En Route to Accra and Disabusing Myself of Ignorance About Africa

I write this as I am in flight to Accra with about 5.5 hours until we reach. I’m headed to Ghana for the wedding ceremony of two good friends, one of whom is from Ghana the other from Jamaica but both of whom really wanted to bring their family and friends home on this year of return that marks 400 years since the beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade. The journey has been interesting thus far. I’m observing everything around me particularly who is going to Ghana. On my flight are primarily Black American, Caribbean, and African persons and some white people. Only two of the white people are guaranteed not to be missionaries–I only know that because they, too, are traveling for the wedding. I bring up this point of the white missionaries because recently when I told a white Christian woman that I was going to Ghana she excitedly said, “Are you going for a mission trip?!” I was reminded at that moment that there are still people, usually white, who think the only reason one goes to any country in Africa is for a mission trip. As I explained to her that I was going to attend the wedding ceremony of a close friend who is from Ghana and who wanted to welcome all of his friends home, she looked at me in amazement as if she never heard of someone going to Ghana or anywhere in Africa for pleasure. I was happy to disabuse her of the notion that Africa is only for missions. Yet this reminds me that many are the misconceptions about the continent of Africa and I myself will probably be disabused of a lot of those through this opportunity to travel to the continent.

As I have been preparing for this trip, I have thought a lot about how I, we, hold Africa in our consciousness. A few years ago Raven Symoné, though few people would admit it, exposed many Americans. Reporting the results of an ancestral DNA test, Symoné declared that she is from “every continent in Africa.” Whether it was a slip of the tongue or her actual thinking, it revealed the fact that many Americans don’t understand the region of Africa. To those people, it is not a vast continent full of countries, cultures, tribes and many things that make clear that people of the diaspora are diverse. Instead, it is usually collapsed because people don’t understand the constitution of the continent or, as I mentioned above, of the concerns of the continent–as if Africa exists only for the interventions of well-meaning white people and their Black friends. This is not helped by the way that schools teach the continent in geography class. I recalled the failings of my education in this regard when I recently came across a video with a brother and sister quizzing one another on the capitals of African countries. I was embarrassed that not only did I not know the capitals, but they also seemed foreign to me altogether in a way that suggests I never learned them in the first place. But ask me to give the capital of American states and I can name most. I can also name a fair amount of capitals of European countries, some South American ones, some Middle Eastern ones…You get the point. It’s really an embarrassment of ignorances all the way around, but I am fortunate to be on my way to disabusing myself of a lot of ignorance on this trip.

I have about 10 minutes of in-flight internet left so I have to wrap this up. Suffice to say, I’m really excited about touching down in Ghana. I’m thankful for the kind of friends who have taken the destination wedding to the next level by inviting all of their friends to come home to Ghana. I’m excited about feeling a sense of home when we land–which according to my own ancestral DNA test I am 22% Ghanain. I am looking forward to learning more about the history of my ancestors who were taken away on ships leaving from Jamestown and held in Elmina Castle and to hear about the work of Kwame Nkrumah and visit Du Bois burial site and eat a lot of wonderful food and meet a lot of people and learn of the assets of the country and be moved by it in general. I plan to document the experience of this trip throughout my week in Ghana, so stay tuned…

PS: Excuse any grammatical errors, I am not just writing this on a plane but on very little sleep.

Not “Just the Tip”: A Clarion Call to Cavalier Men in the Anti-Abortion Age

“Let me just put the tip in for five seconds, I’m not going to bust that quickly.”

“I know my body.”

“My pull-out game is on point.”

These are words I have heard during sex from the mouths of men ranging in age from 28-44. Three different men trying to convince me that I should trust them enough to have unprotected sex with them. One of these men even stealthed me–if you are not familiar with stealthing it is the practice of a man taking a condom off mid-sex although their partner only consented to sex with the condom on.[1] This same man begged me to allow him to “just put the tip in,” then looked in my eyes and said, “What are you scared of getting pregnant?” I looked at him incredulously and said, “Why yes, yes I am scared of getting pregnant amongst other things, I have short-term goals that don’t include having a baby with you.” He laughed and persisted with his “just the tip” antics. These are three men within the last year and a half, a surprising number because they most likely represent a microcosm of the men who persuade women to have unprotected sex with them as if it is not a zero-sum game.

Incidents such as these have always been worth our attention as they reveal the cavalier nature of men who prefer condomless sex while ignoring the consequences of unprotected sex.[2]  It is worth our immediate attention and interrogation as women’s reproductive rights and bodily control are in danger now more than ever. I live in Georgia, a state that recently passed the heartbeat bill which bans abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy. The above sexual encounters all happened in Georgia and, no disrespect to the men involved, I am pretty sure that if I were pregnant as a result of unprotected sex with them, they would not exactly rush to father their children. These are men who put pleasure before protection, believing at the moment that their condomless sex has no consequences or that the only consequence is pregnancy, forgetting sexually transmitted infections among other issues. These are men who, for all intents and purposes, have put themselves in the same seat of control and power that many women are fighting against in the larger reproductive rights war. In each of these intimate encounters, I was fighting for my reproductive rights by asking my partner to wear a condom, a fight that was often futile because some men love pleasure, power, and control more than they love women. Thus it makes me realize that the people who need the reproductive regulation and control are not women, but men, men such as those above who are so bold as to desire and beg for unprotected sex yet most likely would not exercise a similar boldness if they found out the child was theirs. Men who are also not on the frontlines fighting against the forces that want to control women’s bodies, because if they were to do so, they would acknowledge the ways in which they MUST relinquish their desire to control in the bedroom and outside of it.

