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Oral history interview conducted by Michael Roberts
September 29, 1994
Call number: 2010.019.07
ROBERTS: Ms. Byron, where were you born?
BYRON: In Trinidad.
ROBERTS: And how long have you lived in Brooklyn?
BYRON: Well, I would say I have lived in the United States for approximatelytwenty years. I have been living in Brooklyn for about two months, but I always say that I sleep in Manhattan but I live in Brooklyn because even while I was living in Manhattan, I'm working in Brooklyn every day.
ROBERTS: What part of Brooklyn do you work?
BYRON: At present, I'm working several places, at Fort Green Senior CitizensCenter which is on Fulton Street, and also at Medgar Evers College, and at John Houseman Berean Church where we have Saturday classes.
ROBERTS: What do you do at Medgar Evers College?
BYRON: I teach English, and I have also taught a speech class there.1:00
ROBERTS: You went to school in New York City, so what were your qualifications?
BYRON: I went to City College. There I did my B.A. and M.A. And I also went toNew York University where I did work on my PhD. I just have to write the dissertation.
ROBERTS: Your dissertation will be on what, on what field?
BYRON: Brooklyn Carnival, theater and art.
ROBERTS: When you came from Trinidad, in what year and what were your firstimpressions of Brooklyn?
BYRON: Well, I came here in 1974 and, at that point, I was doing visual art. Iwas a painter. And so my work was on exhibition at Restoration, in the art gallery there. And I thought Brooklyn was exciting and big in comparison to Trinidad because it seemed so huge.
ROBERTS: And what was important to you when you first came here?
BYRON: What was important? It was a vacation and I was extremely impressed by2:00the number of museums and the amount of different kinds of works that I saw at, for example, Brooklyn Museum and at the Met and the other museums. So that's what was really exciting to me, the amount of art galleries and the variety of cultures that I was exposed to.
ROBERTS: Back home in Trinidad, have you participated in Carnival?
BYRON: Yes I did. I played mas. I had relatives who made and also played mas. Iwas involved in performance for the Dimanche Gras Show, as a dancer. And then later on I performed doing my poem on Carnival. So I was the first poet to perform in a calypso tent which I did in 1976.
ROBERTS: I wonder if you can tell us a little bit more of your experience withCarnival and playing mas in Trinidad and Tobago. 3:00
BYRON: Well, I would say, my earliest impressions of Carnival, as a child, Iremember being really afraid of Jab Molassie and the other devil with the whip, you know, that would sing through the air. I remember by uncle, my mother's brother, making huge Carnival costumes. At that time they made the costumes with a lot of wire-bending and hundreds and thousands of little beads, and feathers because he used to play, one of the characters he depicted was an Indian. So I just remember Carnival being full of color. A lot of steel bands and at times I remember having to move quickly with my mother because there were bottles flying in the air. I remember one incident like that too. But then as I grew older I became, I played mas with Peter Mitchell and River, and his depiction of Carnival was on an entirely different basis. It was more performance related. 4:00Even though Carnival is performance in terms of the character, whether they see the dance or you're playing a bat. The character you depict almost determines the movement that you do on the street. But I would say that being involved in Carnival is a wonderful experience. You're very tired, you keep dancing, when you stop, that's when you feel the pain in your feet. And I just generally had a good time when I was exposed to all kinds of different cultures, again through Carnival, because different bands would depict different eras and cultures.
ROBERTS: When you came to New York, at what period did you get involved in thenow famous West Indian American Day Carnival parade and its festivities during that Labor Day period?
BYRON: I would say I became involved in the '70's, which was when I did thepoetry. And so I was involved then in performing in the calypso tent. At that time, Brutus from Breadbasket on Fulton Street had a calypso tent upstairs in 5:00one of those buildings on Fulton Street, and Calypso Rose and other people were there performing, Duke. Later on I was involved again doing, not that particular piece, but other poems that I wrote with Frank Smith at Rainbow Terrace which was where the calypso tent was held several years later. After that, I became involved with the performing arts company that I have, called Something Positive, where we play old mas and we've won for the past four years in succession, and we've also perform for the Carnival shows at the back of the Brooklyn Museum. And in addition to that, we've brought a children's band. We've also done a regular band on Monday, and then this year, for the first time, we did a spiritual procession to open the parade.
ROBERTS: So you do have wide experience not only in playing Carnival inTrinidad, but also in New York. Tell us a little bit, you're known all in the 6:00Carnival circles for being one of the talented women who produce an old mas band. Tell us a little bit about how you get your ideas, what would you like to play, and how this concept evolves from year to year to produce an old mas band.
BYRON: Okay, old mas is a very intellectual thing on a certain level in that youhave to think of a concept that's going to be funny and easy to portray without the glitter and the glamour of traditional Carnival. So old mas is satire. It's dressing up in old clothes and making fun of something that could be very serious. For example, the first year we played 'Bus Ride', making a pun on 'bus'. 'Bus' being the B44 or 'bus' meaning the breast of a woman. So that was our first thing. Then we did 'In the News'. Of course we also did, this year, 7:00'Hardware Depot'. So we sit down and we put our ideas together. Sometimes I know a year in advance what we're going to play. Sometimes we have so many ideas up to the week before, we don't know what we're going to play, you know. So it depends. We kind of put our heads together and we come up with ideas. Debbie from Fort Greene also works with us. At first she was, "What are you all talking about?", because she's African-American. And then she did go to Trinidad for Carnival, and now she really understands old mas and we work together on the concepts. And she does all the placards and stuff for us. So she has, for the past two years, played one of the lead characters in the old mas band.
