Reflecting on resistance: Pre-J’ouvert event honors parade’s history of cultural activism

Histoire: Dancer Alexandra Jean-Joseph, foreground, performs Haitian rara at “The Art and History of J’Ouvert: Tradition as Resistance” outside Brooklyn Public Library’s central branch on Aug. 19.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

It was a spirited step back in time.

Several Caribbean-American groups transformed the stairs outside the Brooklyn Public Library’s central branch into a stage on Aug. 19 when they gathered to celebrate the heritage of three-decade-old J’Ouvert, a parade rooted in cultural resistance, with traditional music and dances.

“It’s a tradition and it brings people together — it is a time for us to play mas, sing, and dance,” said Menesky Magloire, who performed with the Brooklyn-based Haitian dance group, Troupe Zetwal. “And this is us resisting because it’s an act of claiming our space and an act of celebrating our culture and ourselves.”

More than 200 revelers flocked to the Prospect Heights book lender for “The Art and History of J’Ouvert: Tradition as Resistance,” which honored the history of the Labor Day procession that precedes the annual West Indian Day parade.

The event came weeks after organizers pushed the typically pre-dawn J’Ouvert, which means “daybreak,” to daylight hours this year in an attempt to mitigate deadly violence that has plagued the celebration in the past.

Magloire and members of his troupe played horns and formed a “rara” procession — a musical street march that originated in Haiti — from nearby Prospect Park to the library. The performance was in keeping with the theme of rebellion, and also shares similar history, he said.

“Rara is not only people just getting together and playing instruments. It has a history in colonialism and it’s embedded in many of our cultures,” Magloire said. “But rara is special to Haitian culture because it’s not only a celebration but also has a role in our political resistance and history in the country.”

Some participants wore costumes and body paint to portray mythical characters, while others donned satirical getups inspired by actual cultural figures, such as President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania.

The celebratory shindig offered an important look at J’Ouvert’s origins as a unifying event as proponents of the parade work to reverse the violent reputation it has gained in recent years, according to another attendee.

“I enjoyed the togetherness, especially since we’re trying to let everyone know what the history is and what the culture is really like,” said Trudy Llewellyn.

Reach reporter Alexandra Simon at (718) 260–8310 or e-mail her at asimon@cnglocal.com.

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