Trinidad and Tobago’s biggest annual festival, Carnival, calls to me in a way that nothing else in my life ever has. As an Afro-Caribbean Black woman who immigrated to America when I was just 4, visits to my homeland feed my soul and put me in touch with my Blackness and womanhood in a way nothing else ever has. I was 18 the first time I experienced Carnival. My extended family invited me down for a visit. Until that time, I had never really connected with the land of my birth. I had been there many times, but the culture still felt elusive to me, blurred by my American upbringing. Carnival completely changed that.
In many ways, for diasporic Trinbagonians, like myself, who long ago departed from their native country in search of opportunities elsewhere, Carnival (which takes place this week) is a pilgrimage. We save money all year to cover airline tickets, lodging, fetes (large parties), J’ouvert (the opening event), and Monday and Tuesday Mas. Until the plane lands at Piarco Airport, and I step foot out into the warm embrace of my homeland, my chest is always knotted with anxiety — the anxiety of struggling to merely survive; to get through 40-hour work weeks, internships, and a full-time college course load. Carnival is my time for release. It’s a moment of true freedom, where my waistline can bounce to the rhythm of Soca and Chutney music — inspired by the African and Indian history of the twin-islands' people. Whether it’s the bass erupting from a speaker, the banging of tassa drums, or a steel pan orchestra, the music demands that your body respond. It’s infectious. It’s like I’m "Possessed," as best described by Kerwin Dubois’ song: "Taking over me / Taking over meh soul / This the kinda feeling that I cannot control / Messing with meh body, messing with meh mind / Every time it hit me, my mind does start to wiiinnnneee."
The spirit and rhythm of Carnival courses through the veins of island people. From its inception, it signified the reclaiming of freedom, when slaves appropriated the French tradition of wearing masks while parading in the streets, adding their own cultural flair and political meaning. Since then, the festival has transformed into all-out bacchanalia. Men and women take to the streets in the wee hours of the morning for J’ouvert, dancing behind huge music trucks with stereo systems that can be heard for miles, while dousing each other in buckets of mud, oil, and paint — all traditions that trace back to the ancient Indian and African cultures that managed to bring people of different colors and creeds together under the banner of one flag. The vibrant paints celebrate all global citizens coming together to reclaim their freedom and rebel against oppression. People covered in mud or oil are indistinguishable — everyone is black or brown.
It is this authentic celebration of brownness and Blackness that quells my anxiety. In America, I grew up one of few Black people in spaces that constantly felt unwelcoming. I moved quite a bit, and each time, a feeling of isolation loomed. In New Jersey, my then-boyfriend’s white family told me I was not welcome in their home. In Texas, while walking down the street with my family, a driver screamed that there were "too many..." using a racial slur as he sped by. In Florida, my family was priced out of the good neighborhoods that welcomed minorities. Even New York City — America’s “melting pot” — feels divided, even segregated, as a wave of gentrification continues to push many people of color out. When I shared videos and images of Carnival with an American friend, her response was, “Oh, you guys twerk like Miley Cyrus?” — mislabeling Trinidad’s native dance, while also misappropriating African-American culture. In a conversation about catcalling, a male acquaintance took the position that, “When women dress with everything hanging out, they shouldn’t be angry when men treat them like sluts.” It’s a sentiment I have repeatedly heard among American men.
Carnival is my remedy for the sickness of racism, sexism, and cultural marginalization.
These and other experiences have led me to conclude that in many ways, I simply do not belong; that I am not wholly accepted, respected, wanted, or even understood as a Black immigrant woman. For me, Carnival is the ultimate expression of freedom — a source of revitalization, even. When the music takes over me and my body shakes, I am filled with a sense of pride, and the spirit of my ancestors pulses through me. It is like an antidote to the constant slights I am subjected to at all other times. It is my remedy for the sickness of racism, sexism, and cultural marginalization. This marks the eighth year that I will be participating in Carnival. Now, at 26, I finally feel whole and complete — my position in society and the greater world is more defined; I feel stabilized and rooted in my culture and heritage. This week I will cover myself from head to toe in paint, and jump in the mud with friends and strangers to the hard thumps of Soca music. I will put my curves on full display and wine to the ground with my head held high. I will feel at one with all of the people of my island homeland, no matter their race, creed, or gender. And I will return to the U.S., a proud Afro-Caribbean-American woman.