So You Wanna Go to Trinidad Carnival? Pro-Tips for Carnival Virgins

It has been a week since I came back from Trinidad Carnival and since that time I have been hit with a barrage of questions about how I did it, how much it cost, and how I managed to get the costume–among other things. So I decided to compile my responses to those questions. This is the account of someone who managed to plan and execute the trip of a lifetime twice and now I want to share some of my tips. So here goes…

Tip #1: Get Your Money Up!!!

Trinidad Carnival is not cheap–there are other inexpensive Carnivals that you can check out such as Cropover, Jamaica, Caribana, Miami…But Trinidad is where you want to set your sights to experience one of the original Carnivals. Yet, the “greatest show on earth”–after Brazil–is an enterprise of globalization and because of that, as its popularity increases among foreigners, so do the prices. It is not lost on me how this manages to isolate some Trinidadians from the festivities (so much so that banks in Trinidad create loans that citizens can take out for Carnival) but that is another post for another time. In general, Trinidad Carnival is not cheap so whether you are playing backline or frontline, staying at the Hyatt, Hilton, or a bed and breakfast, going to Machel Mondays, Soca Monarch, a fete a day or two, be prepared to shell down your shekels. In the spirit of full disclosure, my first trip was about $5000 which is on the high-end of the Carnival budget because I treated is as if I may never go again. I had a frontline costume (more on this later); I purchased Monday Wear from a local designer; I had my makeup professionally done for Carnival Tuesday; I went to roughly one fete a day (and there are no “Ladies free before” parties during Carnival); I stayed at the Hyatt, one of the most expensive hotels Trinidad; I secured a driver, and the flight was not cheap.

So, when you factor in all of those costs (and that doesn’t even include the cooldown trip some people take to Tobago) you are looking at about $5000 give or take. You can cut costs by lodging at a bed and breakfast or an AirBnB with a few friends–my cousin, who goes every year, told me he and his friends pay about $65USD/day for a bed and breakfast. You can also cut cost by doing a backline costume which usually doesn’t exceed $800USD–or by doing no costume, by attending one fete a day or a fete every other day, and maybe by arriving on Saturday before Carnival–but keep in mind that the later you arrive other things will be thrown into turmoil such as costume pickup or you’ll pay a lot more for the plane ticket to fly in at the height of festivities. If you get nothing else from this post, get the fact that you need to get your money up and get it up early. In Carnival you must count the costs because this is not your average vacation. In many ways, you must pay to play. So a quick breakdown of costs would look a little something like this:

Airfare: $700-1200 (this will depend on where you are flying from and how early you buy your ticket. It can be more of less than this range. Flights from Florida and NY tend to be direct and are a little cheaper than flights from elsewhere such as Atlanta.)

Lodging: A hotel such as the Hyatt is approximately $500 USD per night during Carnival week and most people stay on average 6 nights. $500 x 6 = $3000 before hotel taxes and fees. So if you are splitting this with someone expect to pay $1500+. As I said earlier, you can cut costs by staying in a bed and breakfast or AirBnB. Consider the fact that during this week, you won’t get much sleep and your hotel will essentially be for naps and changing clothes, so think about how much you want to pay for that and govern yourself accordingly.

Fetes: There are all-inclusive fetes which are usually over $100 USD, with some topping $180. Non-all inclusive fetes are under that but really, you’ll want to go to mostly all-inclusive fetes because they minimize the number of times you have to reach in your pocket once you touch down.

Costumes: I’ll talk more about this later but just for primer’s sake, a woman’s costume can run anywhere from $700-$1600.

Transportation: Life is easier if you hire a driver during your time in Trinidad and a driver for a week who will take you to and from all the fetes and to the road on Monday and Tuesday will probably run you about $150 USD per person.

Makeup: If you want your makeup professionally done, there are many makeup artists who fly into Trinidad for the occasion. Expect to pay about $125 for an appointment.

Incidentals: After you’ve taken care of all of these costs over the course of your planning, you’ll find that there’s not much you’ll need money for when you are in Trinidad. But, this does not preclude you from walking with money for other incidentals. I recommend you have about $500 USD with you for the week. You’ll spend less than that for sure, but have it just in case.

