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Real, true, not-fake Carnival History, Pt II
The end of the Jaycees Carnival Queen competition is a part of Carnival lore. It is commonly told as a triumph of the Creole majority over the small white minority atop the society at the time. The competition was held at the Country Club, and the winner was always a white or light-skinned woman. By the mid-1960s, this constituted an offence to some.
Certainly there were grounds for offence; the Country Club was a potent symbol of a still-functional colonialist worldview. But clearly visible here was the drive to remove Carnival from white hands and transfer it into black hands, and it was a messy business.
This is evident from president of the Jaycees, Philip Habib’s characterisation of the perpetrators (Guardian, March 4, 1964) who “are suffering from a disease whose symptoms are hate, intolerance, and a burning desire to sever any decent link with the past.”
Habib did not go into specifics, but was referring to the racial dimension of the conflict. This is evident from what was going on in the society: Afro consciousness was growing rapidly, and the Carnival was seen as a beachhead to fuse the Afro-Creole position with nationalism.
The implications of the Carnival Queen affair become clearer if contrasted with what was happening in the wider society. In 1964, ANR Robinson began a multi-part series of articles in the Guardian about the misunderstanding of Africa. Its first installment (January 10) was What Magic Meant to the African Mind and they continued through art, society, and history.
In the arts, the Guardian’s art critic, Derek Walcott (July 1, 1964) reviewing an exhibition at Balisier House wrote: “Since Dr Williams’ quiet revolution the conflict in the less expert painters is too easily discernible….The innocence has been lost and has been replaced by wit and by phony intimations of the African presence.”
Walcott’s article during the visit of Leopold Senghor that year (September 14) reflected on the heightened interest in Negritude as a social and cultural movement in general. (The connection among race, culture, society and politics in Trinidad at the time was summed up in Walcott’s major essay, What the Twilight Says.)
All this is to say, the Carnival was driven to prominence by the growth in Afro-race consciousness. By itself, given the times—despite black nationalism, many colonial assumptions and social structures which devalued blackness still functioned—race consciousness was appropriate, and even necessary.
But it wasn’t innocent. As Carnival was defining the Creole world in the 60s, you might be wondering where the Indians were. A notable characteristic of the time, forgotten and suppressed these days, is the PNM’s often violent, openly racial conflict with the Indo constituency for electoral and social hegemony.
On September 24, 1964, the Guardian’s front page announced Parties Ban Race Talk on political platforms. States of emergency were declared in 1961 and 1966 in Indian areas.
It’s also interesting to note what was happening in Indian culture at the time. In a Guardian supplement in honour of Indira Gandhi’s visit in 1968 (October 22), it was reported that there were more than 300 Indian orchestras in Trinidad.
This was much more than the number of steelbands, but you wouldn’t have known this from the press. Although press reports on Indian singers, shows, and events appeared as the decade wore on, they were miniscule in number compared to Carnival reportage.
This wasn’t accidental. Alongside the Creole ownership of Carnival, manifested in things like the enthronement of Sparrow (discussed last week), and academic attention, the continuous exposure catalysed populist sentiment and tropes in support of the Carnival-as-national-festival position. These included the “pressure valve,” the “all o’ we is one” and the Carnival as “national art form” theories.
Psychiatrist Dr Michael Beaubrun on August 6, 1969, published an article (part of a series on the psychology of race and social tension) which stated (among other things) that Carnival was cathartic. The high visibility given to academic studies of Carnival, calypso and steelband in the daily press have already been noted.
But there were significant dissenters. Walcott’s critiques have been noted. Otherwise, in the Guardian of October 9, 1966, Beryl McBurnie commented on the psychological and cultural damage Carnival wrought. She said: “We are in trouble…We have to remove the mask covering our faces. The mask of Carnival…touches every aspect of our lives.
The unreal becomes the real. By its very nature, it is a momentary thrill, an excitement, then we discard the beautiful costumes…This attitude extends beyond these two days so that nothing in our lives is permanent, lasting. Any thing, values, principles, can be discarded in the same way.”
As for Carnival as a safety valve, she said: “Can you tell me why we have to be the only country in the world that needs a safety valve? It is only an excuse not to make an analysis of the effect Carnival has on the society. “We are not a curious, questioning or analytical society…not where problems and ideas are concerned. We solve everything the same way. Let’s have a drink!”
What is most striking here is that for 50 years, the same claims about catharsis, tourist value, financial profitability and social integration have been made about Carnival. Yet, the society remains in multiple states of trauma, ethnically divided, as the Carnival grows larger and increasingly, addictively, reliant on the coffers of the state, rather then contributing to them.
By far, the things Carnival has been most successful in doing are embedding Afro-Creole race consciousness as nationalism, fomenting ethnic conflict and propping up the PNM. As an added bonus, it has destroyed intellectual capacity, and has erased all knowledge in a whole generation about the nature of art, social science, and civilisation.
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