Dancing around the Maypole

1st Impressions

The scarlet maple-keys betray,
What potent blood hath modest May;
What fiery force the earth renews,
The wealth of forms, the flush of hues…

—from “May-Day,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1867

For some, May Day is a time of spring festivals, a tradition which dates back four or five centuries through various names and cultures. In many places, Queens of the May are crowned. Flowers are sniffed. Sunscreen is applied.

Other folks acknowledge today as International Workers’ Day, a much more recent observance that grew out of a widespread labor strike in 1886, which led to the eight-hour workday.

For still others, it’s been a more general time to gather in pursuit of peace, social justice and civil rights.

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May Day resonates with issues of uniting people. In Europe, May 1 is the anniversary of the Act of Union, which joined the kingdoms of Scotland and England to form the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707.

May Day on New Haven Green became one of the cultural touchstones of social unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was emblematic of both the demonstrations and political actions which had consumed college campuses in the late 1960s and the emergence of groups such as the Black Panthers. The May Day protests of 1970 stemmed from a murder trial being held in New Haven concerning the death of Black Panther member Alex Rackley.

As related in Michael Sletcher’s book New Haven: From Puritanism to the Age of Terrorism:

Bobby Seale, one of the co-founders of the national Black Panther Party, arrived in New Haven for a speaking engagement at Yale University. The police, suspecting his involvement, had him and eight other party members charged with the murder of Rackley. Many young New Haveners, including Yale students, thought that Bobby Seale and other party members would not receive a fair trial in New Haven. Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr. expressed “skepticism” that black radicals could receive a fair trial anywhere in the United States, prompting U.S. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew to demand his ouster from office. Tensions grew to a boiling point on the eve of the 1970 May Day weekend demonstration. Connecticut Governor John N. Dempsey called in the National Guard. … The New York Times reported on May 1 that “weekend violence in this tense city could not be contained by National Guard units and state and local police.” Mayor Bartholomew F. Guida, having succeeded Lee, remembered the city riots of 1967 and noted, “The eyes of the nation will be on New Haven this weekend.”

The nation seemed to agree that the weekend could have gone a lot worse, and that the demonstrations (which brought well over 12,000 people to the Green) were relatively peaceful. May Day 1970 remains one of the most remembered and talked about days in modern New Haven history. Whole books have been written about this period (notably Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale and the Redemption of a Killer by New Haven Independent founder Paul Bass and Yale professor Douglas W. Rae), and an early edition of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas devoted a series of discussions and programs to it.

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It’s to the city’s credit that people still come to New Haven Green not just to celebrate but to agitate. Tonight on the Green there are two hours of events centered around immigrants’ rights, with live music at 5 p.m., several guest speakers at 5:45 p.m. and a march around downtown at 6:30 p.m. It’s one of many immigration-themed marches which have been staged on or around the Green in recent years, in a city whose progressive policies have included a special ID card for city residents which are issued regardless of whether the holder is a documented U.S. citizen.

So May Day in New Haven is a time to share concerns not just about when spring will finally feel like spring but about where the world is heading in general. The best New Haven May Days combine community and debate.

For close to three decades, a dedicated band of peace-lovers, music-lovers and outdoor-lovers have staged a May Day festival in which fanciful activities like teaching circus routines to children and adding doodles to a graffiti wall have shared the Green with information booths from a wide range of local organizations, guest speakers and activists, and actual soap boxes from which to freely espouse your own views.

This year, May Day itself is taken up with the immigration rally while the annual May Day festival will occur on May 4 from noon to 4:30 p.m. Saturday’s festivities, which include hours of live music and the perennial dance around the Maypole (as pictured first above), occur at the same time as a family-friendly concert happening inside United Church on the Green and benefitting United Community Nursery School, evoking the youthfulness and open exchange of ideas that have marked the greatest May Days ever.

But say you’re used to associating the actual day of May 1 with music and dancing, and need to feel the spirit of Terpsichore in the air.

Well, you’re covered, especially if you’re an early bird. Another great international, and local, May Day tradition concerns Morris Dancers. These are the kicky, frisky, distinctively dressed dancers who greet the spring by frolicking on lawns at dawn on May 1. They also dance at other times of year, naturally, but this is their moment to shine. In New Haven, the New Haven Morris & Sword troupe, which has been around for over 35 years, kicks up its collective heels at daybreak in New Haven’s Edgerton Park. (There’s an entrance at the corner of Whitney Avenue and Cliff Street, but the group warns that if that one is closed, “try the gate on Edgehill Road opposite Edgehill Terrace.”) A New Haven Morris & Sword spokesman says “we will be dancing at dawn—5:40 a.m., roughly—for about 45 minutes.”

“If I can’t dance,” goes the phrase attributed to political firebrand Emma Goldman, “I don’t want to be in your revolution.” New Haven lets you do both.

May Day 2013
The New Haven Green (map)
Tonight: May Day Action, 5-7pm. Saturday: May Day World Concert for Peace, 12-4:30pm.

Written by Christopher Arnott. Photo #1 by Christopher Arnott; photo #2 by Carmen Vincent.

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