 

 

Tip #2: Get Your Planning Skills Up

Executing a good Carnival experience necessitates getting your logistical intelligence quotient up. I am not the best planner but when it came to this trip I managed to have my ducks in a row thanks to a few good friends and a good concierge service–concierge services, for a fee, help you get tickets to fetes, get your costume, secure ground transportation, and lodging, etc. If you are seriously considering going to Carnival you should not only be saving your money but plan to start paying on things around July/August when bands launch their themes and costumes. So about the costumes…

img_0852.jpgThe costumes that you see during Carnival season are the creation of designers in a “masquerade band” or “mas band” for short. They are not costumes you commission someone to make for you. You DO NOT order costumes off of Etsy or Party City. You DO NOT look at a band’s costume and design your own–that is disrespectful to designers and it is the preference that, if you see a costume and want a modification, you discuss that with the band or the designer and they will try to make arrangements for modifications. Your costume is created by a designer who designs for a band and you pick and purchase it through a band and that is what you play mas in. Playing mas has a rich history, one that situates it as a practice of resistance for enslaved persons whose masters were having lavish masquerades that the enslaved couldn’t participate in, thus they created their own celebration called Canboulay. Canboulay experienced several transitions including when it was celebrated, and part of those traditions included the timing of Carnival as many of us now know it falls right before Lent. Playing mas has experienced an evolution with costumes that have gone from stock characters to “Pretty Mas” where intricately bedazzled costumes now mark the occasion.

There are over a dozen masquerade bands in Trinidad with new ones popping up every year. This means everyone should be able to get in where they fit in. In July/August, these bands begin to “launch” their costumes for Carnival based on a theme. Each band may have up to 12 different costumes (sections) and about two variations on those 12 which is called frontline and backline. A frontline costume is usually the more ornate of the costumes in a band section because it is decked out with feathers and large feather backpacks, jewels, sequins, wire bras, etc. Thus the frontline will run you at least $900 USD. The backline costume is less ornate but equally beautiful and usually caps at about $800 USD. If you are playing with an all-inclusive band, that +/-$800 is not only paying for your costume but your unlimited drinks, food, DJs, and other amenities while you are on the road on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Some bands have what they call “midline” costumes which offers you a little bit of the glitz of frontline without the high price tag.

In order to register, some bands require you to contact a “committee member” to secure a spot in the band. For those initiated into Greek organizations and secret societies, this may remind you of your intake process and it may cause you no worries. Actually, who am I kidding, the committee process for Carnival is daunting regardless of your previous experience with Greek organizations or secret societies. The committee member is the gatekeeper who stands between you and the costume of your dreams and they may ask for your measurements, pictures, your social media profile or your unborn child (just kidding) in order to grant you entry. And, if I am fully transparent, some of this process is discouraging as some bands have a history of privileging the aesthetics of lighter skin and smaller bodies, particularly in promotional materials for their costumes. So know that Carnival is not an apolitical space and you will have to choose your battles. But do not be dismayed, there are sometimes ways around the committee member process if you use a concierge service who happens to have a relationship with the band you are interested in and the costume you are interested in (this is “if,” keeping in mind that utilizing a concierge service does not guarantee you your choice of any costume.) I was fortunate to get my foot in the door with a new band, ROGUE, which is a partnership between large band Tribe and large event producer Caesar’s Army. I highly commend them to any newbies on the road for 2020 for their great customer service, their beautiful costumes and their non-stop pump on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. ROGUE has plenty vibes. Whatever you do, by July/August, be ready to send emails to committee members or customer service people and be ready to ante-up! Registration for costumes is about a quarter of the costume cost upfront and then you can pay on it up until your arrival.

Pro-tip: Pay off your costume before you touchdown in Trinidad, it makes picking it up easier.

