Caribana as Carnival redux, part one

By Lennox Farrell Wednesday November 05 2014 in Opinion
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This series is directed at three questions or issues. They anticipate a meeting most critical between our community and Toronto City Councillor Joe Mihevc. One question asks: “Is there any difference between ownership and control?” Another asks: “What, generally, is the role of Culture?” The one considered here: “Culture as memory, folklore, and history.”


Is culture the catchment basin of memory? I think it is, and that it is also the social repository of a people’s past. Furthermore, to the extent that they either cherish and nourish their folklore, or minimize and despise it, is also the extent to which their current circumstances are relatively hopeful or despairing; wholesome or dependent.


So, is folklore, history, and history, folklore? Not according to Maurice Halbwachs – considered the grand old theoretician of social memory – who in, The Collective Memory (1980), in considering memory as either folklore or history saw them as “two contradictory ways of revisiting the past”. History he said, is scholarship, objective, and available for the few. By contrast, folklore is communal and restricted more to personal lifetimes than to a linear, impartial past. He concluded that, “while there can only be one history, there can be many collective memories”.


These collective memories are folkloric. They are, among other definitions, communal, oral, unofficial, and mythic. These descriptions do not undermine the validity of the information transmitted, and between different generations. The two descriptions most commonly – and correctly – associated with folklore are “oral and mythic”. These descriptions predate written text, by millennia! In fact, some of the texts, compiled from the best of oral traditions are among those most significant to us today.


For example, there is The Iliad. It is an epic poem written by the Greek poet, Homer (800 BC). In it, Homer described the invasion and destruction of the city of Troy by the Greeks five centuries earlier in 1300 BC. The details of this poem remained as information, passed down orally for millennia. That is, until three centuries ago when in 1870 AD, a German businessman, amateur archeologist, and charming conman, Heinrich Schliemann (who was mentored by Frank Calvert, a British archeologist who got little recognition for his contributions) unearthed what, based on corroborating details, turned out to be the site of ancient Troy.


In fact, Schliemann and Calvert’s discovery shed further light on the founding of Rome. This founding, following on from the destruction of the Trojans, had subsequently been described in The Aeneid written by Virgil (approximately 29-19 BC). Aeneas, about whose wanderings Virgil had written, had also been a character in Homer’s Iliad.


The Bible, canonical text to Christians, is an even more amazing example of the power of oral tradition to effectively pass on consistent details for centuries. These details, written over a period of 600 years, had previously been orally passed on for more than 1,000 years. Equally amazing is that their authorship came from more than 40 distinct authors; from three continents: Africa, Europe and Asia. Regarding Africa’s contributions, the first five books, the Pentateuch (possibly also the Book of Job), were written by a man whose wife was Black. Moses was also born, educated and spent the first 40 years of his life in Africa. In addition, 50 per cent of the books in the New Testament were written by an apostle, Paul. Himself a citizen of Rome, he was also confused by the Romans with being an Egyptian; when Egypt was Nubian, not Arab.


To segue this analysis of culture to Caribana specifically, and carnival, generally, what are some of the oral traditions found in countries where carnival originated? These traditions unequivocally include the words, “slave, slavery, emancipation, et al”. For example, one such country with oral traditions on carnival is the Central American country, Colombia.


The name of its carnival in Spanish is, “Carnaval de Negros y Blancos”; or Blacks and Whites Carnival. Commemorated – not celebrated – annually from January 2-7, it attracts a considerable number of Colombians and foreigners. More pertinent to this article is its global impact. To acknowledge its derivative role in resistance to slavery, on September 30, 2009, it was proclaimed “one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. This proclamation came from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization: UNESCO.


Observe three facts. One is the relationship of this Carnaval to its oral culture based on its historic traditions. The second, its political, economic and cultural clout nationally in Colombia, and globally in the United Nations. Observe, too, how this carnival came about. Its very name provides a direct link to two aspects of its historic origins. One aspect is the direct link commemorating the enslavement of Africans there. The other aspect, indirect, includes the word, “Whites”. This is part of a historic effort – Halbwachs might call it mythic – by those of European heritage to try to mitigate the cruelty and immorality of the roles played by their ancestors in slavery.


For example, White Christians today, when referring to Emancipation cite, not the seminal roles of a Dessalines, a Nanny, and a Frederick Douglas respectively ending slavery in Haiti, Jamaica, and America. They cite two White men: John Newton – slaver and later poet – and William Wilberforce, a British parliamentarian. If you didn’t know better, you’d think slavery was initiated by venal Africans, and ended by compassionate Europeans.


Dr. Eric Eustace Williams, first Prime Minister of an “independent” Trinidad & Tobago, put the kibosh to this historical revisionism in his magnum opus, Capitalism and Slavery.


In conclusion, three points. One is that the carnival officially and globally known as Caribana is now functionally linked to a Bank, the historic birth of which is linked to trading North Atlantic (Nova Scotia) codfish to feed slaves in the West Indies for rums produced from sugar plantations there. Next, given the decisive role now being played by Mihevc, Caribana might reasonably be dubbed: Mihevc’s Mas. He could decide at this upcoming meeting, whether or not it is returned to its rightful name and owners.


Even more decisive though, will be the role going forward played by Toronto’s Black community. Unfortunately, afflicted by cultural amnesia, to cite some insightful lyrics from the 1977 Grammy Award winning “Hotel California”, written and sung by the Eagles, while some of us still “dance to remember”, too many now “dance to forget”.


To be continued: Caribana: ownership versus control. 

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