I have always been cognizant of my body’s reproductive capacity and I have always been careful, particularly as a woman in protracted singleness who does not have a biological clock set for reproduction. At best I am ambivalent about having children, at worst I may not want them at all. But, if I ever bring a child into the world it will be because I decided to with another human being not because it was decided for me. The men mentioned above, their ilk, and the state–which includes both men and women, put my ability to decide and control for myself at stake while men remain free subjects. Most of us learned in Biology, Anatomy & Physiology, or Sex Education how reproduction works. Typically it involves two people with complementary organs that facilitate the process of reproduction, yet the heartbeat bill and other anti-abortion legislation only impinge upon the bodies of one population,  women, and not the men who constitute the necessary other half of the formula.[3] 

Where are the reproductive restrictions for men? Where are the laws that regulate and control penises the way my uterus is currently being controlled? Where is my protection from the cavalier men of the world who are begging just to put the tip in or who are convinced that their pullout game is strong? I understand I am responsible for exercising agency in choosing to engage with these men, but while I exist in a world that is, bit by bit, taking control of my body, I think we should start thinking about how to spread the regulation to control the uncontrollable male body. I am tired of men’s private(s) and public power going unchecked–because rest assured, there is a faction of the same men who exercise public power over women who are most likely exploiting their power over women in private. You do not become the type of person who is comfortable with controlling women’s bodies in the public sphere without being the type of person in the private sphere who wields similar insidious, abusive power–ask the Catholic Church. Anyways, back to the lecture at hand.

If, as it alleges in some anti-abortion bills, a woman who miscarries is in danger of committing a felony–even though she largely has no control of that–then shouldn’t we be reporting men and having them convicted in the court of law for that which they perceive themselves to have control of–their penises, the wearing of condoms, the flow of their semen, etc? I’m here for Georgia state representative Dar’Shun Kendrick’s “testicular bill of rights” that would include a ban on vasectomies, force men to obtain written permission from their sexual partners before getting a prescription for an erectile dysfunction medication, and make sex without a condom punishable under law as “aggravated assault.” Like Dar’Shun, I am not pushing an anti-male agenda, I am advocating for a human rights agenda that interrogates how regulating reproduction problematically defaults to women and reiterates the practice of controlling women’s bodies while allowing men to run recklessly free. I desire to bring men into the larger conversation about women’s reproductive rights since so many of them have so much to say during the sexual act that typically begets the reproductive act. I am interested in talking about how, if governing bodies are really concerned about life and possibility–which we all know is not their concern because no anti-abortion legislation includes increasing support for mothers via covered healthcare, childcare, etc.–they should actually pay more attention to men’s role in the reproductive process. I want men to hold themselves responsible by relinquishing their power to control and their desire for pleasure.

At the end of the day, I don’t want the state to control any of our bodies. I’m not interested in a both/and plan where women cannot have abortions and men cannot spill their semen. I want the preoccupation with and control of women’s bodies to end, but in the absence of that, I want men to take a critical look at their role in the process of reproduction. I want the same government that has so much to say about a woman’s womb to look at their fallible phalluses and make them a subject of the state in the same way my uterus is a subject and is now subject to the state of Georgia. I want them to acknowledge how the issue is not with women but it is with men, their desire to control and their abuse of power which goes from the bedroom to the bench–the Supreme Court bench where the heartbeat bills may edge us toward an overturning of Roe v. Wade which will throw women’s reproductive rights and personhood into infinite precarity, and efficiently take away women’s control of their own bodies.

What I want is for men, such as the three who inspired this essay, to recognize their role in women’s reproductive rights. The role does not start at the polls, it starts in private in instances such as I mentioned earlier. It starts by taking seriously the requests of women during sexual encounters. It then branches out to the way that you advocate for women in public spaces. It starts by believing and understanding that the war on women’s reproductive rights is about women but not just about women. The war ought to be fought not just by women but by men who are just as zealous about our vaginas in the streets as they are in the sheets.

[1] https://www.elitedaily.com/news/is-stealthing-illegal-how-guys-get-in-trouble/1892968

[2] I am intentionally using the language of “condomless sex” and “unprotected sex” because it occurs to me that the former is a euphemism for men whom see pleasure as a first end. When these men ask for or demand sex without a condom they imply that their pleasure not the possibility of procreation comes first. And though these men probably theoretically know the possible negative consequence of unprotected sex, they seem to suspend that knowledge for their pleasure even as their partner encourages otherwise.

[3] And it should go without saying that I am referring to reproduction through the sexual act not reproduction through insemination, in vitro fertilization, etc. Reproduction through the sexual act involves, ideally, two people who have entered the sexual event consensually and two people who are aware of the possible consequences of having sex which

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!

 

 

 

 

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.