Strained with the same economic burdens as the rest of the country, the D.C. Caribbean Carnival will be a shorter affair this year. Still, that has not dampened the excitement that surrounds the annual festival.

“Be very careful with those wings,” warned Jeanette Callender, vice president of Roots and Culture, in a strong Trinidadian accent, as the delicate extensions were placed on Aja Babb’s costume. Babb, 10, looked radiant in a beautiful green, yellow and orange costume that took eight volunteers to assemble in a week’s time.

Getting dressed in a colorful costume was all part of the excitement leading up to the king and queen competitions of Dimanche (Sunday) Gras, one facet of the 19th Annual DC Caribbean Carnival. Babb, a contestant for junior queen of the festival, was surrounded by former queens and founders of the festival, who nodded their sign of approval of the costume.

This weekend, the festival will continue with the Caribbean-style Mardi Gras parade of costumed masqueraders, which will be held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on June 25. It will transform Georgia Avenue into a “Caribbean Bourbon Street” with its sights and sounds. This year’s parade begins on Kansas at Georgia Avenue N.W. and ends at Barry Place N.W. across from the Howard University campus.

“The DC Caribbean Carnival is one of the longest running and largest festivals in the city,” said Loughton Sargeant, executive director of DC Caribbean Carnival, Inc., sponsor of the event.

Established in 1993, the carnival has developed from nine bands and approximately 150,000 spectators the first year to 25 bands and well over 300,000 spectators according to estimates by the Washington Metropolitan Police.

“For 18 years, we have virtually operated the carnivals incident free,” said Barnes.
But, with its growing popularity comes a tremendous financial burden. Former mayor Marion S. Barry was so delighted to have an event of this magnitude in the District that he allowed it to run free of any expenses because it attracted tourists, filled hotels and pumped revenue in the city. But those were the good old days.

In 2010, the cost for police presence alone came to a whopping $250,000. The cost to rent the Banneker Recreation baseball field for the festival was another $20,000. Due to the exorbitant costs for the last few years, the parade shortened its route. “To help alleviate the financial burden, we collaborated with city officials for a shorter route with the understanding that next year the government would restore the event,” said Barnes.

With the parade starting further south on Georgia Avenue, however, Caribbean-owned businesses in Ward 4 will not reap the benefits of the massive crowd.

“As you know, I have always been a great supporter of the Caribbean Parade,” said Councilwoman Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4). “The administration’s decision to cut the parade short is a slap in the face to the District of Columbia’s Caribbean community.”

Jennifer Selmon, owner of Crown Bakery, a Trinidadian eatery located in the 5400 block of Georgia Ave., said it will lose lots of revenue. “Usually, people waiting for the parade congregate for hours along the route. While waiting and during the parade, we’ve been blessed in the past to sell our products. We’ve spent money already on the inventory. Rerouting the parade will have a tremendous effect on our business,” said Selmon.

Sargeant said the future of the D.C.’s carnival lies in the hands of its political leaders. “We embrace the opportunity to keep the program going here in D.C. However, if the financial challenges persist, we may have to relocate to another city,” he said.

Mervyn Sampson, a native of Trinidad, moved to the District three years ago from North Carolina. “I hope carnival stays in the District. It gives people from the Caribbean an opportunity to celebrate their significance and culture where they live,” said Sampson.

In 2006, President George W. Bush declared June National Caribbean American Heritage Month.

 

Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO