Gamze Kazakoglu, Contributing Photographer

On Tuesday Feb. 16, over 140 attendees virtually attended New Haven Free Public Library’s Mardi Gras celebration. The celebration was divided into a keynote presentation, musical performance and awards ceremony.

The event was co-hosted by Michael Morand, president of the NHFPL’s foundation board and Shana Schneider, president of the NHFPL’s board of directors. The event’s keynote celebrated Black poetry with speakers Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady and Reginald Dwayne Betts, while the musical performance was led by New Haven artist Thabisa Rich. Finally, in the event’s award ceremony, former president of the NHFPL Board of Directors Elsie Chapman received the library’s prestigious Noah Webster Award.

During their presentation, Derricotte and Eady recited poetry, discussed poems and shared their personal experiences with libraries. Betts led the discussion.

“The conversation by Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady and Reginald Dwayne Betts was really life-giving and full of such library love. I can think of no better way to remind us how important and essential the libraries are for us individually and for the society as a whole to thrive and survive,” Morand said.

Various New Haveners — including Mayor Justin Elicker, former Mayor Toni Harp, Yale University President Peter Salovey, NHFPL Stetson Branch Manager Diane Brown and retired educator and community leader Althea Musfrove Norcott — tuned into the event. The celebration had 23 sponsors, including Yale University, the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale New Haven Hospital, the Seedlings Foundation and various local businesses. 

According to Morand, NHFPL has been celebrating Mardi Gras since 1997. Since the library’s 110th birthday in 1997 coincided with Mardi Gras, the then-board of directors decided to host a celebration to mark the occasion.

“February tends to be quite cold in New Haven, so we thought what a great idea to use such a lively, lovely, warm holiday inspired by New Orleans,” Morand said. “The idea back then was just to have that one time. But it was such a fun time, we said let’s do this every year.”

During the event, Derricotte and Eady each shared two poems: Derricotte read “Library of My Heart” and “Watching a roach give birth on YouTube, I think of Lucille Clifton meeting God,” while Eady read “Gratitude” and “The Shelver.”

For the musical event, Rich sang a song called “Te Amo” from her upcoming album. Rich, who is originally from South Africa, is an artist, activist, singer and songwriter. 

“I wanted to give [viewers] something authentic, something that is going to be real and have that live feel. So we had to think creatively how to create a performance that feels real, fresh and live,” Rich said.

This year, the event was free to the public and streamed virtually for the first time. Lauren Bisio, the NHFPL’s director of advancement, said the library’s top floor is usually transformed into a celebration space. Typically, the Mardi Gras celebration constitutes a crucial part of NHFPL’s fundraising efforts, Schneider said.

“Because that sort of event wouldn’t translate well to a screen, what we have done is to keep the Mardi Gras spirit going,” Bisio said. “The inspiration behind bringing these poets is really celebrating the library as a focal point of connection as a community and also a source of these great programs we do for free all throughout the year.”

NHFPL staff expressed contentment with the participation they garnered, which surpassed expectations.

“All of us were blown away and delighted by the response we had last night live,” Morand said. “It was wonderful to wake up and see this morning that we had 1,200 views — more than 1,000 people have watched within 12 hours of the event,” Morand said.

The New Haven Free Public Library was founded in 1887.

Gamze Kazakoglu | gamze.kazakoglu@yale.edu