Lesson of the Day: ‘Feathers and Female Power: The Costumes of Carnival’

Nicole Daniels (The New York Times) writes, “In this lesson, students will learn about the history and role of costumes in Caribbean Carnival. Then, we invite them to respond artistically to the themes of transformation, history, ancestry and joy.” For full article, additional links, and photos, see (The New York Times). [I loved this article, and I thank Peter Jordens for reminding me to post it!]

Lesson Overview

Featured Article: “Feathers and Female Power: The Costumes of Carnival.” Text by Ashley Southall with photographs and videos by Djeneba Aduayom

Carnival in Winter” explores Caribbean Carnival celebrations around the world, their history and what it means that Carnival is canceled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The New York Times describes this multimedia experience as a “party” that honors Carnival as a “full-tilt joy fest of renewal, resistance and remembering for Caribbean immigrants.”

In this lesson, you will read one of the articles from the “Carnival in Winter” series about the role and symbolism of women’s costumes in the masquerade that takes place at Caribbean Carnivals. Then we invite you to respond artistically to what you read, either by visualizing the article’s themes or by creating your own costume to celebrate transformation, history, ancestry and joy.

Warm Up

Depending on your familiarity with Carnival, you might do one or both parts of this warm up: If you don’t know much about Carnival, start with Part 1; if you’re already familiar, skip to Part 2.

Part 1: What do you know about Carnival?

Carnival celebrations typically occur in Christian religions right before the season of Lent, a time of solemn religious observance that occurs between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Rio de Janeiro has a famed Carnival celebration, Mardi Gras is celebrated in New Orleans, and in Venice, people celebrate on land and in the Cannaregio Canal.

To get a sense of what a Carnival celebration is like, spend a few minutes exploring the following resources:

Then, respond to the following questions: What are some of the main features of a Carnival celebration? What sights, sounds, smells and tastes might you experience if you were there? How would you describe the atmosphere?

Part 2: The history and meaning of Caribbean Carnival

In the featured article, you’ll be learning about Caribbean Carnival, celebrations around the world that are specific to the experience of Caribbean immigrants.

Read these two paragraphs from the article “The Fun Police: Law Enforcement Comes to Carnival” by Mychal Denzel Smith that describe the history of Caribbean Carnival:

In the late 1700s, French colonists in Trinidad began hosting masquerade balls that the enslaved Black Caribbean population was banned from attending. Undeterred, the enslaved peoples hosted their own festivals, often as a way of mocking their enslavers. Upon emancipation in 1838, Black Caribbean peoples participated in the Carnival celebration, bringing in their own customs and cultural traditions.

The event spread to other parts of the globe as Caribbean-born people migrated. Similar celebrations made their way to New York City in the 1940s — first concentrated in Harlem, then moving to Brooklyn in the 1960s — to London (the Notting Hill Carnival) and to Toronto (Caribana, launched in 1967). All of these festivals were outgrowths of the Carnival celebrations already flourishing in Trinidad, Antigua, Barbados and the Dominican Republic.

This year, Caribbean Carnival celebrations around the world have been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Read these reflections from loyal enthusiasts on what they missed most:

It’s obviously the people, you can’t replicate that. It’s a meeting place, people catch up if they haven’t seen each other sometimes for years. You’ll always bump into old school friends or work mates, family. I miss out not seeing people, and catching up and giving each other a hug and a high five and dancing in the street. Putting smiles on people’s faces, that’s what I miss. — Keith Franklin, 60, D.J., London

There’s so many intersections of us. We’re not just Caribbean. We’re not just Canadian. We’re not just Black. We’re also gay, trans, bi, pan, all of these different things. I feel like there also could be a lot of stigma toward those things in our community, and there aren’t a lot of places that we can just free up ourselves and be who we are without judgment or without physical harm taken toward us. It’s really nice to be able to create that space for everybody to love on ourselves. — Rebecca Tessier, event curator, Toronto

Carnival to me is so important, it means that we are able to continue to celebrate the plight and sacrifices and the achievements of our ancestors. It all started in the Caribbean with the emancipation of slavery. And it has now evolved and developed in many different ways, and I think it’s very, very important for us to acknowledge that and to uphold the legacy, because it paves the way for our development, our future. — Allyson Williams, 73, co-founder of the band Genesis and board member of Notting Hill Carnival, London

Now, discuss with your classmates or reflect on your own in writing: What is the significance of Caribbean Carnival? What does it mean to the people who celebrate it? Why might missing the festival be especially painful this year?

Questions for Writing and Discussion

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. How has the masquerade, or “mas,” that takes place at Caribbean Carnivals evolved over time?

2. Frances Henry, an anthropologist, says of Carnival, “It’s a celebration of women’s glory in themselves.” How does the article support her statement?

3. How does Ashley Southall, the writer, connect her identity and experiences to the story in the article? How does her voice, and her use of the first-person perspective, shape your understanding of the themes in the article?

4. Based on the article, what do you understand about how the costumes are created? What kinds of decisions do costume designers make about how to represent history or identity in their designs?

5. What is the history of mas in Trinidad? How does it connect to histories of colonialism, racism and the legacy of slavery?

6. Which costume from the article stands out to you most? What are the layers of meaning and symbolism that the designer has embedded into the costume? What else do you notice about the costume?

7. Ms. Southall uses vivid language and descriptions to bring to life the costumes featured in the article. Choose one of the photographs and write your own description of the costume it depicts, with her writing style as inspiration.

Going Further

Option 1: Respond to the article artistically.

The featured article focuses on Caribbean history, joy and resistance. As you think about the themes, images and meanings in the article, respond visually:

  • Choose two colors that represent the emotional texture of the article.
  • Choose a symbol that best represents a central idea of the article.
  • Choose one image from the article, or an image of your creation, that represents a theme from the article.
  • Choose one quote from the article that was particularly powerful or moving to you.

Then, bring your colors, symbol, image and quote together to create a visual representation of the article’s themes. Write an artist’s statement that explains your piece.

Option 2: Design a costume.

Do you enjoy wearing costumes? Have you ever dressed up for live action role-playing gamescosplayliving history or theater? Are costumes part of any holidays or religious traditions you observe, such as Purim, Halloween, Pride or Día de los Muertos? [. . .]

For full lesson, see https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/22/learning/lesson-of-the-day-feathers-and-female-power-the-costumes-of-carnival.html

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