Caribbean carnival is paradox. It is terrestrial representation of a diasporic marine people. It is temporary migration on flightless wings. It embraces religion with one arm and pushes it away with the other. Its analogue is scattered throughout the Caribbean and the Americas and may be laterally inverted, pulled, pushed, and stretched but is never a doppelgänger. It is repetition with a difference. It is evolution and devolution. It features masqueraders draped in fabric in one band and stripped bare in another. It is Caribbean koan: that which glitters but cannot be hoarded. It is exhaustive and consumable but perpetually renewable. It is poetry told slant, but the more that one tries to distil words to tell its story, the more it dances free.
Carnival is language. It is polyglot. It disavows simple subject-predicate formulation. It is nation language. It is facety, fatigue, backchat, the dozens, and ol talk. It is samizdat. It is a grammatically correct run-on sentence. Fiction writers bend backward to refine its narrative, but the outcomes, read against each other, seldom harmonize. While René Depestre’s Hadriana dans tous mes rêves disavows death, Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, the Timeless People reluctantly embraces it. In Wilson Harris’s eponymous novel, carnival features literal and metaphorical inversion. Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance walks a tightrope between sincerity and farce and looks back while it attempts to understand its presentist black power moment. Nalo Hopkinson’s Afrofuturist Midnight Robber squints into the future and determines that for every yard chipped forward its performers wine back a mile.
Carnival is music. It is steel pan. It is a plaintive cry that underscores that Caribbean truism: if you don’t laugh you will cry. It is wary of colonialism because it knows colonialism’s ancestor. It is robber talk set to rhythm. It is extempo. It is picong and social commentary. It is calypso, ringbang, konpa, soca, kaiso, and zouk. It is commanding. It tells you to raise your hand, wine down low, lift up a leg, and back back. It is a musical gyroscope and can carry a band just with plastic whistles and forward momentum.
Carnival is resistance, and at its beating heart is sedition. But not disorganized sedition since this is destruction. Carnival is contradiction: it is compartmentalized chaos that welcomes fellowship. Carnival is sublime: it can be a solid, liquid, or a gas. Bureaucrats demand that it takes place on specific dates, at specific times, on specific streets, and on specific stages, but it almost always spills beyond its borders and wriggles free from all retainers. It embodies play’s cheek and mischief and disavows both work and labor. It is a mise-en-abyme that forever reflects and replicates. It is sweetness that adores sugar but loathes sugar cane.
Carnival is performance throughout the Caribbean archipelago and up into North America. It is the global south and the circum-Caribbean. It desires to be both centripetal and centrifugal. It serves at tourism’s pleasure and welcomes outsiders without fully embracing them. It allows participation but disdains explanation. It is Kadooment Day during Crop Over, carnival in Jacmel, Junkanoo in Nassau, J’ouvert in Port of Spain, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It is an easily grafted rhizome that tolerates colder climes. Carnival is a transplanted organ that never rejects its host. It thrives in London, Miami, New York, and Toronto.
Carnival is myth. It is a crick-crack story. It is Barbados’s donkeyman, Trinidad and Tobago’s Burrokeets, and Jamaica’s rolling calf. Moko jumbies and stilt walkers are the phantom’s cousins. Blue devils are jumbies and duppies come to life. It is misdirection with the bride dressed in a morning suit and the groom outfitted in a bridal gown. It is a geriatric swaddled in a baby’s diapers. Carnival is apocryphal. Black Indians have either made their way up from Trinidad and Tobago to New Orleans or vice versa and taken pit stops along the way. And both have descended from American Western films.
But carnival is, finally, disrupted physiology. It is a tortured body, and if torture’s etymology derives from “torqueo,” meaning to twist, then jumping up, wining down, and rolling back all work to remember the enslaved body’s past form without seeking to reform it identically. Carnival always seeks to move forward. It is the comedy mask at dawn in needles of sunlight, but it is the tearful tragedy mask at dusk. Its season is never long enough, but is always in plain view. It is always on the horizon but forever resides in the past.
The curated sites work to address various carnival locations throughout the Caribbean as well as focus on vital elements to the art form: performance, music, literature, and documentation. All of the sites relate, in some way, to carnival as a mode of resistance. They reach north into New Orleans and South into Guyana. They investigate music’s role as a co-conspirator in carnival’s vision and literature as its valet. The sites variously discuss the vital idea of the diasporic Caribbean, its existence as a mode of Caribbean creativity, and its significance in Caribbean studies.
