OTTAWA—It’s Caribana weekend. And lord knows we need the jump-up and oy after two-and-a-half years of epic hell that refuses abatement. Posse, lemme see yah raise yah hands and put them in the air! (Some great soul on Twitter put out a pre-Caribana playlist that you can find here. You’re welcome.)
“Carnival was born from the seeds of revolution and rebellion, rebellion against the white slave masters and the tyranny of the whip,” said music promoter Sonny Blacks, via Google Arts and Culture.
Carnival is a time-honoured tradition that was born from the resistance and revolution that eventually freed slaves in the West Indies. It was a combination of the resistance of slave codes, that determined behaviour of, and provisions to, the African slave population throughout the colonies. You see, the voracious appetite for slave labour by English sugar planters meant that the slaveowners and white people, in general, became minorities. Great Replacement, indeed.
To mitigate the potential risk of having subjugated people rise up and murder them in their beds, slave codes were established by both the British and the French. Course material by the University of Glasgow emphasized that this treatment was violent and brutal: “One of the earliest established colonial laws in the Atlantic was for the island of Barbados in 1661, known as An Act for Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes. The Barbados slave code established that enslaved Africans be treated as chattel.” Hence the term, chattel slavery. Part of the tradition of Carnival is resistance against this type of subjugation.
Side note: the nice white people of England did not free the slaves of the British West Indies—the Haitian Revolution did that. When the scent of revolution is in the air, it’s only a matter of time before it spreads like wildfire. In fact, it was a Vodou ceremony that ignited the flames in Haiti. Our ancestors freed us, not yours.
While the slaveowners were hosting their masquerade balls in the lead up to Lent, the slaves held their own celebrations (fêtes) that mimicked and mocked their slaveowners. At the time of Emancipation, the newly liberated slaves took to the streets and brought the fête with them. “Through this expression of revolution and celebration of freedom, the Caribbean Carnival became almost solely an Afro-Caribbean tradition.” In her 1995 article in Totem, “Carnival: Fighting Oppression with Celebration,” Karolee Stevens points out that Carnival is not solely an expression of lust and desire, it’s satire and mockery of a racial and class hierarchy that lodged these newly emancipated slaves—and their descendants—at the bottom rung.
With mass migration and immigration in the 1950s and ’60s, West Indian populations took Carnival to the streets of Canada in the form of Caribana, which was founded by legendary lawyer and activist Charles Roach (rest in power); to the United States in various cities, namely New York, as the West Indian Labor Day Parade (growing up you always wanted to hit up Brooklyn and Queens around that time, but gentrification screwed us all); to London, U.K., with Notting Hill Carnival. It was in countries dominated by white supremacy that the resistance of Carnival was complete, given that police enforced codes of conduct, similar to the Black Codes of slavery, to discourage mass gatherings of Black people. See how everything old is current?
Notting Hill Carnival is a great example of Carnival’s defiance. It was born out of the Notting Hill race riots of 1958. Increased immigration of Black people, especially those of the Windrush generation, threatened the white working class and, as white people have done throughout history when “too many” Black people are around, they unleash violence. Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian journalist, Black feminist and activist, was deported from the U.S. during the McCarthy-era political massacres for being a communist, which she was. In the U.K., where she landed, she, along with Amy Ashwood Garvey (former wife of iconic Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey) founded the West Indian Gazette (WIG), a political newspaper for West Indians in Britain. She also birthed Notting Hill Carnival in 1959, as explained on Verso Books’ blog: “One of the most notable achievements of Jones and the WIG was acting as the sponsor and fundraiser for London’s first Carnival, widely accepted as Jones’s most prolific achievement.” To Jones, Carnival was an effective medium at the intersection of politics and culture.
Closer to home, Caribana is usually celebrated on the August long weekend, which this year coincides with Aug. 1, or Emancipation Day, a celebration of the end of slavery in the West Indies. Its precursor was the Calypso Carnival, organized by the Black women (naturally) of the Canadian Negro Women’s Association, led by Kay Livingstone. As Henry Gomez wrote in his York University master’s thesis, “Calypso Carnival began in 1956; and operated as a fundraiser for service projects that included the creation of university scholarships for Black students. The aim was, in part, to address the education of Black youth and build their awareness of Black culture at the time.”
First performed in 1967 to commemorate Canada’s centennial birthday, Charles Roach and Julius Alexander Isaac (the first Black judge of the Federal Court of Appeal) organized what is now an event that brings tourism and tourists’ dollars—to the tune of at least $400-million—to Toronto each year. As Vice News points out, the beneficiaries are not members of the Black community in Toronto: “The Black/Caribbean community has not been benefitting from this economic largesse in any real way—it’s the airline industry and Toronto’s hospitality industry whose pockets have gotten fat.” And governments.
Carnival is a living, breathing gyration of confrontation; it is defiant, refuses to accept restrictive and oppressive societal norms and infuses us with the sacrifices of our ancestors.
Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.