As you can see, procuring a costume alone is quite the event so you definitely need the virtue of patience and a bit of perseverance to get what you want for Carnival. Planning for this is key as is planning for every other dimension of your trip. If you are looking at doing Carnival in 2020, some hotels are taking reservations now and will be taking deposits (it all kinda goes back to getting that money up EARLY). Caribbean Airlines have released flights and others will soon, so set your FareHopper or other notification systems up to watch fares and try not to buy your plane ticket any later than August. As for the acquisition of fete tickets, that happens later in the year so you have time. In the meantime…

Camboulay-2018-11.jpg

Tip #2.5: Know the History and the Culture

I alluded to this a bit in tip #2 and it really should be tip #1, but I hope you’ll understand the gravity of this regardless of where it falls. Many people see pictures of the women and men in costumes or of the dancing and immediately say they want to go to Carnival. Such responses strike me as reductionist as people are only responding to the most salacious part of the experience. Don’t get me wrong, there is immense beauty and sensuality in Carnival to be seen and experienced, yet that is only part of the entire experience. To experience Carnival and love it is to love the history and culture that it springs from. A history steeped in the lives and experiences of African and Caribbean people. It is to be intrigued by more than a glitzy costume and sexy whine, but to be interested in and passionate about the history of a practice that stems from our ancestors crafting practices of liberation in the midst of oppression. It is to feel the spirit of the music from steelpans to soca–this is key especially for Black Americans because there is no “American” music played during Carnival, so if you don’t love soca, calypso, chutney, steelpan, this won’t be for you. It is to savor the flavor and fragrance of Trinidad and Tobago’s food. It is to see the actual melting pot of cultures and ethnicities on an island where many are blended together. It is to immerse yourself in a culture beyond what is promoted.

Tip #3: Get Your Weight Up…Or Off…Or Maintain

There are, of course, obvious reasons that one goes hard in the gym before Carnival and that is to fit perfectly into your costume. Whether you are playing frontline, midline, or backline, you want to look YOUR best in the costume on Monday and Tuesday because those are the two days where you will wear the least amount of clothes alongside thousands of other people wearing the least amount of clothes. Carnival is not a time to be bashful or insecure about your body, it’s a time to celebrate it and have great confidence in it and all that it does for you not just for the time that you are in Trinidad but all year around. Thus, it behooves you to start your workout plan and diet early so that you can pace yourself and get the results you want. But, more than getting to some goal weight and muscle mass, you want to exercise regularly ahead of Carnival because you NEED to build stamina and endurance in general.

Carnival is a marathon, not a sprint. It is non-stop action from the moment you land. If you are about that life you’ll probably have a fete or concert or two a day from the day you land until when you leave. You need endurance for that. You’ll clock less than 6 hours a sleep a night–and that’s generous. Carnival is seriously not for the faint of heart or the unfit–do not read unfit as anything other than not physically fit. You’ll mostly survive on naps and water alone and maybe a double here and there–your eating will get random during your Carnival trip because when choosing between eating and sleeping, you will want the sleep. For example…

On my first Carnival Friday, the day after my friend and I landed, we went to a party that night and then had to do a ticket pickup for a fete. Given all of that, we got back to the hotel at about 10:30PM and needed to wake up at 12:30 for a 1:00am shuttle to a fete in the bushes (Caesar’s Army’s AM BUSH). While my friend retired to the room to nap–and you must be honest about your body’s capacity to push through on little sleep or its need for sleep–I ate dinner because I knew I wouldn’t see food for roughly another eight hours and I needed sustenance if I was about to be partying from the wee hours of the morning until sunrise. I got back to the room at midnight with enough time to casually prepare for the fete which meant cutting up some old jeans into shorts, cutting my t-shirt into something relatively decent and cute, and waterproofing all my belongings (a necessity for any fete or J’ouvert which involves paint, mud, powder, chocolate, and water). And that was just year one, year two was even more intense with going to the same fete, being stuck in traffic for two hours, they taking a 30-minute nap to head to AM BUSH. So, if you follow, there is very little sleep. I was up from about 9am on Friday straight through to about 10pm on Saturday (with the exception of an hour nap between AM BUSH and Soca Brainwash). I survived because I prepared well beforehand with lots of exercise, rest, wheatgrass shots, etc. You need to be healthy to enjoy Carnival, not just for yourself but for your friends, which brings me to my last point.

