Respectability without dignity

This year’s annual performance of pious post-Carnival handwringing was surprising for its new cheerleader, a Port of Spain mayor who (unlike recent predecessors) does sleep in the city, but doesn’t appear to have ever before been on its streets to witness the “vulgarity” of the city’s signature spectacle, mas, founded by the immoral, obscene jamettes of the barrackyards of late 19th-century East Port of Spain.

The history of Trinidad Carnival has been about the vulgarity of life, rooted in the brutality of colonialism, the expropriation of labour, race, colour, class and gender hierarchies—a festival of vulgar beauty and voluptuousness, of sheer virtuosity and creative riot, of bacchanal and outrageousness in kaiso picong and J’Ouvert transgression, in which we use our bodies—waists to wine, hands to pansticks, feet to mas boots, lips to sandemanite—to snub our noses at the world and fate and history.

The Lenten cant of lamentations of vulgarity, along with those of the death of the festival, are part of the ritual. Carnival is also changing, and will continue to, no matter how spectacularly badly or well the state manages it. The ages of recent Calypso Monarchs Karene Asche, Dwayne O’Connor and Chucky, the return of tunefulness to political calypso with Mistah Shak’s “Bois”, and the surprise appearance of commentary in soca tunes like KMC’s “Yeast” ought to put to rest the annual eulogies for kaiso. And though I have no hope of seeing Leroy Clarke in a Bliss drawers next year, one rotibuying midday on the corner of Cipriani Blvd., Sonja Dumas forced me to rethink my own mourning of mas as the spectacle I grew up with.

Mas has become postcolonial; the old colonial subject’s yearning for personhood and respect, which traditional masquing represented, replaced by the feathers, beads, bikinis (and few shorts in between) of our modern “Socadrome” bands of local and freshwater economic citizens. Mas no longer requires the affirmation or gaze of a spectator, it is about a barely ritualised two-day street fete of playin yuhself for yourself. I played feathers-and-beads mas for the first time this year, with Roland St. George’s D Krewe, but refused to pay attention to the name of either my turquoise section or the band.

Unlike state officials whose job is to protect citizens’ sexual rights and cultural expression from violation or undue interference of others, it is the job of Catholic Archbishop Joe Harris to proselytise about the sort of ethical sexuality the Church would like to see. He at least is doing something to create the Carnival he wants to see, as we all should. The Catholic band is one of the wonderful innovations of our evolving festival and I might actually play with them.

The most refreshing commentator in the pietyfest was bandleader Big Mike Antoine, whose vulgar muscularity and minimal clothing have become a Carnival signature. Antoine’s admonition to Mayor Tim Kee was to go focus on what matters to citizens—fighting crime, whose harm is major and manifest, in comparison to any imagined wound of watching a wine. His comment was followed by columnist Sheila Rampersad’s brilliant remark that “Jamettes…are a stubborn, renewable natural resource”.

Both of them unmask the bankruptcy of much of this debate about Carnival vulgarity. Those who police the performance of respectability simultaneously oversee the obscenity of daily violence and incest and injustice in a nation that has done little to entrench a fundamental respect for ordinary people’s human dignity—whether in the school system that makes them failures; the cyclical political culture of tribalism and corruption that places value only on people like those in power; the “bandit factory” (to quote Chalkdust) of our magistracy whose very design is to impose indignity on those who have come before it for justice; or our enduring belief that some people by virtue of their status deserve more equality than others. Our nationbuilding has failed to do what Rex Nettleford called “smadification”, making those who once were not into somebody.

Alongside these violent and shaming notions of what is proper and what is vulgar is a range of colonial and bureaucratic rules and insane rituals that, e.g. forbid the voting public to cross their legs in the front row of the Parliament’s public gallery, and prevent poor people from going to court in the clothes they have, requiring women to hide their upperarms from the magistrate.

I jumped across the Savannah stage Carnival Tuesday and into this pointless investment in rules. I asked one of three police officers, who appeared to be doing nothing, where my visiting godchild, who played with me, could urinate. He referred me to a man watching mas in a CEPEP vest.

“Not in here”, he replied, referring to the half-empty Grand Stand.

“Stop quarreling”, a woman admonished me as I went off loudly about how long I would do so till my country this and that. She introduced herself as a manager, asked if I had noticed my godchild had disappeared, and pointed out she had solved his problem. Maybe it was because of his foreign accent; but he peed with dignity.

In true colonial fashion, we rob people of dignity then demand they behave respectably. I disagree with Archbishop Joe in many ways about sex, but the local Catholic church’s recent efforts around constitutional reform to “smadify” homosexuals are stunning, and his grace in doing so exemplary, putting to shame cowardly government officials who remain deeply invested in performing a piety that takes the place of substance, solutions and commonsense.

Forging the liberty to love: one nation, many bodies, boundless faith

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