The "Pontificat": Akilah Holder's 'Carnival' Article
Carnival Women on Stage
By Corey Gilkes
March 04, 2013
I had planned to make my first contribution for 2013 to be on the series of important film documentaries on Trinidad Carnival put on by the TT Film Festival, not least of which were the two on Minshall and the presentation given by Ray Funk. Some were poorly attended but they were all priceless in the way each of them opened a little more of that portal on ourselves more of us need to see. Minsh used the streets as his canvass to express his philosophy in the traditions of Bailey, Saldenah and the legions of largely (tragically) nameless persons who used the Midnight Robber, the Minstrel, the Baby Doll, the Dame Lorraine, the Burrokeet, the Jab Molassie to hold up the mirror of society and all its hypocrisy and excesses to show us what many of us really are. That aspect of our Mas, the use of the open space as a gigantic participatory (before the advent of security, ropes and the word "exclusive") political and social theatre, is perhaps the most important message that needs to be kept firmly in the minds of those who wish to take over the Mas – specifically those who have reduced it to empty, expressionless displays of bikinis, bras and feathers as if here is Las Vegas.
But like I said, I planned to write on this; I eh bothering with that again.
Because a few Sundays ago I came across Akilah Holder's article "Carnival" in the Express Woman's section. Now the fact that she does not partake in Carnival is nothing, there are plenty people who don't and that's fine. I myself have made no secret that while I have a love affair with the more traditional aspects of the Mas and love mih kaiso and pan, I have a huge disdain for the bikini-Las-Vegas-showgirl imitations that somehow suppose to be a Roman soldier or Aztec priest or whatever the hell theme the average big bandleader chooses to very loosely adhere to, so by Carnival Tuesday my Carnival done.
What pissed me off was the moralistic, judgemental tone of Ms Holder's article as she directed most of her disgust towards the dancing and antics of many women on the streets during Carnival time. It pissed me off because although I am certain her intentions were honourable and there is some merit to what she said, because of the ill-researched, dated arguments she made, she came off sounding like just another religious elitist charlatan of whom we already have oh so many. In fact if she washed her mouth on the thing any more she'd make Pastor Cuffie or some of the other legal bandits and conmen with bibles completely irrelevant.
And given the predictable responses on the online version of the article it certainly struck a tone with many Trinis which just confirms for me the level of ignorance that exists about the Mas, human sexuality and Trinbago's social history. In the past I have had to take issue with many otherwise radical thinkers even in the Africentric community on this. Many of them unwittingly fall into a trap of seeing the eros through the lens of the same Euro and Arab they were railing against. The pervasiveness of Old Testament ideas of morality has warped many an otherwise radical mind. If so well me eh know how them bible-wavers go make out when the day finally comes when one of their own pastors or priests – cause they eh go believe me – show them just how much sex (and the kind it have too) in that bible they holding. And I talking about the kind of things me never see on no street in Trinidad yet and from figures who are held up as being "of god." Wha dey go say when they read books like John Allegro's "The Dead Sea scrolls and the Christian Myth" and come across quotes from an ancient eyewitness to the orgiastic Jewish agape ritual. And when in the New Testament they read of the Jesus' head being anointed with oil, which head allyuh think they was really referring to? Doh vex with me, staunch Catholic Margaret Starbird in she book "The Woman with the Alabaster Jar" research that, so too Barbara G Walker in "The Woman's Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets"
Don't get me wrong, although I certainly love nothing better than to see a naked woman or one in revealing, suggestive attire, I see with Ms Holder to a point; we are facing a crisis with unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. This is putting a strain on our nations health-care system – to say nothing about the social impact. But to interpret the erotic behaviour of women around Carnival time as some breakdown in our society's moral fabric – words like "promiscuous" and "jaggabat" aren't lightly used words – is an interpretation that is tired, worn and, incidentally, long discredited. As I have said a million times, even in nakedness and eroticism there can be art and deep philosophical and spiritual expressions. Many Trinis would not accept that of course, because thanks to Western Christian and Arab Islamic influence we see sex as something dirty, polluting, shameful and not the stuff for open display (let alone mature discussion). The strong current of thought in this society that adopts the foreign evangelical idea that things of the "world" – read things carnal – are "not of god" prevents many Trinis from seeing the divine in dance, merriment, gaiety and yes, sexuality. All that is "pagan ting" – as is the same separation of things of the spiritual realm and the secular realm but since the pastor eh get around to telling them that you have people like a certain annoying woman who forever calling to i95.5 to tell listeners to turn away from the things that are not of god and repent. . ..
The point is that with such a mindset firmly embedded among many in this society, it is difficult for Ms Holder and many of those who responded to figure out that the "lewd" dancing and "promiscuous" behaviour she decries is indicative of much deeper issues that need to be confronted and deconstructed with much more than trite, judgemental viewpoints. We can argue of course that many of the women winin down the place Carnival time eh doing so to express no deep philosophical embracement of the erotic either. But what we can and should be saying is that the main issue behind this is a deep culture of sexual ignorance, repression and chauvinistic double-standards largely influenced by simplistic and misogynist ideas masquerading as religious teachings.