Tip #4: Get Your Squad Up

You know how they say it’s not about where you are but who you are with? Well, Carnival is equal parts where you are and who you are with. It not only matters that the friends in tow love soca as much as you do or love the idea of being a sleep-deprived soca disciple decked out in feathers and jewels as much as you do, but also that you share similar dispositions about travel and experiencing Carnival together. After all, this is a person, if you choose to share lodging with them, who will see you at your best and your worst and your lowest. They’ll be the ones to hold your hair while you puke from drinking Puncheon, or the one who will wake you up from a nap in the middle of a fete, or the one who will have to help you wash paint off your back, or the one to whine up on you when they sense your energies are getting too low, or the one who can read your energy so well that they know when to leave you alone, or the one who will allow you to put a scarf on the door because you decided to get your groove back, or the one who will help you get into your costume on Tuesday. I promise I list those as general situations and not specific examples of anything that happened on my trip, my travel companion can attest to that. Nevertheless, going to Carnival with the right friends is important. They need to be people you trust, people who you know are responsible and people who are fun and not flakes. Not every person who will express interest in going to Carnival is the right person to go with. Carnival is a for serious inquiries only, so pick reliable, ready friends–that’s financially, physically, mentally, and soca-cally.

Carnival is guaranteed to be the best time of your life if you save and budget well, plan well, exercise well and stay healthy, and travel with the right friends. You can find out more information about specifics parts of planning on the sites below but know that the four things outlined here are integral to even pull this off at all.

For more information on Carnival check out:

A Masqueraders Perspective on the Carnival Experience (Global Carnivalist offer the most comprehensive information on all the Carnivals across the world, you will want to bookmark and follow her on all mediums.)

Guide to Trinidad Carnival Bands (Global Carnivalist’s guide to the Trinidad Carnival bands)

Up Close at Trinidad’s Carnival (An oldie but goodie by Barbara Ehrenreich’s. It documents her experience at Carnival which is well worth reading. This is a good outsider’s perspective.)

Carnival 101 with Fodor’s Travel (This article offers a broad swath of events one can attend during Trinidad Carnival from Panorama to the Canboulay Riot reenactments.)

And of course, feel free to leave your questions and comments below or, if you know me in real life, you can reach out. 🙂

PS: Start planning NOW!

 

 

 

 

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Trinidad Carnival: My Eden

At this moment, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, myself included, are traveling to Trinidad for Carnival, the season of fetes, masquerading, and feasting that precedes Ash Wednesday. To the liturgically inclined, Carnival, like Mardi Gras, marks the end of Ordinary Time and the beginning of a period of solemnity. But for an increasing many, Trinidad Carnival just marks the beginning of a global season where at least once a month, every month until October, there is an opportunity to “Free Up Yourself.” Even after the Soca Monarch is crowned, the lights on the stage go dim, the feathers and jewels are swept off the street, and everyone sobers up from the various Carnivals around the world, there is still a flurry of activity going forth to plan next year’s Carnival. Much like God, Carnival is always working.

In 2016 I attended my first Carnival in Miami and became a convert. I became a Carnivalist and soca disciple who didn’t know what I thought fun was before I played mas. Prior to attending Miami Carnival, I watched family and friends fete for hours, days, a week even, and then I experienced it–on a smaller scale–for myself. From that moment on I fervently held on to my last memories of a Carnival experience while I counted down the days until my next. And now, here I am, on my way to my second Trinidad Carnival aka “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Given this,  I wanted to take this time to reflect on what it is that makes Carnival so compelling to me and why I am going to Trinidad again. There are some who have misconceptions about Carnival, presuming that with the (increasingly) tiny costumes and scantily clad people, the sometimes suggestive music, the copious alcohol, and what seems like an entire ethos of debauchery, that those of us who attend are going there to be promiscuous and reckless. While that may be some people’s aim, the majority of us go for a completely different reason. I go because Carnival is a religious experience, an Eden even, where the mind, body, and soul are without shame.