ROBERTS: So what you're saying is that, for you, to put an old mas band it's notCheryl Byron per se that the idea comes from but it is tossed around and talked about, kind of a consensus building thing, and then the idea takes root and you play. 8:00
BYRON: Yes and no. For example, I would say, "What are we going to play thisyear? What do you think of us doing something on food?" Okay? And I would ask the other company members, "Do you have any ideas about food that we could depict for an old mas band?" And some of them would come up with some good ideas. Mainly I would say, Michael Manswell, Deborah Holland and myself, but the other people who are there making mas might also have an idea and say, "How about if we do --" and they put in another idea. For example, last year some of the members from Manic in Trinidad, they were up here, Leon and they came and worked with us on the old mas band. So it's not, it's not a one-woman show. I may have an idea or Lisa, for example, Lisa Sylvester, one of the company members, when we're doing 'In the News', she'll say, "How about an entertainment 9:00section?" She kept saying, "Let's do entertainment", so then entertainment became part of 'In the News'. So we would accept ideas because you never know how someone else's idea could become part of the theme, like another chapter or another verse or something. So everybody is free to add their own creative thing, in terms of how to depict the character even though we would have broad guidelines. Any person who's involved could add their creativity too to the project.
ROBERTS: This might sound as a very tired question but what does Carnivalrepresent to you?
BYRON: Carnival to me is a continuation of tradition. It's the tradition of themasked figure coming all the way from Africa. Where in Africa, the masked figure came into the village to heal, to bless, to cleanse, which is how we managed to 10:00do that spiritual procession at the beginning of the parade. So Carnival to me is a very sacred time. It's a time where creativity explodes. When you think of the amount of music that's created around Carnival, and the art, and the energy that goes into the creative end of it. It's really a time when there's a lot of wonderful spiritual energy around. I think these are some of the things that people take for granted. So some people may not be looking at it from a spiritual point of view, but it's a time when most people have a harmony, you know, everybody is happy and singing and dancing. It's a time for the whole village to participate in one event and be together as a family. And that happens at Carnival at time. For some people, Carnival is a psychological release. A time to free up and get rid of all your inhibitions and dance and 11:00have a good time, do things that you wouldn't normally do. Maybe your nine to five has you in an uptight position. So I also see Carnival as a healing time. A time for people to share their cares and worries and frustrations and just be free and dance. And that is a way to celebrate life. So then Carnival is a really special and wonderful time, not only in terms of creativity but the fact that we can all come together. It's also a time when cultures merge, you know, that French Mardi Gras tradition from the European side and of course the African masquerade tradition. So you see all kinds of cultures coming together at Carnival times. You really, a time when all the people come together and pool their creative energy to create a mass spectacle of the entire village is involved.
ROBERTS: Now, you have really given a concise outline of Carnival. And what has12:00happened in recent times, 1994 is not an exception, is that there have been problems with certain ethnic groups, particularly the Hasidim at Crown Heights, where a lot of Caribbean-Americans live, in respect to the Carnival. What would you say if you had to speak to a community outside of the Caribbean community who understand Carnival, to make them understand what you're saying? What would you say to them?
BYRON: I would, again, explain to another culture the energy level that peoplemanifest at Carnival. I would say that our energy is often misinterpreted. And where we are bent on having a good time and having a certain level of enjoyment, people could misinterpret that energy and see it as aggression. I want to tell you a little story to give an example. For example, a couple of years ago I went on a boat ride. Again this boat ride was around Labor Day time because there are several boat rides. On this boat ride you had people like Sparrow, Charlie's 13:00Roots, Crazy, so you can imagine the top calypsonians were there. Bands, music, a steel band, so everybody wanted to get on this boat. At a particular point the boat was full and getting ready to pull off, but I think the crowd at the gate must have leaned on the gate so heavily that the gate fell down. And people starred running towards the boat. I saw some of the officers, the people who worked on the ship, they became so alarmed and they were trying to get the boat away, you know, get it moving. But I saw how easily that energy could be misinterpreted because people were running towards the boat holding their cases of beer, a case of beer on their head, and they're coming running. But you can imagine the force of the energy that they're running towards the boat with. But they just want to have a good time, but somebody else would have misinterpreted that as a riot. 14:00
BYRON: And I could see how easily people could get in trouble and innocently so.So again, you see a band coming down Eastern Parkway. The way the Haitians jump to their music is like a run. When I look at them I see South Africa. When you look at, or maybe someone from the Congo, the way they dance. You find Jamaicans have a different nuance when they dance. They are more earthbound and slow. The Trinidadians jump. The Haitians run. If you see a Haitian band, they're coming down the road running like this -- and you could easily be intimidated. You could be easily scared because you don't understand what's happening. They're just dancing. They're having a good time. You might see somebody pushing somebody and saying, "What happenin', somebody push," you know, and you might think, oh my god, they're getting ready to fight and this is terrible but people are just really enjoying themselves. So what we need to do is build cultural 15:00bridges. Explain what this ritual is, what this ceremony is, what this festival entails, so people understand the energy level at that time. People gather every night. That's part of the ritual that happens around Carnival. This gathering is to give the people who are making the mas, keep their company, keep the energy level, plus people are just having a good time. They're anxious to see how the costumes are being made. Somebody's going to sit there and help. People don't sleep for nights. A lot of people don't get paid to do this, but it's a ceremony, it's a ritual, it's a tradition. Every night you gather, you make the mas. Other people stand on their talk. It's a time for people to meet people; people they haven't seen for years. Because, again, everybody is coming into the village for this ceremony, this ceremony called Carnival. You see? So other people now see all these people gathering may not understand what's happening. It just looks to them, loud music, drinking. What are all these people doing here? Why should they all be standing around all night? But that's part of it. 16:00It's a vigil. Vigils for several nights, for weeks before the event because these costumes have to be made. And of course Carnival is ephemeral art so at that moment it's tossed away. It's not something that is saved or kept. Very much like the [unintelligible] from the East Indian ceremony where they build these tall, big wonderful pieces but then it's thrown into the sea. It's given as an offering. Similarly, the Carnival costume is tossed away after the event. Never mind it cost. It costs lots of money, sometimes hundreds of dollars. Never mind people have spent months, at times, working on putting it together, but after that it's over. But people gather for this ceremony, for this ritual, for this event. And it's a community thing. Everybody's involved. And yes we keep 17:00vigil. Yes, we stand wherever that mas camp is. You're going to find people gathering there because a lot of creativity is happening right there. So, god that is mas. Look at how man put them colors together. Look at how we cut that fabric. Look at that costume. It's beauty. It's art. And the creative energy on the planet is pumping and people feel that energy and they gravitate towards it. So if you don't understand what's happening you can easily think, man, what are all these people doing here? They're just being a nuisance. They're making noise, they're partying, they just drinking. This is a waste of time. But really it isn't. It's one of the peak times of creativity within the community. And on the musical end, musically, art. People create with nothing at times. You know? You might run out of this and come up with, okay let's use that instead. And 18:00it's an ah-ha experience. "Wow, look at this, you know I didn't think about that before". "Yeah man that's a good idea, let's go". You know, so it gives people a time to interact and really be, and be recognized for the work that they're doing and appreciated; the mas makers, the people who sewing, the people who stitching. A mas camp is a wonderful place to be. It is really, really a wonderful experience.
