that one. That one, there's so many variables that you have to look at.
ROBERTS: Somebody --we're gonna have to come to grips at some point and time todeal with that. We're gonna have to deal with it.
KING: Well, that pretty much ends my questions. Is there anything else you'dlike to share or add or have on the record?
ROBERTS: Well, you've covered most of it. You've covered all of it. If there isanything else, I'll call you on it, but I don't recall anything else.
KING: Ok. Well, this ends the interview today and thank you very much for your time.
ROBERTS: My pleasure.
KING: Ok and I'm turning off the tape recorder.72:00
Oral History Interview with Michael Roberts
Michael Roberts was born in St. George, on the island of Grenada. He immigrated to the United States in 1988, where he settled in the borough of Brooklyn. A journalist for most of his adult life, he was the managing editor of the Carib News at the time of this interview in 1994. He had held that position since 1990. He was a member of the West Indian-American Day Carnival Association.
In this interview Michael Roberts describes his involvement in the West Indian American Day Carnival in Brooklyn; as a member of the press and as a member of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA). He addresses the lack of media attention the Carnival receives and notes the unrecognized political and economic power the Carnival signifies for the Caribbean community. Roberts also contributes his opinions concerning the cultural conflicts between the Caribbean and Hasidic communities of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, which hosts Carnival. Roberts describes Carnival in Grenada; providing a history of various facets and compares it to the Brooklyn manifestation. He reflects on the validation of Caribbean cultural identity that Carnival provides and notes its unifying qualities for the Caribbean and African American communities. He also discusses the racial disparity that hinders the Brooklyn Carnival from becoming as racially diverse as Caribbean Carnivals. The interview ends in a discussion of the need for a new generation of leadership for WIADCA and speculation on possible future changes to the parade. Interview conducted by Dwan Reece King.
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.
CitationRoberts, Michael, Oral history interview conducted by Dwan Reece King, July 28, 1994, West Indian Carnival Documentation Project records, 2010.019.24; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Lezama, Carlos
- Roberts, Michael
- West Indian American Day Carnival Parade (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
- West Indian-American Day Carnival Association
- Caribbean Americans
- Ethnic identity
- Grenadian Americans
- Race relations
- Trinidadian Americans
- Brookyln (New York, N.Y.)
- Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
- Eastern Parkway (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidWest Indian Carnival Documentation Project records