Blacks on Staten Island Celebrate Their Roots

A woman near the stage gyrates her hips, punching both fists forward alternately to the beat with three children watching and copying. The Jam Syndicate band and Billy Grant, its lead vocalist, have just started their two-hour performance of funk and rhythm and blues songs.

“Shake what yo’ mama gave ya,” Grant raps, as the woman puts both hands down on a wheelchair in front of her, arches her lower back and wiggles her buttocks. The older woman in the wheelchair sips a Pepsi, rocking her upper body back and forth.

Over 1,000 people, according to organizers and vendors, gathered on Saturday to celebrate the annual Staten Island Black Heritage Family Day. It started at the corner of Richmond Road and Vanderbilt Avenue with a parade through Stapleton’s streets.

According to museum records, the first community of freed black slaves in North America was formed in the 19th century in Sandy Ground, near the borough’s South Shore.

Saturday, as the day draws to a close, the boom of a drumbeat and accompanying instruments — keyboard, bass guitar and electronic guitar — are audible from the outdoor staircase of Stapleton’s subway stop. One block away in Tappen Park, three officers stand chatting at its entrance next to a tree with the sign “No Parking Saturday.” Two of them face each other, one glancing occasionally into the park.

Most of the crowd has gone home. Several dozen empty pizza boxes litter the foot of the bin next to the entrance, forming a three-foot-high pile. Next to it, empty Dunkin’ Donuts boxes, Subway plastic bags and several plastic foam platters have been stuffed into clear rubbish bags.

Seven boys stand in a circle with an eighth in the middle. An older man wearing a football jersey and a face cap worn the other way watches them. The children take turns bouncing a basketball before passing it to someone else. But one child throws too hard, hurling it away from the circle. He springs in its direction, over a park bench and into the grass patch near the bin, where the ball is rolling to a stop. He catches it and sprints further away from his peers, sending one of them running after him halfway across the park towards the stage, before relinquishing it so the game can continue.

Some of the necklaces and DVDs that Jackson sold to festival goers at the heritage day. (Photo: Akinoluwa Oyedele/NY City Lens)

Some of the necklaces and DVDs that Jackson sold to festival goers at the heritage day. (Photo: Akinoluwa Oyedele/NY City Lens)

Around the park’s center, Hector Jackson, 42, folds shirts and places them inside a traveling bag next to his tent, one of a few that were part of the festivities. A picture of Bob Marley’s face overlaid with green, yellow and red spray paint is printed on a shirt he lays on one of the neat piles in the bag. As he stoops and stands while packing, he is careful not to hit the dangling necklaces above. They all have pendants with an array of prints including Marley’s face, the Jamaican flag and a marijuana leaf. Less than one foot away, DVDs are arrayed in rows on a table, with titles including Third World Cop, a 1999 hit Jamaican action-crime film, and Dancehall Porn.

About eight feet from Jackson, Nubin Braithwaite, 55, folds flags horizontally before tucking them into clear plastic wrappers. The flags belong to several countries in the Caribbean where Braithwaite’s family has roots. She dons an orange scarf with brown embroidery, a matching skirt and earrings made of red, yellow and green beads. On both wrists, three bands bear the same colors.

Two policemen approach Braithwaite, and she speaks to them briefly before they leave.

“They asked me to back down,” she said. “They saw me talking to you and they did not think I was backing down.”

By 6:50 p.m., the sun is setting quickly, its light gradually being replaced by tungsten lamps around the park. Near the stage, the soundman wraps cables around his elbow as the few remaining audience members chant “one more song.”

By nightfall, there is no boom of the drum kick or accompanying rhythm section. Organizing committee members hug each other and make arrangements for getting home.

One of them is Jennifer Watkins, who sits on a bench, saying goodbye to her friends as they saunter out of the park. The $35,000 they needed to put the event together was not easy to raise, she said.

“Have we paid the DJ already?” another member of the committee wearing their red branded t-shirt asks. “Is everybody paid?”

“Everybody’s paid, God is good.”

As early as next month, they will hold a dinner to start the fundraising for next year’s event.