The West Indian American Day Parade has been a tradition in New York City since the 1920s, when celebrations began on a small scale in Harlem. It’s no shock that this annual festivity would take place in NYC, home to the largest and most diverse Caribbean population in the world outside of the island region. Some 20 percent of the City’s population can trace its roots to the Caribbean, and central Brooklyn is the heart of that community.
Each year on Labor Day, Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights is lined by vendors of all kinds and revelers who cheer, dance and watch the lavish, colorful floats, bands and masqueraders (people playing mas) go by. The parade, which caps a weekend of festivities, honors Caribbean culture, brings together the community and serves as a moment to reflect on the contributions and history of its people.
We sent a photographer to cover the entire weekend in Crown Heights and Flatbush's Little Caribbean. See what he captured on his wanderings—which included a visit to a mas camp and a pre-parade soiree, as well as the main event—and hear from participants of the 2023 West Indian Day Parade what the celebration means to them.
Roshell Powdar (left) and Shelley Worrell
“For the second year in a row, Caribbeing participated in the West Indian Day Parade,” says Shelley Worrell, founder of the Flatbush cultural organization that promotes Caribbean businesses. Worrell says that as a theme, the group “intentionally chose ‘Monday Mas,’ a casual presentation including branded swimwear, T-shirts and visors,” in an effort to make participation more accessible and bring people together.
“Leading up to the festival, we hosted Mas Camp, interactive workshops at our new HQ in the heart of Brooklyn’s Little Caribbean, where hundreds of revelers immersed themselves in West Indian culture.”
One of those revelers was Sebrine Walters.
“I've only ever played kiddies carnival [the Junior Carnival Day Parade that takes place ahead of the main event] twice before and took part in Jòuvert once in my mid-teen years with my entire family. That’s about it. Other than that I’ve only been a spectator, which was not as enjoyable as participating.
“This year I participated in my very first Trinidad carnival celebration as an adult. So it was only fitting that I ended my ‘hot gyal summer’ frolic with the West Indian Day Parade.
“I have been to several I Am Caribbeing events and remembered seeing how much fun they had last year on their IG live. So I made it my business to participate with them this year.”
“I have attended the parade since 1968 but have never played mas. While most who attend the West Indian Day Parade see it as exemplifying our cultural creativity, I am among a group of activists who see an even greater potential as a show of our political maturity with every level of government participating in a highly visible way. That is a far cry from the early days when the political club which I then headed, the Greater Flatbush Independent Democrats, had to ‘storm’ the parade with our banner protesting apartheid in South Africa, much to the chagrin of the organizers. It is imperative that we resist any effort to either dilute the parade or remove it from the Parkway.”
“This was my first time attending the West Indian Day Parade [and experiencing] the costumes, the unity in diversity, the pure joy and celebration of the richness of the Caribbean culture, and most importantly the music and food.
“It brings the community together and gives the youths hope for a united front, in spite of our diverse cultural heritage. It means love, celebration, history, a reminder that we are stronger together, pride in cultural heritage. And the parade gives you the full carnival experience if you have never been to one in the Caribbean.”
“The process of getting ready isn’t too tough. I’d say the toughest part is waking up early to get dressed and meet the band. I customized my costume at the mas camp with other masqueraders well in advance and added the final touches to my fishnets a few days before the parade. I spent the night before customizing my feather backpack at home utilizing bits and pieces from my Trinidad costume.
“I carefully planned and purchased items that would coordinate well with the [mas camp] costume theme ‘Island Barbie’ several weeks in advance.
“My favorite thing about the parade is seeing folks from all different walks of life and different Caribbean countries coming together as one in pure enjoyment. No one carries labels, just love and fun.”
“I’ve been attending the parade as long as I can remember. It’s in my blood. It’s one of the times where you really get to enjoy yourself and be free and enjoy good music and good Caribbean food. If I miss it I’m depressed for the whole year until it comes around again. There are so many Caribbean events going on, so it gives us a chance to spend time together within our culture.”
Shannon Lee Gilstad
“This is my second year playing mas at the West Indian Day Parade. It’s become my official end-of-summer farewell tradition. Until last year, I never imagined myself as an actual participant in the parade. Family and friends encouraged me to do so, and it was a wonderful experience. After jumping up to full costume, it’s hard to go back to being a spectator. That said, even on the sidelines, this is absolutely the best parade in the City.
“The costumes are my favorite part. I look forward to the mas band launches each year—the creativity and skill that goes into designing and producing the costumes, how each band’s theme is executed and seeing that concept on the road.
“Most parades of this scale are in Manhattan. What makes this special is that it runs through Crown Heights, the heart of one of the most vibrant Caribbean neighborhoods in the City. People come out of their houses, watch from their windows, gather in the street to cook, eat and dance. It’s not just a parade but a huge celebration that brings the entire community out.”
“I’ve been attending the parade since I was 5 years old. I look forward to having one big party in the street in unison of love, food, laughter, culture and family. My favorite part of the parade is seeing the older folks come out and have a good time. Being born and raised in Brooklyn, I’ve noticed that for a lot of people who migrated from the West Indies, it helps their longing for home. It’s like a Caribbean homecoming.”