Carnival, Crop Over and the West Indian Day Parades of the Caribbean Diaspora have always been sites of release and exuberance. This year, with so many celebrations cancelled or delayed and so many unable to travel and join in, Caribbean and Caribbean American writers reflect on the many meanings and experiences of Carnival.
Carnival. In Trinidad, the celebration is usually held in February, on the days before Ash Wednesday. Three of my siblings and our father were born in November. Count the months. It’s probably all you need to know about my homeland’s two-day festival.
I say two-day, but Carnival in Trinidad begins soon after the presents are put away on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. Then come the competitions—for the best costume, the best themed carnival band, the best calypso, and the best road march that will pulsate through the airwaves and then the streets on Carnival Monday and Tuesday.
When I was a teenager, I was not allowed to jump up into the Carnival bands. First, because I was female (oh, how much has changed!), and then, because I was female, I had to help my mother take care of my younger siblings. Not so for my brothers. Not so for my father. They were free to jump up in the streets from J’Ouvert (pronounced “Jou-vay”) to the close of Carnival the following night.
Some definitions: Jump up is a form of dancing, feet skating against the asphalt, hands flung wildly in the air, and at points, when the music crescendos, bodies literally jumping off the ground. Total exhilaration, out-of-body excitement, hearts pounding, temples throbbing. J’Ouvert, from the French jour and ouvert, signals the opening of the first day of Carnival, before the cocks crow, before the first glimmers of light cross the pre-dawn sky.
Where else does one see men and women…taking such joy in the shapes of their bodies?
J’Ouvert gives permission for satire unfettered by any restraints, political, personal, or religious. People of all skin colors and ethnicities, and from all social classes, disguise themselves in homemade costumes that are either critical of some aspect of the society they wouldn’t dare criticize openly or that reveal (my theory, anyhow) suppressed identities. How else to explain young men who feel persecuted by the law dressed as lewd police officers, hats askew, uniforms spattered with dirt, bellies popping out of tight uniforms? How else to explain grown men, many belonging to the upper middle class—doctors, lawyers, engineers—camouflaged as babies, diapers smeared with yellow mustard, bibs around their necks, bottles dripping with milk, the rubber nipples thrust into their mouths?
A few years ago, one of my colleagues, Jennifer Sparrow, a pretty blonde-haired white woman, joined me on a trip to Trinidad during Carnival. With memories of the riotous ribaldry of J’Ouvert, I turned down my brother’s offer to jump up with him on J’Ouvert morning. Jennifer, however, was game. She returned at noon, her body covered in white powder, mud splashed over her clothes and shoes, her hair tangled up with pieces of string and beads, but her eyes glistening with joy and the widest smile on her lips. “I don’t know who I jumped up with,” she said, “but I had the greatest time of my life.”
As a girl, I would have to wait until the sun was beginning to descend on the last day of Carnival before I could have the greatest time of my life. The bands came out after J’Ouvert, their costumes dazzling, but none as dazzling as the ones worn the next day. Each band told a story, the costumers separated in sections representing scenes often from great works of history or literature. I remember seeing Peter Minshall’s take on Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic poem. The band, composed of thousands of costumers, was divided into four sections. First came Pandemonium, or Hell, the costumers in fiery red, black, and gold costumes; then the Garden of Eden, masqueraders in green and silver, and carrying palm leaves; then Paradise, angels in white with silvery wings; and finally, Adam in the Garden of Eden, the king of the band in glittering gold holding a red apple in one hand and a serpent in the other. Such were the bands I knew; though, because of my parents’ strictures, I would see them not from the sidewalks, but from the top floor of my father’s office building. However, when night began to fall, my father, a lover of classical music, would return for my mother and his girl children dripping with sweat from jumping up all day. He’d put his arms around my mother, he would hug his daughters, and we would forgive him, for he would take us out on the streets for a “last lap,” a jump up in the gloaming of the descending sun. It was then that I had the greatest time of my life.
Carnival is just as thrilling today, but there are differences. Fewer people wear costumes on J’Ouvert, which has become an extension of the Sunday night fetes that continue through Carnival Monday. The big day is now Carnival Tuesday, when bands, many of them thousands strong, in spectacular costumes representing historical and contemporary events, as well as literary works, parade through the streets and on the stage. It may shock some sensibilities to see women dressed in costumes that are hardly more than string bikinis and men baring their chests and leaving their torsos scantily covered, but shock soon gives way to admiration. For where else does one see men and women, particularly women, taking such joy in the shapes of their bodies? Such exquisite freedom! Big bellies, flat bellies, spreading behinds, narrow behinds—there is no body-shaming, just pure exhilaration jumping up in the Carnival bands.
Carnival. Go. You’ll have the greatest time of your life.