Trinbago, like many other Caribbean islands with substantial African and Indian peoples, is a society where there is a lot of raw sexual and sensual energy that can be traced back to more sex-positive worldviews in both those cultures – notwithstanding strong threads of patricentric conservatism that were no less present in these traditional cultures than they were in Europe. But, because of certain historical and ecological factors, one finds that patricentry and matricentry more or less balanced each other off.
That and the social and familial support structures our ancestors had developed eventually clashed with the worldview of the Europeans that colonised the Americas and Africa and spread their sex-negative ideas wherever they went. There is a long tradition of revulsion towards sex, eroticism and sensuality of any kind in European thought. Sexuality, insofar as it was tolerated in Euro-centred patricentry at all, was just another means – the main means – by which masculinity had to express total control and power so as to prevent himself from "backsliding" into the realm of the savage animal. This became a particular obsession as women were considered the main possessors of this dangerous, irrational power. These schizophrenic ideas were very strong in early and medieval Christian doctrinal teachings but their origins predate Judaism and Christianity and can be traced back to Platonic Greece and even further back as I attempted to do in earlier essays. Long and short, as Jean Delumeau showed in his book "Sin and Fear" all the pleasures of life were condemned and viewed as destructive to the social order, but sexuality came in for the most vicious attacks.
Needless to say this remained embedded in European cultural ideas of morality and transferred to colonial Trinbago. If one reads early articles on post-Emancipation African involvement in the Mas, one could easily accuse Ms Holder of plagiarism: she said almost nothing new. The late 19th century Trinbago society was very much tainted by 19th century English middle-class ideas of morality and sexual restraint that, as new research is beginning to suggest, seems to be more of what was desired than what was actually happening in Victorian England. Talk about double-standards.
Which is why I leggo a long steups at her questions as to how the world sees us when images of women gyrating on the streets are beamed abroad. Which world Ms Holder... modern Europe which seems to be evolving past much of its traditional sexual schizophrenia and is slowly adopting much more progressive sexual attitudes? Or perhaps the United States "world" which has held onto its prudishness to the point of hysteria? The same US that wanted to impeach Clinton over his affair, dismissed Petraeus from the CIA over his own, cuss way Tiger Woods and John Edwards but haven't yet arrested George Bush – he of wholesome family values – who carried the nation to war and made the world a much more dangerous place on the basis of a lie, THESE are who you worried about? Gimme a blasted chance.
In any case, if you worried that they go see we as a bunch of oversexed freaks, rest assured that ship sailed since the 18th century. The Caribbean, Asia and Africa have always been where the Euro saw as their refuge from their repressed sexual moral codes. Indeed, that's why many of them come here year round: what do you think Lord Invader's kaiso "Rum and Coco Cola" was about?
And yet, the reality is that for all the raw sexual energy that exists in this country, lack of any proper understanding of it, reflexive guilt surrounding it and strong threads of male-centred chauvinism came together to create a strong repressive culture that specifically targeted women. Reading through the article, I could not help but be reminded of old philosophies and teachings that separated "ladies" – i.e. "good" women – from loose, common, slutty "bad" women that all females were supposed to by nature from birth. Essentially all of the teachings designed to instil guilt among women and the customs developed to make women conform to patricentric ideas of how a "good" woman behaves, is built around this dichotomy. The influence of Euro-American media – a most powerful conveyor of mainstream US puritanical moral values and ideas of sex – does next to nothing to help matters.
And on top of all that here we have the reality that since the 1970s, more and more women becoming involved in Mas playing, around the same time the various social consciousness movements of the 60s and early 70s instilled in many women new-found confidence, independence and sexual assertiveness. One of the many things Ms Holder does not seem to be aware of is the fact that the skimpiness of the Mas "costumes" came about largely through the demands of women masqueraders who wanted less and less restrictive clothing at this time of the year. We should be viewing this as women, coming into their sexual assertiveness, using the Carnival period to express their defiance towards and fling off the restrictive, repressive attitudes and expectations. We can argue that that has been hijacked by patricentric elements who only see the bottom line of the dollar. . ..but that's yet another problem, we aren't arguing that because we aren't discussing much of this.
With all her learning, how can Ms Holder in 2013 NOT be aware of the volumes and volumes of research showing that the same prudish, Victorian anti-sexual guilt and restraint culture is what leads to the lasciviousness she deplores? And for that matter even more serious sexual violence and deviancy? Best I did go to the damn university instead of her (then again, if that's the way one is taught to interpret things, is a good thing I didn't).
