Who is Carnival for?

Trinidad Carnival

Well the time has finally come. Thousands of people have descended upon the tiny twin isle Republic of Trinidad and Tobago for a cultural celebration that has become known as “The Greatest Show on Earth”–Trinidad and Tobago (TNT) Carnival. By now, mas camps (the place in which costumes are created and/or distributed) are teeming with masqueraders ready to pick up their beautiful costumes, mas band leaders are (or at least should be) getting things in order for a seamless Carnival Monday and Tuesday, and everyone, both in TNT and abroad, is speculating who is going to win Road March this year. And honestly, this is not even a quarter of what goes into putting on TNT Carnival. Carnival has become a huge industry in TNT, second only to oil. Preparation for Carnival takes all year and involves many different stakeholders from both the private and public sectors. 

Tobago Carnival

As a first generation Afro-Caribbean of Trinidadian descent, I was born and raised understanding the importance of Carnival both historically and presently. Trinis track time in accordance to what chune, or song, won Road March in what year. Think I’m lying? Talk to your local Trini and ask them about an event that has happened in the past, a Road March reference will be sure to come up. I also recommend reading Till the Well Runs Dry by Lauren Francis-Sharma. My mother taught me that Carnival was one of the few times that enslaved Africans in TNT would have a taste of freedom. They would dress in the cast-off clothing of the European slave owners (the roots of masquerade) and while slave owners were going house to house in celebration of European Carnival, the enslaved Africans would engage in revelry away from their owners. Although this freedom was only temporary, it was real. And I can only imagine the euphoria my ancestors felt. As I have become older and have participated in playing mas, I have come to know and crave this temporal freedom.  The world can make it incredibly hard, to be Black, womxn, fat, disabled, low-income, etc. but for just a moment in time when I am on the road, dressed in my costume, singing my heart out on the road to my favorite chune, jumping up with my family and strangers who have now become my family, I know freedom.

Carnival has evolved so much from an imported celebration of French colonizers to the Greatest Show on Earth today. Historian Guiseppe Sofo in “Carnival, Memory, and Identity” likens Carnival to a “mirror of society”. It has always been a site of liberation, but the ways in which Carnival was performed has always been a reflection of the society. As aforementioned, during enslavement by various European colonizers, enslaved Africans in the island would use Carnival as a way to revel with one another with music and dancing and make fun of slave owners through costume. After emancipation, freed Trinbagonians would use costumes to tell the stories of the folktales such as the Midnight Robber or Jab Jab that had also survived enslavement. Carnival was definitely “of the people”, and when the ruling class of white occupiers tried to ban Carnival, my ancestors rose up and literally fought for their freedom to revel (google Canaboulay Riots. It is some good stuff!) When Trinidad and Tobago gained their independence from England on August 31, 1962, the Honorable Dr. Eric Williams served as the first Prime Minister of the newly formed republic. He declared Carnival as a national celebration, an important part of Trinbagonian culture. Dr. Williams knew that this new country needed something to unify them, and that was Carnival. He saw Carnival as a means of cultural, social, and economic growth and created the Carnival Development Committee to guide and shape Carnival. Now its stakeholders (costume designers, calypsonians, band leaders, etc.) could be compensated for their contributions.

Carnival has continued to grow and evolve, a reflection of the society. Like many (practically all) islands in the Caribbean, in order to participate in the global economy, their heritage must be marketed to white tourists in a practice known as heritage tourism. Simultaneously, as Trinbagonians emigrated to the US, Canada, and Europe, when they came back home their desire and demand for a more luxurious and sexy Carnival grew. Costumes that emulated the bikini mas style of the famous Carnevale in Brazil started to replace the costumes that depicted our history. Costume designers and mas band leaders responded to these demands for all inclusive food and drink bands and luxury amenities such as massage therapists during Carnival Monday and Tuesday. And with this rise in demand also came a rise in price. 

What was once a celebration of freedom for all Trinbagonians is now a celebration that only those with financial means can engage in. When the average salary in TNT is 148,120TT (about 24,686 USD) and costumes can cost anywhere between 2,000-10,000TT depending on section and band, where do the every day people who also want to participate in their culture and these two days of joy and freedom fit into society? It is often said that “Carnival is woman”, a time where women can free up themselves. But another accurate statement is that Carnival is money. Everyone from the government, costume designers, musicians, mas bands, fete promoters, photographers, bloggers and influencers, etc. want a piece of it.

Carnival has seen many iterations. It is truly a mirror of society. But from its very inception and  even today, TNT Carnival has always been about freedom. It continues to be a real, although temporal, freedom in which for two day the descendants of enslaved Africans, and indentured Indians and Chinese peoples who have also helped shape Carnival, can come together in the spirit of resistance and joy to find relief from the hardness of everyday life. But I cannot help but to think about those who still must suffer the financial burden of being priced out of these two days of freedom by elite Trinbagonians, white tourists, and American and European celebrities of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Sometimes I think about what Carnival would or could look like if it was returned to the everyday people, the ones who could really use two days of freedom. What if Carnival was collectively owned by Trinbagonians? I do not know what this looks like, but I am willing to do the work with others to dream up what this could be. Every Trinbagonian, at home and abroad, should be able to engage in this cultural practice rooted in resistance and freedom without having to be wealthy or go broke.