Carnival, Crop Over and the West Indian Day Parades of the Caribbean Diaspora have always been sites of release and exuberance. This year, with so many celebrations cancelled or delayed and so many unable to travel and join in, Caribbean and Caribbean American writers reflect on the many meanings and experiences of Carnival.
Fo day mornin is what they calling it. That time before daybreak, when darkness still running tings but it know it time almost up. Fo day mornin, when the air sweet, sweet like a baby breath and full up with as much aching possibility. And fo day mornin is when we coming out to play Ole Marse. Dutty marse. Mud marse. Hills-of-Paramin-blue-devil marse. Anyting-goes marse. Ole Marse, where up is down and down is up and man dressing like woman with the big, big bubbies and the Lord-did- you-ever-see-such-a-behind of Dame Lorraine. Marse, where the picong sharp like cutlass and cutting politician down to size and making fun of everything that taking itself too serious. Fo day mornin is when Jouvert starting.
Jouvert, Jour Ouvert, Jour O’vert, Jouvay—the words revealing a history of empire and its demise in their shifting orthography. Jouvert, the contraction of the French words, jour ouvert meaning “open day”—the first day of the two-day Trinidad Carnival, which begins fo day mornin on the Monday and continues over to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday—is one of the remaining words of a French patois or Creole once spoken widely on the island. First claimed by Spain after Columbus “visited” in 1498, Trinidad remained relatively undeveloped for years, until 1783 when the Spanish monarchy allowed settlement by French refugees fleeing the Haitian Revolution. One could say that the rest is Carnival, even Ole Marse. As was their custom, French settlers staged their Carnival just before the start of the Lenten period, a whites-only festival that replicated the racial and class hierarchies of these colonial societies.
The only role for Black people, free or enslaved, was as musician or worker. And, like their American counterparts, French slave owners also engaged in dressing up in blackface as negues jardins,imitating the very slaves they expressed such contempt for. With the emancipation of slaves in 1834, however, the island by then having passed to the British in the constant chess game of empire, the newly freed Africans took to the streets, bringing into the pre-Lenten celebrations their memories from Africa of masking, costume, parade, performance, dance, and spectacle. And as they, the newly emancipated, took to the streets, the whites withdrew, clutching their collective pearls in fear, with disapproval and condemnation of the festival for its vulgarity and danger, all of which finds prominent voice in the print media of the day.
Jouvay, that liminal time when anything seems possible in the topsy-turvy fo-day-morning world
“Camboulay! Camboulay!” the people—the formerly enslaved—shouted in 1881 as they rioted against an attempt by the colonial governor to end the Carnival. Camboulay, another vernacular expression of the French patois, from cannes brulees, refers to the practice of carrying torches of burning cane stalks during the riot.
But look, is tired I, tired of all this history, because is fo day morning, and the Carnival jumbie grab me up and I have a band to meet just as the cool, cool breeze of dawn meeting me and daring me to sashay down the street as if there is no tomorrow. Is 2015, the last time I playing marse, and I waiting with the costume I make myself and the white tear up dress I wearing that just calling out for someone—anyone—to throw paint, mud, anything to mess up the ordinary, the expected. I waiting in a park with all the other masqueraders—waiting for the music to start, waiting for the slow winding of the band up the street in the fresh morning air, waiting for the unexpected feeling of “this is what I been waiting for”—to hear pan music riding the soft breeze—waiting to meet inside, deep inside, the sound of four bands coming from the four cardinal points to meet at the crossroads, home of Esu, god of the crossroads; four bands at the nucleus of possibility, of sound and of life. To feel and know what it’s like to be inside sound—to be sound—for a moment.
Is Jouvay time when you seeing Midnight Robber (though less so these days), wide-brim hat with a fringe and sitting ’pon top of that a skull or coffin, and it black, black like his clothes; is Jouvay time and Midnight Robber carrying a gun or dagger in one hand and a box for donations in the other, and he stopping you with his words about worlds beyond the imagination. Wordsmith of portents, heralder of prophecies interrupted by a piercing whistle, Midnight Robber mocking colonial power as he declaring himself to have come from other spheres, created in worlds unknown to us. “When I born, the earth standin still and every animal lyin down and sleeping, even the birds dem stop singin and my mother weepin tears that creating the rivers of the world.” Is Jouvay time this and I waiting to hear Midnight Robber proclaim to all a we: “Watch me here, see me here—I come to cull all a yuh, de ole and de young; I come to make mudders weep fo dey mudder and dey fadder—fo de pickin dem; I come to close down business, stop picture show; I come to bring my sword between family, between man and woman; I come to stop sweet talk, hookup and hookdown; I even come to stop Carnival, I come to perform the impossible—I bringin nations to their knees. Watch me, see what ’pon mi head—is a crown dat and it call C, it call O, it call R, it call O, it call N, it call A—it call CoronaaaaH! Watch me, I say, how I movin all roun de world, no passport, no nothin—I come to full up de graveyard!”
But is only robber talk this. Is Jouvay time and the whips of the Jab Jab masqueraders crack dangerously—frighteningly in the air. As did the whips of the overseers on the slave plantations, but what did we know of that when as children we watched these masqueraders parading and demanding money? What do we care to know of it now? Is Jouvay time and Baby Doll dress up in a frilly, frilly nightdress carrying her doll baby and approaching men saying that is them who the baby father and demanding money from them.
Is Jouvay time: “Brang! brang!” the sound harsh and startling. “Pay de devil, pay de devil!” He is banging the blackened pitch-oil tin, gesturing with a black pitchfork pointed as us. I clutch my mother’s skirt—hard, the fabric bunched in my small fist—he’s shiny, his greased, blackened skin gleaming in the sunshine, with a tail, horns, and a long red tongue. “Brang, brang! Pay de devil! Pay de devil!” This is Jab Molassie—Molasses Devil—who demands you pay him. As life demands we pay the Devil in other ways. But at four or five, I understand only fear, hiding behind my mother’s skirt and refusing to look the Devil in the face.
Jouvay time—the furthest thing from the fancy or pretty marse that will come later in the day on Monday and all day on Tuesday, when the bands parade in all their finery; when women, now mainly unclad in beads and bikinis Rio de Janeiro style, strut their stuff along the streets of Port of Spain, Toronto, Notting Hill, Miami, or—pick a city. Jouvay, that liminal time when anything seems possible in the topsy-turvy fo-day-morning world of men playing women, when the high are brought low and the mighty are mocked; when dirt and mud are embraced in an understanding that we come from that and will, at the end, return to it; when we yield to being held up by Midnight Robbers or being frightened by Jab Molassie; when devils, red, black, blue, or white rule the day (with our silent permission) and the Moko Jumbies on stilts, as tall as our dreams, stalk us. Now is the time, though—time to play marse. Like there is no tomorrow. Time enough to pay de devil later.
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