ROBERTS: Perhaps it may be a good time to just have you speak a little bit onone of the things that you've been known to do very well in New York City, which is the production of old mas. Old mas is kind of synonymous with J'ouvert I wonder if you can put in historical perspective on how it impacts on the life of the community, this whole concept of J'ouvert.
BYRON: Okay, J'ouvert is the opening, the beginning. And again, we have to look19:00at Carnival in perspective. Early Carnival started in Trinidad with the French, the elite class, having their masked balls indoors. After the emancipation, the African element was able to be involved in Carnival. So there was a lot of satire happening. So where master used to paint his skin and depict the Negroes in the field, after emancipation we got the opportunity to imitate them, imitating us. And so that old mas, dressing up in satire and making comments on… it could be a current event, it could be some institution that's held sacred, you just make fun. In other words, you try to not take life so seriously. So old mas is a time to really examine life on several levels. Not 20:00only what you see, what meets the eye, but what is underneath it, what is above it. Is this serious? I mean how serious can we be? One moment you're here, the next moment you're gone. So let's laugh, let's make fun of this, let's not take this so seriously because it's not something that's going to be forever. So that's what J'ouvert really is. It's the beginning, it's the opening and it's a time when people not do the big fancy mas. This is where you dress up in old mas and, like I said, it's is a very intellectual exercise in terms of making pun and satire on the society. If you want to laugh at a decision that has been made, politically, or a political event, whether it's war or the glory that was Greece, for example. But then 'Greece' wouldn't be Greece the country, but 21:00'grease' meaning oil smeared all over the body. Right? And instead of having robes made out of satin and velvet, you'd have bag. Right, so somebody would be Nero, and somebody would be all these emperors and they'd probably put a piece of twig around their head. Just make fun of everything.
ROBERTS: Okay, in your perspective, who do you think are the most importantpeople involved in any Carnival?
BYRON: Hmm, that's a -- I would say everybody. Like a body, each one is anintegral part of the whole. You know, the eye has its function, the heart, the feet, the hands. So I wouldn't say that anyone particular part of the body is the most important but that each section, whether it's the pan man, the masquerader, the person who's making the costumes, the administrators like Joyce Quamina and Mr. Lezama. Each section is extremely important in and of itself 22:00because together they make the whole and one can't do it without the other. You know, like the human body we need each other to function. So I can't really point out any particular group and say, well this is the most important. Even the policemen, they have their part to play. The people who cleaning up the street. The people who cook. Everybody is important because together we create the entire thing.
ROBERTS: Now, you just touched on Carnival in purely philosophical terms. Let'sjust speak a little bit of your impressions of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association's responses to the whole question of Labor Day. What's your impression on Labor Day Carnival and the whole festivities surrounding it? What have you seen in terms of its growth? Is it reaching the cross-section of people it's designed to reach? What are your impressions? 23:00
BYRON: I think the Carnival Committee, Mr. Lezama and Joyce are doing atremendously difficult task and I think they're doing a good job. Because the fact that the Carnival has been around for so long and it keeps growing, then they must be doing something right. I mean there's always room for improvement. So you would find a lot of criticisms coming from different peoples saying what they should do or what they ought to do. What I feel is that people ought to get involved because, you know, there's a saying, it's easy to rock the boat when you're not rowing the boat. But I think they're doing a good job. It must be a lot of work because I run a company and I know how difficult it is. And their stuff is very, very, very big. So maybe they need more sponsors. They need more money. That's always a problem. They definitely need more money to make things 24:00better for everybody else, to increase the prize money. I mean we've been playing old mas for four years, we've won four years in a row, and our prize money is three hundred dollars. Now we have at least fifty or more people involved in old mas, be it the person whose getting the boxes for us, getting the placards, filling in the things, nobody gets paid. You can't spread three hundred dollars. By the time we buy any of the materials, be it markers or, or Bristol board, that money is gone. So you're not in it for the money. Not at this point. Maybe they need to get some more money so that they can increase the prize money and then maybe the band leaders and the Calypsonians and the other artists wouldn't be that disgruntled. Because I think that's one of the main problems. You know, some people accuse the Association of getting a lot of money and not giving it to them. But I'm saying if they're getting a lot of money, 25:00what are they doing with it? They're not living in mansions, they don't have boots and Mercedes Benzes and chauffeurs. You know, they don't live that kind of lifestyle. Not that that is necessarily evidence of having a lot of money. But what I see from them is a lot of hard work, a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of planning, a lot of. I mean to do the Blue Shows, and the concerts and all the, all the work that they have to do to actually get the event happening. You know the people work, with the bureaucracy and getting permits and, that's a lot of work. And who's going to do it for the event to happen? You can't just go on the street and do a parade. The advertisements, the printing of the books; who's editing; who's writing the copy? There's a lot involved. And I think if people became more aware of the amount of work involved in producing anything they would be less critical. 26:00
ROBERTS: What changes have you noticed about the Carnival over the years sinceyou've been here?
