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Respecting Our Culture

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: March 02, 2004

Over the last week several commentators have offered their insights about the carnival celebrations. Emily Dickson (French Creole) wrote "In Defense of Carnival" (Newsday, Feb. 19); Tony Fraser (African), "The Alternative Carnival (TG. Feb. 19); Philip Rochford (African), "Carnival as a Model for Success" (TG, Feb, 19); Fitzgerald Hinds (African), "Calypso Dreams, facing Reality" (TG, Feb 20); Gillian Lucky (Indian), "Season of 'anything goes,'" (TG. Feb. 20), Bukka Rennie (African), "Pan: When will dues be paid?" (TG, Feb 18); and Sat Maharaj (Indian), "Carnival Blight on T&T." (TG, Feb 19).

Needless to say, the two Indian commentators were totally negative. Not only could they see no redeeming light in carnival, Mr. Maharaj saw it as a blight on the nation. Emily Dickson acknowledged some of the negative aspects of carnival but admits that they are "total generalizations that are quite unjustified. I'll admit things have changed over the years-some for the worse." Rochford noted that one can learn from the many positive elements of carnival such as its organization, its creativity, and its diversity. He concludes: "Your life is more complicated than the making of a Carnival costume, so you really need to link yourself with like-minded people in order to achieve the success that you deserve. This is the lesson of carnival."

Fraser notes "there is an alternative Carnival that has been attempting to get on stage over the last decade and a half since the oil boom number one seeped into the society and brought to the surface the most offensively materialistic culture possible." He picked out the positive elements in this revival that can take back carnival from "the energized, boisterous, vulgarly over-sexed and inane wine and jam obscenities of the time."

Rennie insists that not even Pan Trinbago, the parent body of the steel band, tells the correct story about the birth of the steel band. He shows the relationship between the demise of tamboo-bamboo and the birth of the steel band and argues that one did not necessarily lead to the other. One might say they were coeval. Brother Hinds reviewed "Carnival Dreams," a new documentary on calypsonians and spoke of the importance of calypsonians. He wondered whether we give them the respect they deserve. Although he believes that calypsonians are not always "sensitive" to the feelings of others, he remained awed at their deep understanding of our lives as they unfolded in time.

Our Indian commentators could find nothing worthwhile about carnival or the calypsonians. For Mr. Maharaj, carnival is a festival "of violence, mayhem, murder, drunkenness and deviant behavior. The story told in calypso every year is about child sex, promiscuity, debauchery and crude immorality." Money "is spent to introduce Carnival, calypso, steel band and the most obscene behavior [into our schools]. The Treasury is used to present as role models to impressionable children, calypsonians whose mission is to spread racist propaganda by stereotypes and caricature of Hindus or Indo-Trinidadians."

According to Mr. Maharaj, calypso and carnival are nothing less than orchestrated attacks against Hindus and Indo-Trinidadians, hence his conclusion: "The vengeance of Carnival is a blight on T&T and the future well-being of our nation. And not even the intervention of the seermen could save us from the descent into madness and chaos." Louis Regis's "Williams and the Management of Cultural Change" (Caribbean Issues, March 1999) demonstrates the falsity of this claim. Calypsonians have never respected persons or their position. They criticize the negative behavior of any member of the society, regardless of his or her position.

However, more is in the mortar than the pestle. Mr.Maharaj's curses against the nation are intended to cajole the Ministry of Education to introduce religious and moral education into our schools, especially those run by the Government. Why? Because the "children in State Schools are invited to focus not on God, not on morality, not on religion, but on sex, jam on a bam bam push it in, give it to me, mash up the place or get on bad." Needless to say, the denominational schools will benefit financially from the introduction of any such transaction.

Mr. Maharaj's article is offensive, dishonest and reprehensible. It demonstrates how a person can throw bits of information together to arrive at erroneous conclusions. Such unworthy nonsense vindicates the Latin aphorism that "falsification lies hidden in generalizations," a sin of which Mr. Maharaj is guilty. No serious person can read this article without recognizing its blasphemy against African people.

