By Jade Nixon
Imagine getting your first breath of air after you’ve just submerged yourself into the swimming pool, cannon-ball style, or the feeling of warm shower water rinsing your skin after a long hot day outside. For me, Carnival is that breath. For me, Carnival is that baptism. Carnival gives me a soul-nurturing joy; it makes me the most comfortable in my Black skin. But most importantly, and as Fay-Ann Lyons sings, Carnival is women. Although Caribbean Carnival is borne out of European colonialism and Catholicism, it became transformed by newly emancipated Afro-Caribbeans celebrating their freedom. With this history in mind, performing in Carnival is a practice of freedom, but it is also a form of Black gathering and communion with other Black women. For me, seeing Black women in such abundance remakes my life anew.
In her book Zami, author-writer-poet-activist Audre Lorde writes of the love and kinship practices she learned through women in Carriacou, Grenada, stating, “Women survived the absence of their sea-fearing men easily, because they came to love each other, past their men’s returning.” This is the kind of love that’s established between Carnival-chasing and Soca-loving women. The intimacy we share as our bodies dance and rub up against each other on Carnival day is the kind of love that makes up a big part of my Carnival community. I have met so many Black women in my Carnival travels who have become and remain some of my closest kin. It is with love that we talk weekly in our Carnival group chat, with love that we share our homes, lives, and families with each other, and only through love that we can travel for Carnival together. Carnival makes Black kinship possible and opens up a space for me to love and be loved by Black women.
— Skin Deep (@tweetskindeep) June 11, 2018
If we rely on the history of Jamettes (women who danced freely at Carnival) that poet-writer-playwright M. Nourbese Philip’s offers us, we see that Carnival as we know it was made possible through the ways that Jamettes occupied public space, embraced their nakedness, and did away with logics of respectability.
It is through these public disruptions incited by lower-class Afro-Trinidadian that women envisioned a different type of freedom. Philip’s fictive play titled “The Streets”, Boadicea, a Jamette—stick fighter and leader of the gang named We Don’t Give A Damn—chants in the street:
“You see we here in all we nakedness – you see any of we shame of it? Not one, not one a we shame of we nakedness or frighten of you… Dese streets is we own – we have a right to be here and we beating any man who telling we different…” (Philip, 1997, p.82).
— Room Magazine (@RoomMagazine) November 7, 2015
By making this loud declaration in the streets, Boadicea and her gang refused to be governed by dominant principles of feminine decency, decorum, and virtue. Jamettes were ungovernable. They were unruly. Neither man, nor law, nor police, nor respectable woman could heed them. It is through such unruliness that the conditions for me and my girls are created, where we can dance, sing, and be together in the streets. There is something to be said about hundreds of thousands of Black women showing up and assembling in public space to be unruly and disobedient. To move our bodies in whatever ways our bodies allow themselves to move, to feel something in our spirits, to sing aloud and off-key in our Blackness and in our togetherness is healing. To be in a space where Black women are encouraged to misbehave, to move freely, and to be as boisterous as we can be is transformative. During Carnival time, and on Carnival day, I move differently, my body loosens up in unexplainable ways and in symmetry with others. In this space, I am comfortable in and with my Blackness and I am proud to be both Afro-Caribbean and woman. I impatiently await the time I can be on the road again with other Carnival-loving Black women who make this world a more livable one for me.
Jade Nixon is a PhD student at the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of
Toronto. Her research explores Caribbean Carnival and other Caribbean Carnival-related spaces.
She also is a self-proclaimed Carnival hopper and is always on the move for Soca music.