BYRON: I've seen it grow. What I like about it in particular is that all ethnicgroups are involved. I like the fact that if you're Jamaican, this year I even saw a Korean group in the parade. And I think that's wonderful. Because Carnival involves the entire village. I suppose next thing you're going to see the Jews jumping on Eastern Parkway. That would be wonderful. I'm serious. They live in Brooklyn. This is a Brooklyn Carnival. Sure it's a West Indian American but then everybody that's West Indian or American living in this country can be involved. And that's what I think is great. I was really happy to see the Koreans, dressed in their traditional clothes, playing their instruments, coming down the Parkway. So that's one of the elements of growth that I've noticed and I think it's great.
ROBERTS: I'm going to just digress a bit and ask you, in 1994, Carnival of27:00course is different from 1960. Not only from the point of view of the number of people who now participate on the Parkway; technology too has improved. What have you seen that would make you be optimistic for the future in terms of Carnival and a marriage or a merger of Carnival and technology, particularly computer technology?
BYRON: Okay, this is where I think the pan man is a bit concerned becausepannists feel that they are being, some, I shouldn't speak for them across the board, but I would say some of them that I've talked to, have expressed concern about being left out of Carnival. Because they feel that Carnival and pan are synonymous with each other, and that without one, you shouldn't have the other etc. So there's concern that technology and stereos and CDs and electronic 28:00devices are taking a dominant role and the pan, which is an integral part of Carnival, is being put on a backburner. So, maybe what could happen is if the pannists, and the ways the pans are transported, maybe if we could have them on trucks instead, maybe that would facilitate, and have them amplified while they play. Not necessarily a high truck, maybe something flat, because again, traditionally, everybody is pushing the pan as you come along. But you don't have that many people being involved anymore in pushing the pans. Because once upon a time the pan was the main source, or sometimes the only source, of music for Carnival. So everybody was involved in pushing the instrument along because 29:00this was supplying the music. But now you have a truck rolling around with four big speakers, and that's it, and a DJ. Or a tape, or a CD, or a couple of musicians, again being amplified, serving a larger number of people. Two thousand people can hear the music blasting out of the speakers. I mean two thousand people are not going to hear the music coming from a group of pans being pushed along in the middle of a band. So there is competition. What I think has to happen is that the people involved in making Carnival happen could try to help the pannists become more technologically equipped to cope with the change so that they're not left out. Not necessarily that they have to change 30:00totally but something could be done to facilitate what they have, to make it compatible with what's happening right now. So they're not left out, and they don't feel left out. And so that an important and crucial part of our culture doesn't die through neglect.
ROBERTS: I'm glad you say that because this year also for the old mascompetition, on Flatbush, the DJ was prohibited from playing. All the music that was being played was the music of the pan. Do you see this as a conscious effort to return to the tradition of pushing pan at least in one event of Carnival?
BYRON: Yes, and I think that's admirable and it's wonderful, because then thepannist would feel that he has a place. Because oftentimes the electronics take over. They do. Because you hardly even hear a pan side being hired to play at a 31:00party. It's two or three DJs.
ROBERTS: Now, early on in this interview, you spoke about your participation inbringing a kiddies' band and of course this goes to the heart of passing down and handing on the culture to the young ones so that a sense of Caribbean identity would remain. This year, 1994, there was almost, I mean I would put it at between thirty to sixty thousand kids playing Carnival. What's your opinion on this upsurge, this tremendous upsurge, in parent's involvement and children playing Carnival?
BYRON: I think it's good because, like you said, we have to hand on thetradition and the culture. When we're dead and gone they're the ones who are 32:00going to playing mas and running the Carnival. Because we're not going to be here forever. So it's good for them to become involved and understand part of their culture. I think Children's Carnival is extremely important. When we did our children's band, we didn't do one this year, we let the children make part of their costumes because we also felt that it was important for them to understand the entire event. Not just by buying the costume and putting it on but being involved in a hands-on experience. So they learnt something about design and about textures and materials and all aspects of Carnival, rather than just putting on a costume and jumping in a band. But I think it's good for the children to be involved.
ROBERTS: What do you like best about Carnival?
BYRON: What do I like best about Carnival? Everything. I think I like, I likethe fact that we come together as a community. And I like the level of creativity, the costumes, the music. That's what I really admire. I look forward 33:00to hearing the new songs and also the costumes, to see what people have created this particular year because every year is different.
ROBERTS: And of course, what do you like least about Carnival?
BYRON: What do I like least about Carnival? The fact that some people fight,and, you know, use it as an opportunity to get rid of old vendettas, you know, or. That's about it, that negative aspect.
ROBERTS: Do you see the West Indian American Day Carnival which attracts, thisyear I think the figure is about sixty costume bands and about one hundred and forty other bands, on the Parkway and an estimated three million people, as, do you see Carnival and this type of participation as making a political statement? Either for the near future or a latent political force to be reckoned with in 34:00New York City at some point in time?
BYRON: Yea, it means we're here and we have certain needs that need to be met.And I think what happened this year is that the West Indian community realized that the political powers that be realized that we're a force to be reckoned with and they were good to us. They didn't ban the Carnival, they didn't stop it, you know, and I think that was really good. It was an affirmation of, okay, we know you're here and we care. And I think that was really important. I think if Carnival did not happen, then it would have given the message that you're not important, you're a second class citizen. And I think Carnival happening the way it happened this year really gave us a sense that we're not second class citizens, we're recognized as being, we're a child, just like the Jew's a child, yes we are also all children of God. We have our place and our needs are taken 35:00care of. So I think that the statement has already been made. The mere fact that Carnival happened in 1994 on Eastern Parkway means, yes we are here, we are a political force to be reckoned with, we vote and we have a certain amount of power.