There are a variety of religious experiences if religion is defined as a cultural set of beliefs and practices that people gather around. If part of this is the gathering of persons inspired to give focused attention, adoration, and commitment to a subject or object, then Carnival is it. Or maybe Soca is the religion and Carnival is the church. Either way, year over year people take a pilgrimage to Trinidad and other Carnival locations, spending months in physical and financial preparation, to come together and be swept up in the spirit of Soca–and some liquid spirits–and all that comes with it: ecstatic dancing, laughing, singing, bonding, and a celebration of life. In all of this, there is a great sense of unity among those gathered and a unifying power in the individual.

This unity has historical significance as the origins of the practice of participating in Carnival is one in which enslaved people celebrated apart from their oppressors–who were having masquerade balls of their own–and donned character and caricature costumes that represented important figures in African and Caribbean culture. These figures ranged from devils and mammies to tricksters and were a site of resistance and spiritual performance. These practices still exist today but on a slightly smaller scale as Carnival has experienced the boom of globalization which has made it so that pretty masquerading has eclipsed the traditional. Pretty mas has its detractors and one can surely write a think-piece about all the problems inherent in the concept, but I find promise in the pretty masquerade as it is a special site of resistance for women, especially Afro-Caribbean women who sometimes exist in spaces that do not affirm or proclaim our beauty. In Carnival, the pretty masquerader proclaims and flaunts her beauty and embodies the saying, “Carnival is woman.” I would go so far as to say that the practice of playing mas in Carnival can share affinity with doing womanist work as it is woman loving her body, music, dance, love, roundness, other women and men both sexually and non-sexually, etc.

So, one of the parts of the Carnival experience is “playing mas,” otherwise known as masquerading–this could involve joining a traditional band with the aforementioned characters or joining a pretty mas band. Every year, a masquerade band has a theme and costumes designed by local and international designers connected to that theme. Note: You are not commissioning a random person to make your mas costume, you buy it through the band and your costume is distributed in the region where the Carnival is held–that means that my Trinidad Carnival costume is in Trinidad, not something that is shipped to me in Atlanta that I then have to figure out how to get down to Trinidad and back again. In Miami I played with Generation X whose theme for 2016 was Erotica, and I played in the Bondage section. If you know my research you know that I considered it Kismet that my first time playing mas was with a band whose theme for the year was Erotica. The costume consisted of a lot of black, chains, and restraint-like accessories, yet I was anything but restrained or in bondage. I was free, the freest I’d been in my life because I was in a place where I was at one with my body.

Carnival is not only the place to dash weh your inhibitions but to dash weh your insecurities about your body because it is truly a place where all (bodies) are welcome. Playing mas in Carnival is an experience of becoming one with your body in private to be at one with it in public. I find this significant as someone raised in and a current adherent to a Christian tradition that makes the body a problematic. My comfort with my body has come in waves and it has taken me nearly a decade to embrace my body as a woman, fully sacred, and fully good. Carnival felt like a culmination of this work and attending a Carnival annually or bi-annually is an opportunity to celebrate bodies, particularly in the womanist way of celebrating roundness. For me, adorning my body with nothing other than a bra made of wire, a strip that covers my nipples, and a tiny bikini bottom is a step to my liberation. When I put on my costume and look at myself, it is like seeing myself for the first time. Everything looks new and incredible to me. Finally, my body is enslaved to no one and no thing, it is liberated and it dances among other liberated bodies. Thus for me to spend nearly a week in various level of undress is not something to be ashamed of–that is why I post and speak fairly openly about it because I want to decrease the judgment and shame that is sometimes implied and put upon women in particular for enjoying this exhibition of our fearfully and wonderfully made bodies. We came into this world naked–and by that I not only refer to our natural birth but the divine birth through which we knew no shame and our bodies were good.

Furthermore, those of us who are part of the diaspora but are chained to the West, benefit from participating in practices that explicitly unlink us from the notion that our bodies are bad or that a naked body equals a corruptible body. At Carnival, bodies are without shame, there is no objectifying gaze save for those who are completely out of their league in understanding what is liberative and sacred about participation in Carnival–I say this as one who believes that an argument forwarding a notion of objectification in this context is one that ignores that the objectifier, i.e. European colonizer, came before objectification. Among the diaspora there is no objectification because we understand our bodies and ourselves not as objects or objectified, we are subjects of our heritage and our liberation. We are free, and as subjects to our heritage we also experience that freedom through music and dance.