Curatorial Note: Gordon Rohlehr is the dean of calypso history. In this essay, which excerpts parts of interviews with Rohlehr in which he discusses how he began work on the annotation of calypso music at a meeting of Caribbean Artists Movement in London in 1967 attended by Kamau Brathwaite, Orlando Patterson, George Lamming, and Aubrey Williams, Rohlehr notes the way to examine the Caribbean aesthetic was to examine Caribbean creations through a close dialogue with the material including “Walcott’s poetry, Sparrow’s calypsos, and Selvon’s novels.” There is no carnival without music, and Rohlehr proves that a taxonomy of the form is just as important to Caribbean studies.
Curatorial Note: Sonia Boyce provides a diasporic descendant’s view of the stilt walker, also known as a moko jumbie, an archetypal Barbadian carnival figure. In her film “Crop Over,” Boyce transports the stilt walker from Barbados to an estate in Leeds in the UK, an estate whose wealth derived from slavery and sugar production in Barbados. Using a split screen, Boyce plays with the documentary form without providing much context, showing the stilt walker in bright carnival costume tentatively walking around the estate that his ancestral labor provided. The juxtaposition of the stilt walker’s movement against a petrified backdrop that seems frozen in time, underscores carnival’s vitality and its distrust of what led to its creation. Important here is both a focus on performance, and how it overlaps with Caribbean studies.
Curatorial Note: In the interest of representing carnival experiences throughout the circum-Caribbean, this selection centers upon New Orleans, the most northern of Caribbean cities. In the video, Gizmo, a Black Indian, describes the character’s history. He talks about the Black Indians as a way to rebel against what Mardi Gras has historically been—not just a celebration, but a celebration that ostracized native Blacks. He also focuses on the production of his costume and the intricate beadwork that goes into the design. “If you don’t sew your own suit,” Gizmo notes, “you’re not really an Indian.” His broader argument is that the performance resides not just in donning the costume, but in participating in its production. The Black Indians’ connection to Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival Indians remains tantalizingly murky, and this Caribbean Beat article briefly touches upon the connection while further unpacking the history of the Black Indians.
Curatorial Note: Kaiama L. Glover’s vital translation of Hadriana dans tous mes rêves/Hadriana in All My Dreams makes René Depestre’s critical text available to English speaking readers. Depestre’s novel is carnival in print—it undermines easy associations with vodoun and zombies, and it revels in the darker side of the festival. In this brief essay, Glover underscores both the importance of translation to Caribbean studies and also the gravity of often marginalized Francophone literature. The book club discussions that took place virtually from October 2019 to February 2020 expand the interpretation of Depestre’s important work and the video linked here centers the “carnivalesque” qualities of the novel.
Title: “‘Carnival’ and Creativity in Wilson Harris’s Fiction”
Author: Hena Maes-Jelinek
Steward: The Literate Imagination: Essays on the Novels of Wilson Harris
Curatorial Note: In this academic essay, Hena Maes-Jelinek admirably unpacks one of Harris’s more challenging texts. She notes his use of carnival as a metaphor of creativity, and how Harris returns to this theme time and again in his work. Carnival is also history in Harris’s work, and Maes-Jelinek patiently annotates how Harris searches beyond carnival’s easy meaning to its deeper significance. Carnival in Harris’s writing is meditation, it is self-reflexive, and it does all of it while wearing a mask. This Facebook video deftly shows how Harris’s characters in a second text, Palace of the Peacock, was interpreted for a 2019 carnival presentation displaying carnival’s ability to participate, and sync, among various media.
Title: “Notting Hill Carnival: Mas and the Mother Country”
Author: Ray Funk
Steward: Caribbean Beat
Curatorial Note: The most recent adaptations of Caribbean carnivals are the diasporic versions found in émigré Caribbean locales. These festivals raise titillating questions of whether the Caribbean exists where Caribbean people and their customs are, or do borders and geography ultimately determine a Caribbean space? London’s Notting Hill Carnival derived from the Windrush generation of post-WWII Caribbean migrants to the UK and specifically from resistance of local whites to the new immigrants. Similarly, Brooklyn’s West Indian Day Parade—better known as Labor Day Carnival—was born from North American-bound West Indians. Both the UK and the US have become vital locations for Caribbean migrants in the late twentieth century, and they set up an interesting comparison between the Caribbean’s presence in two of the Western Hemisphere’s biggest, and most cosmopolitan, cities. If the resistance to Notting Hill’s carnival was during its inception, the pushback toward the West Indian Day Parade continues to today with the law often seeking to limit—and perhaps cancel—the event.
Image used under a Pixabay license
Justin Haynes is an associate professor of English at Randolph-Macon College. His research and writing focus on Caribbean folklore, myth, and carnival. His work has been published in various journals including sx salon, Anthurium: a Caribbean Studies Journal, Caribbean Quarterly, Pree, and The Caribbean Writer.