ROBERTS: Of course, you say this is in the context of the struggles that we hadwith the Hasidim community in Crown Heights?
BYRON: Yes, I do.
ROBERTS: Turning for the field, you have participated of course in Carnival inTrinidad, where you were born, have you seen Carnival in other places, for example like London or Canada or even Boston or Baltimore?
BYRON: Yes, I've gone to Carnival in Toronto. I even performed there once. AndI've also seen Carnival in Boston.
ROBERTS: What's your view on these Carnivals outside of Brooklyn and outside of Trinidad?
BYRON: I would say that they're growing, they're younger. Carnival in Toronto36:00was, you know, some bands jumping on the street, but I wasn't there for a long time so I'm not aware of the mas camps and the kind of community involvement. I did see a few white Canadians playing mas. I went there like four years ago so I've heard that it has grown even more. But Toronto was, and then everybody ended on the island which is where we performed. It was more like an African street Carnival in numbers to me. Everybody gathering on this one spot. And it's like a big, big block party. It's not as big as Trinidad. It's not as big as Brooklyn. Boston again was just one long street with bands parading and people coming on the side and looking. Again it's much smaller. It's just as enjoyable, 37:00because, you know, Caribbean people, wherever we are, we try to continue our culture, and we need to have this festival, this ritual called Carnival, where, again, our creativity and our coming together really gives us a sense of who we are. No matter where we are, this is a grounding. It's a way of centering self; inside of culture.
ROBERTS: What kinds of problems regarding Carnival have you seen come up overthe years. Of course, you just, we just pointed out one of the struggle with the Hasidim community in Crown Heights, but have you seen any other problems?
BYRON: Yes, I think when Carnival happens in new communities, the problem isgetting the people in that community, who have not been exposed to Carnival, to understand exactly what is happening. The music, the level of the music, the 38:00drinking, the singing, the all-night carousing, which is what is seems to be to the non-initiated. And I think what really needs to happen is a kind of bridge-building, culturally, so that other people understand exactly what is happening so they don't misinterpret what they see. Because that misinterpretation can lead to confrontation and conflict. Where somebody who's going down the road drinking a beer or talking loudly could be seen as rabble rousing or disturbing the community which is really not their intention. And then they may become incensed because they may feel, well, I'm just standing here with my friends. We're just enjoying ourselves. We're just making mas here 39:00downstairs. We must play some music to keep it going. This is how we do it in Trinidad, so why can't we do it here. We're not disturbing anybody. But again, that energy can be misinterpreted. So I feel that people need to inform, especially the police in particular communities. They need to be given some seminars or some kind of lectures, a slide presentations, films, videos, so that they can get a sense of what's happening. Or if this event is going to happen in the community, then other community organizations can be invited. Maybe individuals from different community organizations can be invited to an event where they're told about Carnival and the things that happen around Carnival. And maybe also be invited to participate on some level. So that maybe their involvement is a way of including them. So it becomes all-inclusive as opposed 40:00to them feeling, sometimes maybe, we don't know, maybe they feel excluded. And that could be one of the reasons why they become upset and want to not let the event happen or try to sabotage it on some level. So sometimes it's not only a lack of understanding, maybe at times it's because they're not involved. So, that's what one of the things I think could be done. If you can have lectures, seminars and involve community organizations or representatives. Then they can take information to their community, be it with a brochure, a flyer. Some kind of literature to explain what Carnival is all about. Because it's something too that their children could use as a social study lesson. You know, so in a way it can be very educational.
ROBERTS: I'm glad you touched on that whole question of education andsensitizing people to the whole question of Carnival. I know that for example in Notting Hill Carnival in London, what the British police authorities did is that 41:00they sent a number of their officers and policemen to Trinidad during Carnival time to learn how to handle a crowd, what to look at and that kind of thing. Do you think that this year there was a larger police presence than usual on the Parkway? Do you think that that is something that should be explored? That the West Indian American Day Carnival Association for example might want to suggest to the administration at City Hall that they do in respect to the upcoming Carnival in 1995?
BYRON: Yes, I think the police presence is good because, unfortunately, we havenegative energy on the planet and sometimes, I shouldn't say sometimes, oftentimes they use any opportunity to do their dirty work. So I think it's good to have the police there, because they're not there in an obtrusive manner. They 42:00didn't really do anything to hurt anybody. They're there and I think their very presence would prevent some of the negative energy from making itself known. Because I remember one year when we had a band and we were at the end of the parade, there were about, maybe about twenty something, young brothers, all with their heads tied, just running through, running through the bands. I mean we just stood in a cluster around the children. We just stood in a group. We didn't run. But people were running and falling. And these guys were just running in a wave. And it's really very sad because these are our people, and if we we're fighting for rights, we'd be fighting for their rights too. But unfortunately at that point there were no police around. So they were able to do something like that. You know, they timed their move. I don't know what they were doing, if 43:00they were snatching purses or chains or whatever. And that's really sad. So the police presence would definitely prevent that kind of thing from happening.
ROBERTS: A lot of the mas players, particularly the band leaders, have expresseddissatisfaction over the years that their bands don't get past the judging, the reviewing stand to be seen by the judges. Which is a bit unfortunate when you realize the amount of work being put in the costumes and in making the band to get on the Parkway. One suggestion is that the judges should be staggered along the Parkway so that this can happen. Do you have any -- would you like to comment on that suggestion firstly or do you have any other suggestion you would like to make relative to that situation, up to and including the extension of the parade route because we know that, a little bit more than, what, two and a quarter miles to hold almost three million people is a little bit of a cramming 44:00situation. What is your comments on these?
