I wanted to get more sleep, but my fifty-something year old Guyanese neighbor was tapping my shoulder and telling me that it was time to get up and head to the parade route.
Three years prior to “playing J’ouvert,” as my neighbor called it, I had moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn from the American South. Unbeknownst to me at the time, moving into an apartment I adored in Flatbush meant moving directly into the heart of a Caribbean neighborhood that wasn’t Crown Heights.
Being half-Nigerian and raised in Houston, Texas, I had little to no knowledge of West Indian culture. Naturally, all of that would change. Over the years, people would call out to me in Haitian Creole, invite me to barbecues where fish was on the grill instead of hamburger meat, and talk about the beauty that was J’ouvert (pronounced Ʒu-vay with the Ʒu sounding like the “s” in measure or television).
J’ouvert, played the night before the iconic Caribbean Day/Labor Day parade, was something I had to experience, my neighbor proclaimed. He talked about getting doused in a particular color paint when marching with a band, dancing in the streets, drinking, and sleeping everything off the next day.
In all honesty, my first time at the Labor Day parade I was bored. I only recognized a few of the flags waved in the streets (namely, those of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago), and my breast bone felt like it would literally snap in half from all of the bass due to the flatbed trucks with enormous speakers blaring music.
In short, I wasn’t interested in the Labor Day parade because I wasn’t West Indian. When a Jamaican co-worker asked why I wasn’t planning on attending the parade a few years later, I told him my reasons. He shrugged and said “We all come from Africa anyways. Wear the Nigerian flag.”
Fast forward in time, and I’m sleepily walking with my neighbor from Lenox Road (not to be confused with the famous Lenox Avenue in Harlem) to the Parkside Avenue subway station. We’re the first ones to arrive, and I throw my neighbor an “I-told-you-so” look. Who knows how much time later, I’m covered in pink paint, a whistle is strung around my neck, and we’re dancing our way down the street.
Someone in the group got a-hold of a metal police barricade, and it became a new steel drum. Another woman, who I’d met a few weeks before, disappeared into the crowd only to return with a red cup full of Lord knows what alcohol. She pressed it into my hand with a wicked smile. After a few polite sips, I passed it off to my neighbor who was more than willing to take it off my hands. I was having a great time, but I didn’t fully cut lose. As a teacher, I didn’t want to run into a former or future student (many of who could trace their parents’ accents back to the Caribbean).
The sun now high in the sky, a steel band pulled up and played a song that made the Trinidadian group I was with go wild. I soon learned it was “Trini.”
The irony of my Guyanese neighbor insisting that we march with a Trinidadian group was not lost on me.
As maskers swirled around me, one with a Nigerian flag no less, I realized I was exhausted and would not make it to the end of the parade route.
I was ushered to a friend of a friend’s house where I promptly fell asleep on a couch. I awoke later to loud voices and the dish called “bake and fish.”
Hours afterwards, with a belly full of fish and starch, I scrubbed off pink paint in what was a pristine, white bathtub.
I got the paint stains out of (almost) all of my clothes, but the memories remain of what was a far from boring day.