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Oral histories of the West Indian Carnival Documentation Project records now open to researchers!

By Brett Dion

Posted on January 3, 2017

Brooklyn Historical Society launched The West Indian Carnival Documentation Project in 1994 to supplement existing photographs and histories of the event with personal narratives and life histories of Carnival participants. In cooperation with the West Indian American Day Carnival Association and the Brooklyn Museum, the project attempted to document different viewpoints from within the Carnival organization and the diverse participants. Since their creation in 1994 and 1995, recordings had not been fully processed and have been inaccessible to researchers, that is… until now!

The oral histories, photographs, and resources that make up this collection were compiled by a team including two community researchers, photographers from local Caribbean publications, graduate student assistants, scholarly advisors, and a community advisory committee primarily made up of WIADCA members. Staff for this project included Dwandalyn Reece King (Chief Curator), Michael Roberts (Interviewer), Joyce Quamina (Research Assistant), Megan McShea (Project Assistant), Maureen Mahon (Project Fieldworker) and Kristen Elmquist (Project Fieldworker).

Carnival participant
Carnival participantA Carnival participant on Eastern Parkway in 1994.
Photographer: Dwan Reece King.

Access to Brooklyn Historical Society’s oral history collections is now made possible through a generous grant by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for Voices of Generations: Investigating Brooklyn’s Cultural Identity, a project to digitize, process, catalog, and make accessible nearly 500 interviews from BHS’s earliest oral history collections that document the histories of Brooklyn’s diverse ethnic and cultural communities. With a goal of improved accessibility via thorough description, Oral History Project Archivist Brett Dion assists and supervises an intern team processing the collections, with project management by Oral Historian Zaheer Ali and Managing Director of the Library and Archives Julie I. May.

While New York City’s Carnival events take place along Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn and center around the Labor Day weekend every year, other Carnivals in cities and countries around the globe have staked out their own special dates on the calendar. Among a few having celebrations that coincide with Christmas and New Year’s Day are the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean.

One narrator in this series of oral histories was interviewed mainly because of her experiences as a vendor at Brooklyn’s Carnival. However, Jay Thompson also grew up in St. Kitts and, as an adult, worked in government there for a few years. A Bronx resident at the time of the interview, Thompson told interviewer Maureen Mahon about Carnival as it unfurls in St. Kitts each holiday season.

The Last Lap event that Thompson references stretches this season’s celebration to January 3, 2017. So if duration is any indicator, they might be having one of the best festive seasons in the new year. As I am back to work today, I’m just a little envious.

Many other interviews in the collection feature a narrator discussing the parallels and differences between Carnivals around the globe; like Thompson, some have the experiences of dual Carnivals between that of Brooklyn and the one of their birthplace. Others are Carnival tourists or professionals, who can reel off several locales where they participate year-in and year out. From thirty-four archived interviews in the West Indian Documentation Project records, twenty-eight—including Thompson’s—will be available to researchers through an online Oral History Portal. Three others can be heard onsite at the Othmer Library. A remaining three are restricted by the donor.

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