BYRON: Again, I think that people are used to two days of playing mas inTrinidad. And what is happening here is that people are trying to put a two day tradition into two hours approximately. And that's a problem. Again distance. Everybody is near to Eastern Parkway. America is much bigger than Trinidad. Brooklyn is huge. So some people, according to where they're coming from, to get to the Parkway, when they get there so many people are there, between the spectators and the vendors, that in itself is a problem too, and it's really hard after they do all that that they don't get past the reviewing stand. This year I was standing by the judges, and it was the end of the parade and you can see up the Parkway, thousands of people who would not come pass that reviewing 45:00stand. And that's really hard. What should happen? Maybe people can start earlier. If they start earlier then they would be, more people would get past the stand. Instead of everybody coming out in the afternoon. That really makes it very difficult, because some of the bands, they move slowly, and they stop. And sometimes the truck, something happens to the mechanism of a vehicle, and that vehicle stops and everybody behind has to wait. So several things happen. Or sometimes the police stops a truck, so that one of the cross-streets, the traffic can pass, or something could happen, you know? So there are several reasons why it isn't as steady--. So I think the band leaders could try to have an earlier start. But then that's trying to get everybody out in time, up from 46:00their beds, or people finishing the costumes at the last minute, etc. You see in Trinidad, you have Monday to play mas, and there's Monday night mas, and then there's all day Tuesday. Plus you have more than one reviewing stand. So bands, everybody isn't trying to go to the same place at the same time. So, I don't know if we can have more than one reviewing stand, if that would help. I think definitely the judges walking the route would help. But then band leaders may not like that because when they get close to the reviewing stand that's when they try to put the sections in order. Having the judges along the way means that people have to stay in that order, there's a kind of rigidity that they're going to be forced into. And their friends and relatives and other people on the street can't just come and jump in the band. It's going to make it into a more tightly organized and rigid structure. And band leaders may feel that they 47:00wouldn't be judged properly if they don't know when they're being judged. You know, so then it's not going to be as free as it is, because, you know, people just come and jump in any band. Whilst the music sounds good or you see a friend you just go in the band and you jump. So that's going to take some of that out of it if they're going to be judged along the way, because nobody's going to be able to go jump in their bands because you won't see the costumes. So I don't know how people are going to deal with that. I think it is a good idea to have the judges further along. Maybe what they can do is have a longer strip for judging. So that they know okay from Nostrand Avenue up until, this is where the judges are, so that frees them up, anybody jumping anywhere can happen so that can be on the route at an earlier…
BYRON: --and you see that there are several bands that are not going to make it,48:00then the judges can start walking up. Or they can have certain people, you know, specially placed to take care of that after a certain time. You say, okay, at five o'clock, all the bands from Nostrand going back will be judged on the road.
ROBERTS: Okay. Do you think that Carnival gets enough recognition in Brooklyn?
BYRON: I would say, yes and no. Yes, within the community, people who know aboutit. And no, for the larger number of people, who some people may not even be aware of it. Because Brooklyn is so big, so there are so many other communities that are far away that may not know anything about it. And again, because of the negative publicity that some of this has garnered, the Carnival, some people 49:00don't even want to come, including our own Caribbean people because they are afraid of the waves of people running through and snatching chains. You know, some of that criminal element that has been around and you can't deny that. So what I think has to happen, and this is not just related to Carnival, I think within our community we really need to motivate the youth and have them gainfully employed in doing something positive. So that they do not fall into that negative energy field, whether it's to steal, sell drugs, snatch chains, mug, break into people's houses. We really need to clean up our act. Which is why some people raise their eyebrows when I say I really respect and admire the Jews, because if a Jew sees a Jew, you don't hear of a Jew mugging a Jew. And it pains me to hear of a brother mugging anybody, or a sister. But it's a fact. Which is why some people do not want to have anything to do with us. Even if 50:00it's a Carnival and it's supposed to be beautiful, they've heard so much negative stuff. Even though we have tons of wonderful things that outweighs the negative, that element of negativity does exist. And I think it's our responsibility to work on getting rid of that, so that our Carnival and all the other good things that we have can be fully appreciated. And not be marred by some of the elements of negativity that show themselves in there. You know? Because if I was not a Caribbean person and understand all of this, I too may be intimidated, I'm being honest, and afraid. Why not? You would be saying to yourself, "These people mug each other. What they going to do to me?" If they hit, they don't like each other, who says they're going to like me? You know, I'm going to be afraid if I see them coming down the street together and I'm walking because they've been known to mug people. This is a fact, so we ought 51:00not to be angry. It's the truth. What we need to do is get rid of that so we can walk really head tall and know that, he's my brother, you know, I don't have to watch my back. My brother's got my back. I don't have to be afraid of myself. And that's what's sad, and that's I think is going to help make everything that we have even better, once we clean house. We need to clean house.
ROBERTS: There, in recent times there have been, particularly this year, alittle bit more media coverage from the point of view of the larger mainstream media, particularly television. I think Fox Channel 5 did a series, Good Morning, Good Day America with Jim Ryan they did a series of things in the heart of the community. My question to you is, do you think that the West Indian 52:00Carnival in Brooklyn is getting its fair share of representation in the mainstream press, and if not, what do you think is responsible for that?
