On this Labor Day I’m sure most of us are happy to observe a holiday that not only offers a day off, but actually celebrates economic and societal contributions of workers. This holiday is a proud moment in American history that represents the development of working class people campaigning for better treatment from their employers and the government, but, what does that have to do with Haiti?
The original Labor Day celebration began in the late 1800’s in New York, but by the 1920’s Trinidadian and other Caribbean immigrants that already had a strong carnival tradition began organizing small festivals throughout Harlem – (northern part of Manhattan NYC). In 1940 a Trinidadian visionary Jesse Waddle organized the first Caribbean-American Festival, and the rest is history. The parade began in Harlem, relocated to Brooklyn, NY and the participation only grew. The Labor Day West Indian Day Parade or Carnival is currently one of the largest cultural ceremonies in the US drawing in annual crowds upwards of 2 million and is a clear assertion of pan-Caribbean culture which of course includes Haiti.
It was on this day, over a decade ago in my native New York that I vividly remember being absolutely captivated by Haiti but besides its geography, I had no idea what Haiti entailed. As a child of Caribbean parentage I was all too familiar with the sounds of Calypso- a sound that grew out of traditional folk music in Trinidad and Tobago, Soca- the contemporary sound that sprung form Calypso, and of course Reggae- the sound of Jamaican roots, but it was the intriguing sound that I was hearing from the Haitian band that kept me hungry to find out more. I now understand the music to have been that of Rara- festival music with primarily drums, maracas and bamboo trumpets /metal pipes used for street processions, Konpa- a sweet medley of the guitar, drum, conga, cowbell, and horn and Zouk- the sound of Guadeloupe and Martinique which is a fusion of the Caribbean styles mentioned, mainly the Haitian Konpa. It immediately stole my heart. The second factor that triggered an immediate fascination with the Haitian Band was the overwhelming size and solid sea of Red, Blue, and White- the colors of the flag. In just that moment, I realized that those people were special, they demonstrated a solidarity I’ve never seen of a Caribbean island and boy did I want to find out more.
While this memory is vivid and quite amazing secretly I was completely terrified to approach Haitian/Americans. What was the language? History? Food? Culture? Proper Greeting? I didn’t have the answers. I was almost sure that I would be treated as a nosy outsider.
Let’s fast forward to today. When I finally got the nerve, ten years later to introduce myself to the Haitian community I received the warmest embraces of love, respect, and a plethora of knowledge. I now have more than the basics related to food, culture, history and of course language. I greeted them with my most sincere interests and I received everything I offered and more in return. Like many of you, the first intimidating introduction will be puckering up to say ‘bonswa’ and I’m still learning. It’s sometimes hard to look at the richness of a culture when the desperate needs of its inhabitants are being vividly displayed. Volunteering, relief or work may be the motivating factor for traveling to Haiti or learning Haitian Creole but I encourage you to look beside those factors and consider it a fortunate opportunity to be a part of or witness a vast exciting culture.
Labor Day is only one of many occasions in which displays of hundreds of thousands of Haitians will be energetically exhibiting their culture. Haiti’s actual carnival takes place in February, and there are large gatherings in between around the world from New York, Toronto, Paris and Miami. Take that plunge, mingle, attend Haitian events and push beyond the envelope of a helpful foreigner. The result is that the strangers quickly turn to friends, who before you know it turn into great colleagues and family. With their genuineness Haitians have eradicated my fear to join their community and I’m 100% sure they will do the same for you. Happy Labor Day and enjoy your holiday!
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