Ms. Lucky's article is also a chronicle of negatives. She says that "during Carnival times some most overt acts of indecency, insensitivity, unfair treatment and unlawfulness are committed yet few are willing to comment negatively on the transgressions that this festive season inevitable attracts." There from, she lists all of the negatives of the Creole Bacchanal. How does "unfair treatment" get into carnival, only Ms. Lucky can tell? She, too, sees no redeeming virtue in Carnival.

Carnival, by definition, is transgressive. It exceeds limits and violates socially acceptable norms. It jumps over the sacred and enters the profane. It is a celebration of the flesh even as we say farewell to the flesh. It is an overturning of the normal order of things; a time of liberty and license. This is why women glorify in carnival so much. It was the price the Christian Church paid for the allegiance of the Romans who adored the flesh. Mikhail Bakhtin observes: "During carnival time life is subject to its own laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world's revival and renewal…Such is the essence of carnival, vividly felt by all its participants" (Rabelais and His World).

In the midst of the Carnival celebration, the Hindu community observed "the auspicious occasion of Maha Shiva Ratri (the great night of Lord Shiva)" on February 14. Pundit Narine Maharaj notes that devotion to Lord Shiva cures the society of all disease and ills. During this ceremony, a devotee does everything to experience Mukti (liberation) and Jewan Mukti (liberation in this life). I did not hear one African commentator say anything negative about this festival.

Ms. Lucky and Mr. Maharaj showed no such constraint although carnival is special to African people. Carnival was/is a time when African people sought to recreate, reassemble and resurrect an African way of life in the New World. Many characteristics of Carnival reflect aspects of the Gelede, one of the most important multidimensional art forms of the Yoruba-speaking peoples of Dahomey and Western Yorubaland, whilst calypso is derived from the efe, the Gelede song poems of the Yoruba-speaking people. The song-poems are satirical in content, critique the actions of those in authority, and ridicule undesirable social behavior among members of the community. Like the calypsonians, the efe song-poets are of humble origins and reflect the feelings of the masses of the people. This is why Cro Cro is applauded anytime he mounts the stage.

From as early as 1831, African people were involved in carnival. In 1838, a defender of the European plantocracy observed: "We will not dwell on all the disgusting and indecent scenes that were enacted in our Streets-we will not say how many we saw that the state so nearly approaching to nudity; as to outrage decency and shock modesty-we will not particularly describe the African custom of carrying a stuffed figure of a woman on a pole, which was followed by hundreds of Negroes yelling out a savage Guinea song (we regret to say nineteenths of these people were Creoles)-we will not describe the ferocious fight between the 'Damas' and 'Wartloos' which resulted from this mummering-but we will say at once that the custom of keeping Carnival, by allowing the lower order of society to run about the Streets in wretched masquerade, belongs to other days and ought to be abolished in our own."

The cries of Mr. Maharaj and Ms. Lucky are simply modern day versions of their white 1838 counterparts who saw nothing worthwhile in carnival. Yet, they wonder why Dr. Eric Williams referred to this element of their community as a recalcitrant minority? To them, carnival is nothing more than a festival in which thousands of Negroes yell out savage Guinea songs, transgressing the social order and acting as a blight on the non-African elements of the society.

While Africans have little to say about Indian culture Indian commentators always throw the worse light on what Africans do. Without washin' dey foot, they jump into de dance to say things they know nothing about and which they do not appreciate or love. One cannot respect something one despises neither can one love a person if one despises his culture. If Ms. Lucky and Mr. Maharaj only see the negative in African culture how can they love or to be concerned about African people?

Ms. Lucky and Mr. Maharaj's views are not good omens for the future of our society. They ought not to underestimate the African's resolute quest for dignity and his continuing quest for liberation of which carnival is but one of the finest manifestations.

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