BYRON: Some of what I just said earlier. Because a band is corning down thestreet, a wave of people going to run through and grab and snatch and everybody scattering and running, or there's a fight going to break out. And I'm not saying this to put my own people down because I love everybody, but it's a fact. Now if there's a parade on Fifth Avenue there's less likelihood that there's going to be a disruptive element and everybody's going to start running. This happens in Carnival. I think some of our internal cleansing is going to ensure that we get better publicity on a certain level. And we have to deal with that fact. We have to be honest and deal with the fact that some of our stuff is not 53:00together. Okay? And that the other people, the other ethnic groups in their festivals, I'm not saying they're a hundred percent lily-white and righteous, but there is less of that element in there, be it their New Year Chinese dragon dancing in Chinatown, or the parades down Fifth Avenue, or the Italian thing in Little Italy. You understand what I'm saying? I agree we could have more publicity, it would be good. The media can give us more coverage. But maybe, maybe they're a little skeptical out there too. You know, they going to be running when everybody else is running? Years people been running on Eastern Parkway. We've been fleeing. Maybe not near the reviewing stand, but I'm telling you I was involved, our band was near the end. It was crazy. It was scary. I had 54:00a friend who was visiting from New Orleans. She fell, she didn't know what to do. She started running, I said like, "Don't run". So she got trampled. And it's really very frightening. You have to have a lot of heart to go back out there on Eastern Parkway. Of course, some people never witnessed this, but a lot of people witnessed all kinds of things. People still come because it's us and we understand. Sometimes it's nothing bad when everybody's running. You know, it could be just a scare. But that always happens when you have huge crowds. But again, living on 86th Street there and seeing a lot of parades passing by from coming up Fifth Avenue, you don't get that element of, of, fear energy in the air and having to run. I'm not saying the pickpockets and thieves are not around but it's, it seems to be less hazardous on a certain level. So I truly believe that once internally in our community, we get things cleaner and clearer, then 55:00we can demand more respect and command more respect. But I really feel that we need to get our internal act together, especially with our young people. So that less of our young people are filling the jails, less of our young people are being arrested, and less, you know. I don't see the Korean youths on the street. I don't see the Jewish children. It's only our children, our young people, and we need to do something about that. And I think that, I'm not saying that we ought not to fight for civil rights and for more, more schools, more jobs, equal opportunity. Sure, we need to keep that battle going, but we have to understand that we also have some internal battles to fight. And I feel that once we've succeeded in cleaning up house that we would command more respect.
ROBERTS: In all this, do you see an element of, of racism?56:00
BYRON: Well, that's a given on a certain level. Given historically what hashappened. But I really believe that, at this point in time, the level of consciousness is lifting. In everybody. Because there's always been good white people, and good black people, and bad white people, and bad black people. I think, I think that consciousness has absolutely nothing to do with color, it has to do with the color of the spirit. You know, and not necessarily color of the skin. And I feel that those two energies of good and bad, and darkness and light, and order and chaos, are always at war. And that, as people, we are continuously fighting that battle. So there are always people fighting for justice and right and equality, and there are always going to be those elements that are going to fight against it. Until on this sphere, this energy no longer 57:00exists. But right here, right now on planet Earth, we have those two poles. And so we're always going to have to fight to maintain a certain type of balance. Because that's what this planet manifests. So I feel that that struggle is going to be continuous. There's always going to be someone who wants power, someone who's greedy, someone who's going to want to take something from somebody else, so we always have to make sure that there is some kind of balance. Which is why we have social order. So that we can try to keep those energies at bay, if not necessarily with individual, within the individual, at least within the structure of the society. So I feel that we have to continue to make sure that we command respect because of who we are, and what we are, and what we represent as a people. And not necessarily always because it's due to us, no matter who or 58:00what we are. So we're not, we're not the depraved and the disruptive element, demanding it because, okay, we're here so we should get it too, but command and demand it because we're upright, we're together, we're good, we're clean, we're full of respect and this is what is ours by right. Of course, no matter who or what you are, as a human being, you have rights, but I do wish that we can command and demand those rights because we are good people. Instead of, okay no matter who we are, sure we're bad, sure we're this, but give it to us anyway because we're here so we got to have it. You know? I want us to have to have it because by right they have to have it. Not okay it's a handout. Give it to them as a token. Give it to them to appease them, you know? Yeah, but look at them, 59:00they fight each other, they run into each other's houses, they mug each other, they, petty crimes. You know? You take somebody's bag, you steal somebody's sneakers, no, no. Up you mighty race. Up. You know, like Marcus Garvey said. Come on, up. We're not petty. So again, I agree that we need to keep on fighting but I do believe that our fight is within our homes with our own children. I'm not saying that we don't have to work with the powers that be to make sure that what we deserve comes our way because we have people who are elected officially to take care of those needs too. But I sincerely feel that, that there are other things that need fixing that do not need headlines. Like one student said in my speech class and I thought it was really wonderful, that she feels that we have 60:00selected times to protest, that if somebody white does something to us then we protest, but if it's black on black there's no protest. So I genuinely feel that we need to clean house.
ROBERTS: In Canada and in London the Carnival celebration there, Caribana inCanada and Notting Hill Carnival in London, is subsidized by the government. Government has that input. There's been some criticism that those Carnivals are not as spontaneous as that which takes place on Eastern Parkway. My question to you is, would you like to see governmental participation in Labor Day Carnival on Eastern Parkway? And if the answer is yes, what type of arrangement would you 61:00like to see made between West Indian American Carnival Association, the sponsoring organization, and the government to ensure that this spontaneity and indeed the spirit of Carnival is not lost?
BYRON: Well, I think if, I think government can be involved, in organizing, ifthey were aware of what the whole process is. So, of course, one could advise that they choose people who would know, but then why do that when we already have a Carnival that's already working. So there's a saying if it works, why fix it? So I would say that government can be further involved by working with the Carnival Association and finding out from them what their needs are and how they need to be further subsidized or helped. You know, whether it's in getting more 62:00materials for the stages, or funding some of the bands, in terms of sponsorships, or pans, or by finding out what needs we have within the community. Maybe getting some of the pans out in certain yards, like some pans were in Medgar Evers, in their backyard, some were in another place in the street in their backyard. Maybe one of the ways things could be helped if maybe some of the schools could be made available so that the pan sides can practice there in the night because this is happening after school hours. Now traditionally some people go during the day and also practice. So maybe they can provide some buildings for mas camps and stuff like that. Maybe that's some of the ways in which they can become involved. But I would say that Mr. Lezama and 63:00his staff would be more aware of some of the real needs that exist. So I would suggest that once government was becoming involved, that they become involved by working closely with the existing association, finding out what their needs are and helping out.