I’ve been dancing in some way, shape, or form throughout my life, it is what frees me up to do more and to process a spectrum of emotions that cannot be excised in the mind. Dancing is how I commune with myself, with God, and with the earth. Carnival allows me to commune with those parts all the more because of the Soca music that is integral to the celebration. The waistline is the focal point in much of the dancing done at Carnival and its primary job is to whine–which is why many songs will focus on the whine. While the ability to ability to whine the waistline is woman’s work, men have also become as proficient, providing some healthy competition and a hell of a time. Men and women meet on the road and enjoy a kind of promiscuous dancing, going from one person to the next, usually thanking their partners along the way. Shame is non-existent here because there is a sense that this is what our bodies were made for, to consensually congregate and dance freely. Together on the road, no harm can befall us. We are safe there dancing with one another as freely as we want to and there is nobody or no gaze to disrupt us as the vibrations of the sound system blasting soca moves us.

Being raised in a Jamaican family, I was exposed to all of the genres of Caribbean music but never took a liking to soca, I was a strictly dance hall girl. But after a weekend of living on a soca soundtrack in Miami, I was hooked and couldn’t imagine my life without it.  The pure positivity and vibes of soca music are infectious and seemingly does something to its listener. Whether the song is about giving a man or woman a good whine, celebrating life, or giving praise to God, it imbues the listener with a life force unlike any other genre of music–with the exception of some Gospel music. That life force is a positive productive power best articulated in Benjai’s 2015 hit, “Phenomenal.” In it he says,

Soca does give me meh powers
Turn me into masqueraders
Soca does give meh meh powers
Draw me straight in different colors
Masqueraders, we get powers
Is a wonderful feeling
On Stage together holding me banners With different colors
We crossing the stage

This song asserts soca’s power as a unifying force individually and communally. It gives people powers to come together from all walks of life and celebrate life against all odds. The different colors are a reference to both those of the vibrant costumes, flags, and the people who represent the multitudes of the world. Many gather around the sound of soca and experience themselves in the world as never before because they are reminded of who they are in relation to themselves and in relation to everyone else. Some soca music also manages to situate itself within the Christian tradition through songs that ground a Judeo-Christian conception of God as bestower of blessings, protector, provider, and comforter. This explicit reference to religion aside, soca at its core is about unity and establishing the power of people coming together. This year many of us have the hit “Famalay” by Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin, and Skinny Black to look forward to as we once again affirm our unity as people when we sing,

We doh see skin
We doh see colour
We see strength
We see power
We doh see race
One or di other
Once he is breathing on dis earth he is ma brother

Soca is a great equalizer for the masses that can help us to see one another by collapsing difference for one moment in time and celebrating our common humanity. This is something we are hard pressed to do in many other places, but somehow it works in the context of soca and Carnival.

Soca reminds us that a celebration is always around the corner and the riddim drives us to shake off everything that binds us. The sound calls us to live in the moment, love life, and love one another. This is why I consider myself a soca disciple. I fell in love with soca precisely because the music’s message is so consistently positive and celebratory in a way that one almost can’t account for by words alone. There is metaphysical-level goodness happening in soca that takes me to another level both on the road and in my daily life. Soca is, literally, good for the soul.

In all of this, Carnival strikes me as a religious experience because it gathers every part of the self and penetrates it with generative, positive, productive energy. It does so within the context of a community that gathers for the purpose of imbuing itself with this energy. It takes the body and redeems it, restoring it to a pre-Fall moment where shame is not an issue. It takes the mind and gives it a higher consciousness, bending it toward unity and love as a consistent ethic. It lifts the soul to a higher vibration. It is more than just an opportunity fling it up, it is an opportunity to get free. And so, off I go to my personal Eden to live on top of the world–the Black Church folk will get that. See you all on the flipside.

