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Op-Ed: The West Indian Day Parade Showcases the Beauty of the Black Immigrant Experience

The West Indian Day Parade is perhaps one of the best examples of the vibrancy and culture that Black immigrants bring to New York City. By New York City Council Majority Leader Laurie A.
Photo: Gregory L. Ingram for BK Reader

The West Indian Day Parade is perhaps one of the best examples of the vibrancy and culture that Black immigrants bring to New York City.

By New York City Council Majority Leader Laurie A. Cumbo and New York State Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte

The West Indian Day Parade is perhaps one of the best examples of the vibrancy and culture that Black immigrants bring to New York City. The West Indian Day Parade's roots go back to the 1940s when the Trinidadian-born, Ms. Jesse Wardell, successfully filed for the first permit in Harlem. Under the leadership of the West Indian Day Carnival Association (WIADCA), the parade has become a cultural institution celebrating New York City and State's greatest strength: our diversity.

The event attracts more than a million spectators and marchers every year and showcases a beautiful panorama of cultures. The fact that people travel from near and far, from all walks of life and geographical locations is an indication that the culture of the Caribbean and West Indies is appreciated by all.

West Indian Day Parade, Brooklyn, Labor Day Parade, 2017, 50th Anniversary, Caribbean culture, Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights, BK Reader, Dante Bowen

This year we mourned the loss of William "Bill" Howard, the President of WIADCA, who was a Southern Black-American from North Carolina and played an integral part in the organization's success. Mr. Howard's legacy goes beyond WIADCA; as a young man, he helped the legendary Shirley Chisholm make history and become the first African-American and Barbadian-American woman elected to the US Congress. His lifelong commitment to progress is one we should remember as we march this year.

"As of 2016, there were 4.2 million foreign-born Black individuals in this country. Of that number, nearly a quarter reside here in New York State"

Replacing Mr. Howard will be difficult as he left a monumental legacy. Nonetheless, WIADCA and the wider community will honor him best by building upon what he built and strengthening the cultural institution that is WIADCA.

As we prepare to celebrate the West Indian Day Parade, we should also take a moment to examine the Black immigrant experience which often goes unnoticed especially during the national debate for Immigration Reform. As of 2016, there were 4.2 million foreign-born Black individuals in this country. Of that number, nearly a quarter reside here in New York State. A 2018 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that Jamaica, Haiti and Nigeria are the top birthplaces for Black immigrants.

These individuals come from both African nations as well as the Caribbean and bring with them rich cultures, histories and knowledge, which adds to the vitality and strength of our city and state.

The people who make up this diverse immigrant group work in all types of industries and make up a unique portion of New York City and New York State's economy. Many of the people hailing from African countries, for example, make up a large chunk of our healthcare industry. Additionally, African immigrants often possess higher levels of education than their American-born peers.

One need only walk around Crown Heights or down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to recognize the tangible contributions people from African and Caribbean countries have made to our terrific city. The recently co-named Jean-Jacques Dessalines Boulevard, commemorating the Haitian slave liberator freeing the first Black Republic in 1804, provides an object lesson in both the rising political power of Black immigrant groups in this city and the tangible impact they are having on their communities.

Photo credit: Office of Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte

The boulevard stretches along 30 city blocks in central Brooklyn. While it eventually passed the New York City Council, it required the concerted effort of both of our offices and several other allies in the council including the sponsor of the co-naming proposal, Grenadian-American Councilmember Jumaane D. Williams. Jean-Jacques Dessalines Boulevard will be seen by countless individuals making their way through Brooklyn and will serve as a testament to the influence of Haitian-Americans in New York City and the United States.

Not too far away from Jean-Jacques Dessalines Boulevard, sits the legendary Trinidadian Allan's Bakery, a local institution famous for their delicious patties and baked goods. This understated eatery can draw such large crowds that a line will form down the block. Meanwhile, in the Bronx, a quickly growing African community has given birth to dozens of new restaurants, clubs, bars and a nascent Little Ghana. Among these new cultural institutions, is Tina African Restaurant which serves up delicious Yoruba cuisine prepared by the chef and owner Tina Amalime. The restaurant garnered a New York Times critic's pick and is viewed as one of the Bronx's hidden gems. Given that Africans are beginning to make up the largest portion of Black immigrants, there is every reason to believe that their cultural footprint will only become larger.

As with any foreign-born group, Black migrants face xenophobia and resentment. According to a 2014 report, Black immigrants are far more likely to be detained for criminal convictions than any other immigrant group, resulting in higher rates of deportation.

These circumstances would be difficult under normal conditions. Given that the federal government is run by a president who actively promotes an anti-immigrant agenda, the situation could quickly worsen.

Indeed, for some Black immigrants, their status in this country is already quite dire. President Donald Trump's cruel decision to end the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program left thousands of Haitians in this state in complete legal limbo.

Additionally, the decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has also impacted this group. Jamaica, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago and the Dominican Republic are among the top 25 countries of origin for DACA applications. According to the report by BAJI, DACA applicants from predominantly black countries were less likely to be accepted into the program than immigrants from other nations.

Both of our constituents, many of whom are Black immigrants or the children of Black immigrants, are facing a genuine housing crisis. More must and will be done, to ensure that these constituents are not swept away by the wave of gentrification crashing over Central Brooklyn. Many of these individuals have lived in their neighborhoods since the 1970s, and are a major reason why the community has the flavor and vitality it does.

Recently, we worked with Council Member Jumaane Williams and Council Speaker Corey Johnson to create a Little Haiti Cultural and Business District, which cuts across both the New York State 42nd Assembly District and the 35th City Council District in addition to many other districts. Little Haiti BK, as it is affectionately known, aims to celebrate and recognize the contributions of Haitians to this city, state and country. Haitians make up so much of the fabric of Brooklyn's history, culture and civic life.

We, your elected representatives, remain committed to advancing policies and methods to protect all immigrants and to strengthening the gorgeous mosaic that is New York both in City Hall and in Albany.

Laurie A. Cumbo is the Majority Leader on the New York City Council; Rodneyse Bichotte serves as the Assemblymember for the 42nd New York State Assembly District