By LENNOX FARRELL
If Caribana and Christmas are compared, can both August 1 and December 25 be dates celebrating freedom?
For sure, both dates are vastly apart in emphasis and themes: the former social, the latter spiritual. However, what they have in common, and with other human celebrations, is that, rooted in each is the human need and yearning for freedom.
Thus, December 25 is celebrated as part of our spiritual calendar linking time and eternity. August 1, celebrated on social and psychological levels, undergirds the determination by our enslaved ancestors to defend our irrevocable humanity. In other words, while both of these dates have different emphases, especially in how each is celebrated, they both come from similar yearnings towards freedom.
Therefore, and in this instance most specific to the ending of slavery in the West Indies, if on the Black calendar of resistance, August 1 is the turning point against our oppression, what then is Carnival? It is the penultimate public celebration of freedom.
Or should be, because it was on August 1, 1834 that, in their colonies, the British Emancipation Act came into force, but qualified! Because freedom came with uncertainty, confusion, piecemeal and at a snail’s pace. Britain was nervous about emancipating half a million slaves en masse. Plantation owners faced bankruptcy without this ‘free labour’. Also, for the enslaved Africans in other European-controlled territories, for example, in America, and in Dutch and Portuguese colonies, Emancipation’s dates varied respectively between September 22, 1862, July 1, 1863, and May 13, 1888.
To further compare Carnival with Christmas, and without being sacrilegious, can anything useful and inspiring be gleaned about Carnival? For one thing, the origins of carnival were also about celebrations and memorials. As stated above, while enslavement was the general oppressive condition foisted on Black people in this hemisphere for some 400 years – 1440-1888 – there is no single universal Emancipation date, but several.
In this way, the celebratory aspects of ending slavery are marked by several dates. And by differing emancipation memorials. For example, one other celebration of emancipation that appears to be more memorial than celebration is the Negro Spiritual, which is most specific to African Americans. This point of departure between these different responses by slaves in their desire for freedom results from the differing religious societies in which they were enslaved.
In those that were Catholic, carnivals flourished; to those that were Protestant, commemorations like the Negro Spiritual dominated. However, and most specific to the carnival, regardless of the different languages spoken, be they in British-controlled Trinidad, Portuguese-Brasil, Spanish-Cuba, or French-Louisiana the carnivals all began as celebrations of freedom.
However, in Toronto for example, has the Carnival continued to celebrate freedom? If not, why not?
It can reasonably be argued that celebrating Christmas today has similar challenges. It is a season set aside to commemorate the birth of the Christ child as Messiah. It therefore is to celebrate possibilities of another human Emancipation, but from eternal bondage. Some things have remained, some have been changed. In many civic circumstances, the very word, ‘Christmas’, is considered discriminatory against other religious practices.
The new term; more socially acceptable and explicitly multi-cultural, is ‘Xmas’. What remains is the celebration. What has changed are the values celebrated, and those not: the spiritual less than unacceptable; the financial more than acceptable. This change allows for celebrating, not the spiritual values and eternal foci of Christmas, but the financial gain and social excesses which now attend, and worse, which now define it.
In my opinion, in the same way that Christmas highlights the season celebrating the spiritual, Carnival is the penultimate celebration of our social Emancipation.
Unfortunately, too, in the same way that the Christmas season has cynically become, more and more a servant of financial gain fueling excess, so too are Emancipation’s carnival celebrations cut off from its roots in freedom. The aims of freedom, compromised, now serve the aims of the Two Cynicisms: private-sector control, and public-sector policies; one profiteering, the other multiculturalism.
Being defined as multicultural, Toronto’s carnival celebrations have nothing to do with our Emancipation from enslavement. Generally belonging to everyone in the good times, only in the bad times does it become explicitly Black! These two twinned forms of private sector and public sector cynicisms have degraded Emancipation celebrations into prurient, orgiastic activities.
In fact, the trend away from costuming, spectacle and masquerade to beads, bikinis and bare bottoms has become the crass way to attract, not spectators, but voyeurs. Thus, vulgarity, generally synonymous with Carnival, is now most explicitly so with Black people!
Finally, and on a note more personal, many of us enjoy the Christmas carols. The one which most moves me is, ‘O Holy Night'; especially sung by Celine Dion. In the last verse, the writer, describing the freedom innate to Messiah’s rule, penned this line: ‘… and in His name, all oppression will cease …’
On the social level, was this not what emancipation promised, that our ‘oppression will cease’?
On August 1, 2013, take time, make the effort, especially for the children’s sake, to commemorate Emancipation. Commune as families. Use breadfruit, cassava and codfish: the sustaining victuals of slaves! Insist, too, that those who profit: the banks, hotels, fast food outlets and others, including the civic authorities at all levels, honour Emancipation as they do other celebrations of freedom: Hanukah, St. Patrick’s Day, etc.
Most will respond, if only to be positively multicultural!