 

Teaching Christian Sexual Ethics: Reflecting on Week One

Last Thursday marked the beginning of my time as an adjunct professor teaching Christian Sexual Ethics at the Candler School of Theology. I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach this class not only because once upon a time I was a Candler student who wished that such a course was offered during my matriculation, but also because I understand the necessity and value of a course such as this at such a time as this. So, with the first week behind me yet ever on my mind, I want to reflect on it.

The first day of class is often “getting to know you” time and my first day of class was no different. I spent time, with varying levels of success, introducing students to the overall structure of the class, though in telling them about the structure of the class I completely missed telling them about the class as in, “What is Christian Sexual Ethics?” I did a brief lecture that laid a foundation for the first quarter of the class, the section that will deal with historical documents that have influenced the discourse of and on Christian Sexual Ethics. I trotted out the usual suspects: The ones such as Paul, Plato, and Augustine who set the body against the soul or flesh against the spirit. Aquinas and his virtue-based approach to the body and sex. Then we quickly went through how sexual ethics turns topical in the 19th-21st century. Finally I asked the students, what is it that they want and need from the course. The answers were varied. We spent the second half of class discussing a few chapters in Michael Coogan’s God and Sex, a book that I recommend to people who are interested in beginning their study, in sober fashion, of what the Bible really says about sex. It was a lively discussion where students shared their understanding of the text, their theoretical perspectives adjacent to it, and personal experiences within their lives and their contexts.

It felt like a good class but it was only the first day. Since the class I have been thinking about the kind of space I want to create for the students, something that I could not have decided until I had an opportunity to meet and engage with them in the classroom. Now that I have done that once I am reflecting on what I think the task of a Christian Sexual Ethics teacher is, particularly as I see the ways in which students are hungry for knowledge, knowledge that will deconstruct the myth and production of sex and sexuality as the Christian Church has constructed it, for the sake of church contexts they may be leading or will lead in the future, and the knowledge that will give them a new ethical code to follow.

It is my belief that in teaching Christian Sexual Ethics one does not, necessarily, just prescribe a way forward. That is, the job of the person who teaches Christian Sexual Ethics is not to promote what to think but it is to promote how to think about what we have been thinking about the discourse at large. It is to test and approve or disapprove the ethic of Christian Sexual Ethics, particularly that which is prone to be regulatory. Thus I promote no new ethic that can be conceived of as in line with a new normal or that which would be conceived of as liberal, but I desire to take every side of the discourse, consider it in context, consider it outside of its context regarding the way it has been taught, and then think through the ways in which we might move forward with or from it.

I consider what one student said on the first day about presenting “alternative ideas,” which, in her definition, was not about actual alternative ideas but about how we make room for those who believe in the tradition–or what more progressive to liberal Christians might call the “conservative” teachings of the church. How do we talk to those for whom abstinence before marriage is still the model, purity is de riguer, marriage is between one man and one woman, etc? I felt this student deeply because it reminded me that space must be made for a multitude of views and that there is a possibility that someone could believe in the traditional teachings of the church on sexual ethics and if that is the case, how do we make room for that and ensure that if one stays close to traditional views they do no harm in the process? Because I am under no delusion that one can remain within the realm of tradition or the traditional and not toe the line of doing harm that can do violence either physically or metaphysically. How do we hold views that may be considered more liberal without making them the norm and categorical imperative? How do we help people own their sexuality wherever they fall on the spectrum not presuming that an interest abstinence denotes being a prude or a robust sex life denotes a whore? Can we break the binary that both implicitly and explicitly suggests to be tradition is to be repressed and to be liberal is to be liberated? Is there something in between all of this?

To teach Christian Sexual Ethics toward the end of liberation cannot always mean teaching liberal, it includes teaching what is considered liberal but it is not only that. It talks to tradition and contends with it and permits space for separating the wheat from the chaff in those teaching so that it might be possible to utilize the theoretical frameworks of a tradition to more liberating ends. Just as we are fully human and fully divine beings, we require a full conversation that includes all we can consider about how we move through the world as the embodied divine, little words made flesh. With this in mind we move forward entrusting one another with a full range of being and thinking through who and how we are on this earth and we wrestle with that on every level. We create space to wrestle with the implications of our commitments to our bodies and to God and to help determine for ourselves how to reconcile these two seemingly disparate modes. It is not only about how we live as faithful and sexual beings but how we think about how we live in accordance with that way of being.