In her effort to play down the displays of sexuality, she expressed a view that the "sole purpose" of Trinidad Carnival to be about showcasing our creativity. Nice idea. . ..but she have to come better than that. And she wrong anyhow. You can't cut the erotic out Ms Holder (better than you have tried for generations with no success). Carnival, ever since its known beginnings in Ancient Egypt (not Rome), has always incorporated sex. That, in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing; in Egypt it was a celebration of the fertility of the earth and women. A glorification of fecundity that diffused to Rome via Greece and thus, may I point out again Ms Holder, carried over into the Bible which is choc full of sex acts including thing ME and all eh doing. Sex, which was incorporated in normal religious rituals, was just another expression of life in the so-called pagan faiths. But these ancient cultures and even ours in post-colonial periods had better support structures for families and most importantly a better understanding of human sexuality, one of the things that's lacking today and what we need to be dealing with along with proper informed education on human sexuality given that it is sexual ignorance that is the main culprit behind the high STD rate and unplanned pregnancies in this country.
Which brings me to a next bone of contention with that article. Ms Holder made a sideways dig at unwed mothers that should be regarded with as much contempt as one could muster. Here is what she said: "I was walking into town one day, around November or December, – this was either last year or the year before – and I noticed that there were what seemed like a plethora of pregnant women and if the women were not pregnant, they held what were evidently brand new babies, so itty bitty were these babies (I should add, that when I saw these women, I found myself looking at their hands to see if they were married but many were unwed)."
HELLO?! In 2013?!
I cannot believe it still have educated people talking that crap. So what you telling me is we staying with the old narrative that once conception happens outside of marriage, it immoral. Ok, well, since Augustine, who was the principal theologian who developed that arseness, taught that ALL sex, whether in or outside of marriage, is sinful, allyuh go stay with that.
Agaiiiiinnn, I am prepared to concede that what Ms Holder is really concerned about are the dozens of "Carnival babies" being born into a society where the formal support structures are woefully inadequate and the informal social and familial ones have all but collapsed. With that I can and will empathise. But don't try to tell me that marriage and the nuclear family necessarily provides that structure; there are emotionally and physically absentee fathers and mothers in such unions too.
She then closes off by choosing to "mention that the lyrical content of some calypsoes may also fuel the lewd and licentious behaviour displayed by many women around this time."
There is some validity to that assertion (and I'm not saying that because I hold most soca songs in absolute scorn with their inane, repetitive, semiliterate lyrics). Certain types of music can evoke a variety of feelings and behaviours in people: it is said that the 1812 Overture, for instance, was composed to inspire troops who were preparing for battle. But as the son of the late Mighty Penguin pointed out at his father's funeral – referring to the then controversial "Deputy Essential" – a true artiste simply holds up a mirror of what already exists in the society. So if there is a heavy emphasis on inane lyrics with the basest of sexual references in soca music, if you find the women getting on a little too wassi, check your wider society, what they are exposed to and the way sexuality is viewed in the society.
And I maintain that what we are seeing here is the result of years and years of sexual ignorance, a guilt culture and a year-round hypocritical conservatism being challenged mainly by women who have become increasingly independent and sexually confident and assertive but not necessarily fully understanding of the complexities of human sexuality and the origins of the established narratives. If Ms Holder wants to see a change in the spate of unplanned pregnancies and STD cases, then she should clamour for some serious, sustained and mature dialogues and education on the various aspects of human sexuality (you know, like what Holland did) and don't jump on the winin women just yet.
Postscript – Since my writing of this article, Ms Holder has written a second one that clears up – unfortunately – questions as to what were her intentions. The "Lessons Learnt from the Story of Abraham and Sarah" piece was an unbelievably hate-filled, self-righteous, bible-waving rant that flung reason, logic and compassion clean out the window. She practically wasted down her own family for starters and then proceeded to wash her mouth on everyone else.
It is one thing to be infuriated over revelations that one's father had a child by another woman, I get that; given the way we have been socialised, I expect that from most people. But to arrogate unto yourself an air of moral superiority and use your last paragraphs to engage in not-so-sophisticated slut shaming is nothing less than a crass elevation of one's own ignorance. Her dismissal of sexual enlightenment, including voluntary single-parenthood with words like 'fornicator' and 'jaggabat does more to show her own stupidity, religious bigotry and "un"-literacy. This woman clearly has issues, serious ones, and should resolve them in a much better way than using newsprint to spout such venomous, egregious, simplistic, ill-researched views that may impact on the minds of many who do not know better and may be wrestling with their own sexuality in a society steeped in double-standards, sexual schizophrenic ignorance and religious romanticism. Even more astonishing – as if it could not have possibly gotten worse – is her "understanding" of history and international politics; her last sentence, her "explanation" of why there is conflict in the so-called Middle East today, should be reason enough to investigate her degrees; persons with those letters behind their names cannot possibly be so obtuse. . .and yet....
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