ROBERTS: Different waves of Caribbean people have been migrating outward fromNew York City and settling in states like Boston, Baltimore, Miami and so forth. And as they've settled in these places, after New York City became the base for some years, they have taken the Carnival with them. Would you like to see in future, a sort of national umbrella being formed to run Carnival in all these 64:00cities where they now have small Carnivals and to help develop it?
BYRON: I would say that not necessarily a national committee to run it, becausethen some people have to have a full time job doing this. And, but I think it would be good if people would network. So that things could improve. Not only for the participants but also for the artists. There is a certain amount of networking that happens right now because the calypsonians, and the musicians and some of the DJs travel from city to city and perform at all these Carnivals. So you know that Spiro is going to be in Toronto, and then he's going to be in Miami, and then, you know, etc. So there is already a network but I think it happens mainly with the musicians. So I think that's a good idea because we can 65:00only get stronger and be more powerful. Definitely, there's strength in numbers. So I think that's a wonderful idea.
ROBERTS: Now, earlier on in this interview, you had high praise for the factthat outside of places in the Caribbean, like Trinidad, Grenada, Antigua, Barbados, and St. Vincent, and Barbados of course, which has, which has a Carnival tradition, that you've noticed the inclusion of other peoples, but would you like to go on record again, as I'm speaking on the fact, that this Carnival, the West Indian American Day Carnival, which is by and large one of the largest festivals in the United States, brings together so many types of people, not only West Indian, on one geographical location to celebrate a 66:00massive Carnival?
BYRON: Yeah, and again I say this year I was really happy to see the Koreansinvolved. Because Carnival, traditionally, is a festival, a ceremony that involves the entire village, or the entire community. So again, in the tradition of Carnival it is wonderful to see everybody within the community involved in the festival. It means that it's inclusion, not exclusion. So the Koreans, if the Jews want to bring a band in Eastern Parkway, the Italians, everybody. This is a Carnival and again, the entire community is involved. I think it would build more bridges among people because we would understand each other's culture and we definitely be sharing.
ROBERTS: And, finally, I would just like to ask you, in your own opinion, whatdo you think Carnival as a cultural, West Indian celebration, what type of 67:00statement does it make to New York City?
BYRON: I think it says, we're here; we're rich in culture and tradition; we cancelebrate and have a good time. Because realistically, for the amount of people who are out there, there is very little crime. Crime on a day-to-day basis can be enormous in New York, or in America. And when you think of the amount of people who are out there, and the amount of incidents you have on Labor Day, it's almost zero. So that's admirable. Even though I'm saying we can clean house, I'm not saying that we are criminal and totally bad. Because on that day, for the amount of people who are out there, it's a really clean festival. So I think that, in and of itself too, is a wonderful statement. We're here, 68:00thousands of us can get together and be incident free. We're here and look at our music. We're here and look at our art. A lot of people enjoy the festival. A lot of non-Caribbean people. You see them out there on the Parkway, taking pictures, asking questions, jumping in the bands and having a good time. So I really think it's a time when everybody in the community can really get together. Some people who are not actively involved, they look through their windows. So in that way, we take Carnival to them. You know, they see people in costume passing in front of their streets, in front of their houses, and that's another way of integrating the community. Because they get a sense of something that's happening that they may not necessarily go to. But just by sitting on their stoops, or looking through their windows, or standing on their porches, they get a sense of the festival, and what it entails, and they see the costumes. Everybody really has a good time. You get a chance to get some good food, and roti, and saus and drink mauby and sorrel and see people you haven't 69:00seen for a long time. It's really, really a wonderful festival and everybody looks forward to it. Everybody. Maybe, one of these days we might have two days, instead of one day.
ROBERTS: I want to thank you very much for this interview on behalf of theBrooklyn Historical Society. Thanks again.
BYRON: Okay, thank you.
Oral History Interview with Cheryl Byron
Cheryl Byron was born on the island of Trinidad. In 1974, she immigrated to New York. She received her bachelor's and master's degrees, in English, from City College, City University of New York. At the time of the interview in 1994, Byron was teaching at Medgar Evers College, Fort Greene Senior Citizens Center, and John Houseman Berean Church; all located in Brooklyn, where she had recently moved. Enrolled in a doctoral program at New York University, she was completing a dissertation with the working title, "Brooklyn Carnival: Theater and Art." A prolific painter, Cheryl Byron was the first poet to perform in the calypso tent at the West Indian American Day Carnival. An old mas enthusiast and founder of the performing arts company Something Positive, Inc., her artistic contributions continuously enriched Brooklyn's Carnival. Cheryl Byron died of cancer in 2003.
In the interview, Cheryl Byron recalls her early participation playing mas in Carnival in Trinidad and, since the 1970s, as a dancer and poet, in the Brooklyn parade. She describes developing ideas and concepts for her old mas band and what Carnival represents to her personally. Much of the interview focuses on a discussion of the intricacy and ritualism involved in preparations for the parade and the history of the satirical genre of old mas/J'ouvert. She describes some of the positive and negative aspect of the parade; including the greater ethnic inclusion and the growing participation of children, the poor organization, random violence, and the decreased presence of live music. She suggests means of improvement. Noting common misconceptions, surrounding Carnival, Byron suggests community education as a possible solution. She ends by noting the possibilities of garnering greater government support and calls for a tighter network among the diasporic Caribbean Carnivals. 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.
CitationByron, Cheryl, Oral history interview conducted by Michael Roberts, September 29, 1994, West Indian Carnival Documentation Project records, 2010.019.07; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Byron, Cheryl
- Lezama, Carlos
- New York (N.Y.). Police Department
- West Indian American Day Carnival Parade (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
- West Indian-American Day Carnival Association
- Caribbean Americans
- Ethnic identity
- Trinidadian Americans
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
- Eastern Parkway (New York, N.Y.)
- London (England)
- Toronto (Ont.)
Finding AidWest Indian Carnival Documentation Project records