At the conclusion of this course I hope that students might be able to articulate where they have been and where they are going in light of the sources and resources that have been set before them over the course of the semester and that given all of this they might leave different than they came, whatever that looks like.

So once more unto the breach I go to teach Christian Sexual Ethics, hoping that I do the topic justice, uncovering what is unjust and just about our reflections on and utilization of sexual ethics in our tradition and hoping that I help students see a way forward for themselves and their contexts.

Andrew Johnson’s Choice, Agency and Power

I am sitting here working through a paper on Foucault and Christian ethics and a quote from Foucault on the concept of domination struck me, particularly as many of us are thinking through the incident involving Andrew Johnson, the high school wrestler who was given an ultimatum from his referee to either cut his ‘locs or forfeit the match. Johnson’s ‘locs were then cut in public, in front of everyone, by a white woman based on this order from a referee with a history of being racist. Some have asked why didn’t Andrew just forfeit the match, presuming it should’ve been an easy decision because he is an agential being. But such a presumption does not take into consideration the variables that Andrew was weighing in regard to his choice. It does not take into consideration that having agency does not always mean that one can be fully agential.

Andrew had agency but I argue that it was agency under constraint because of the power dynamics above him and whatever “good” was connected to him wrestling the match as opposed to forfeiting it. It is possible that Andrew chose to have his ‘locs cut because he did not think he had another choice. When faced with a choice that is presented to you by someone with more power than you, the decision is not an easy one, particularly not when there is a possibility that you may have more to lose than they do. Maybe, as I told someone who is also wrestling with Andrew’s choice, Andrew made the choice he did because there was some “good” connected to it, for instance his performance on the team could put him in a good position to earn a scholarship. Or maybe his performance on the team makes it so that they maintain good stats for the season and he does not want to be the one responsible for ruining that. And so, like many Black and Brown people whose back became the bridge on which many walked over to success, Andrew, unfortunately, sacrificed himself for what he thought was the good of the team. Some have erroneously called this, Andrew being a team player. I disagree with that statement because a team should never let you make a decision like that or allow their teammate to be publicly humiliated–is there any good reason why his ‘locs were cut in front of everyone like that? I know the reason and am not afraid to call it what it is, racism. And one of the insidious ways that racism works in this country is through micro and macro-aggressions. Racism and racist practices persist because of relations of power between white people–or the people of whiteness as coined by my colleague-friend Jeremy Posadas–and Black and Brown people. Many Black and Brown people, despite having what many liberals might consider agency, only have agency to the extent that those they are in relationship with share power in mutually beneficial ways.

Being under constraint, particularly the constraints presented by power dynamics, warp an individual’s ability to make the best personal decision. This is doubly the case for a young Black man faced with a choice presented to him by a white man in a position of power over him. One cannot discuss agency and choice without discussing relations to power and who better–well, as far as I know at this moment–to put words to this than Michel Foucault. And I know that it can be trite to trot out Foucault when it comes to discussing power, but I promise that I didn’t go searching for this, it jumped out at me as I was working through one of his texts for a paper. Nevertheless, what I am trying to get at in my own claim that Andrew Johnson is an agential being whose ability to choose was constrained by his relation to power is perfectly summed up in Foucault’s words on the concept of domination and relations to power. And so I will conclude with his words.

“Power relations are extremely widespread in human relationships. Now, this mean not that political power is everywhere, but that there is in human relationships a whole range of power relations that may come into play among individuals, within families, in pedagogical relationships, political life, and so on. The analysis of power relations is an extremely complex area; one sometimes encounters what may be called situations or states of domination in which the power relations, instead of being mobile, allowing various participants to adopt strategies modifying them, remain blocked, frozen. When an individual or social group succeeds in blocking a field of power relations, immobilizing them and preventing any reversibility of movement by economic, political, or military means, one is faced with what may be called a state of domination. In such a state, it is certain that practices of freedom do not exist or exist only unilaterally or are extremely constrained and limited.”