No matter the time of year, I eagerly await friends and family members uploading photos of the various Caribbean carnivals they attend. The splash of masquerade colors, flags, paint, and powder documented on my newsfeed make me proud to be a part of such a rich culture. However, I often become annoyed with how American media chooses to detail our carnivals, namely the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn. Often times the parade and the sexual agency of its masquerade dancers is questioned or stripped down to brown girls in barely-there glittery outfits. Because its become the norm for media outlets to report on gyrating rather than research the intricacies of what is actually being celebrated, here’s a brief lesson on carnival and why it shouldn’t be hyper-sexualized.
Carnival was brought to the Caribbean and South America through colonialism. Carnival was first recorded in Italy, but derived from post-Greek Bacchanalia festivals. In Italy, during the season of Lent, Catholics would fast from meat. The day before Lent began Catholics would hold a costume festival. They named the festival, carnevale which means “to put away the meat.” In a religious context “the meat” symbolizes“the flesh.” Therefore, during the festival people would break societal rules by engaging in sexual behavior and other debauchery, similar to Bacchanalia festivals. The carnivals were also celebrated to symbolize the rebirth cycle of Jesus Christ since Easter immediately follows Lent. The carnivals in Italy became so popular, they spread to other countries such as England, Portugal, Spain and France. As carnivals came to the Caribbean and South America and were introduced to African slaves, materials of the masquerade costumes started to stem from African traditions. For example, feathers were used by Africans on masks and headdresses to define how humans are able to rise above their problems through a spiritual rebirth. Although the historic meaning of carnival has been insufficiently reported, many feel ignorance doesn’t justify the rampant objectification of Caribbean women.
The Western world often advertises the Caribbean as a destination where sexual freedoms are unlimited. It becomes an escape from your daily grind and its people become hyper-sexualized for others’ pleasure. While the dancing and festive costumes during Carnival season may play into the stereotype, those not of Caribbean descendant don’t understand how the tourism ploy in no way scratches the surface of how Caribbean people, especially women, are in a constant balancing act when it comes to their sexual identity. According to Caribbean Sexuality: Mapping The Field:
Caribbean sexuality is both hypervisible and obscured. That is, it is celebrated in popular culture as an important ingredient in Caribbean social life and flaunted to attract tourists to the region, yet is shrouded in double entendre, secrecy and shame.
Sexual relations in the Caribbean fall in a very gray area in the grand spectrum of things. While the perception may be one of sexual liberation, it covers up the region’s well-documented history of social issues such as domestic violence, sexually transmitted disease epidemics, and informal polygamy — all of which have victimized Caribbean women. Therefore, when you see a Caribbean woman celebrating the culture which defines her and owning her sexuality on the parkway or on a float, she is only reclaiming and making sense of an agency that was never hers to possess, according to her societal norms. So, you see, there is still much more behind the feathered masks than most casual observers would ever care to uncover.