When the plane touched down in Trinidad, the festive atmosphere was infectious. Many on the flight made the trip to participate in the country’s Carnival—an annual parade known for its beautiful women and extravagant costumes—so they were all ecstatic to snap off their seatbelts and rush to collect their luggage.
Everyone except for me.
Like everyone else on the flight, I also returned to Trinidad to enjoy Carnival, partcipate in the Clay J'Ouvert party and don a vibrant, elaborate costume designed by Passion Carnival. But I was also on a daunting mission: I had six weeks to convince the man that I love and the father of my child that we should move thousands of miles away from his home. That there was the possibility of a better life for us as a black family, outside of America. Through Carnival, I wanted to take him on a journey into the African roots that intricately connect all black people in the Western Hemisphere, no matter our claimed nationality. And I hoped that journey would prove to him that we belonged on the island of my birth, Trinidad and Tobago, not back in the U.S.
Right out of college, I pretty much gave up on America. I wrote “Goodbye to My American Dream” after I packed my shit up and moved back to Trinidad, literally the day after graduation. As a black, immigrant woman, I was fed up of dealing with both racism and American xenophobia. I no longer wanted to be the only black person in an office or classroom. Nor did I want to continue having to explain that my island nation has toilets, roads, schools and is not at all a “third world country” like rapper French Montana ignorantly asserted upon landing in Trinidad’s airport.
Even when suppression came in the form of outright criminalization, the ways of African people endured and eventually established the longstanding traditions associated with the festival today.
My intolerance of American racism drove me back to my country that embraced me like a long-lost child and swept me up into a culture so proudly rooted in African tradition. My accent deepened and took on a sing-song rhythm. Trinidad’s Carnival grounded me in a newfound black identity that wasn’t contingent upon white acceptance. It brought me out into the streets of Port of Spain in tiny “pum pum” shorts to “wine,” shake my waist and remind me that my ancestors fought and were even killed in order to express their blackness in this way. I finally felt like I was living an authentic life and had everything I wanted. I vowed I would never return to America, except for short visits.
During one of those would-be “short” visits to America, I met him. He was playing basketball alone, and as I’m always eager to get in on a game of hoops, I asked to shoot with him.
“If you want to,” he responded nonchalantly, shooting me a sly grin. I never had a chance.
The days became weeks, months and then years with him. I wanted him, a Jersey-born, Haitian-American, to understand that I had every intention of returning to my country, that I had written off all things American. That’s when the tug of war began.
Each time I felt the need to back out of our relationship to feel secure in my relationship with my country, he calmly reeled me in and distracted me with fun, adventure and spontaneity. We literally spent every single day together after our chance meeting that day on the basketball court. Each day in Jersey, I fell deeper and deeper in love with him. But I was also in love with somewhere else.
“You ever think about leaving America?” I casually questioned one day.
He hadn’t, but the prospect of moving piqued his interest. As a black man who was raised in what could be easily referred to as “the hood,” escape seemed like a dream. Despite completing a master’s and working in the local hospital as a social worker, he still constantly checked his rear view mirror and cringed at the sight of police. It was also hard for him to feel completely committed to a country whose president referred to his parents’ native land, Haiti, as “a shithole country.” While a move so distant would mean leaving behind everything he knew, much of what he knew in America was worthy of forgetting: police brutality, friends either killed or incarcerated, job discrimination and the daily indignities of black life in America.
Trinidad promised freedom. And I figured there was no better way to introduce him to that freedom but to bring him to Carnival.
Promoted as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Carnival means so much to Caribbean people all across the Western Hemisphere. For those like myself who have been transplanted abroad, it is a Mecca where we finally return “home.” It is a moment to be a part of a history so powerful and magnificent that it has withstood centuries of attempts to extinguish it.
I saw that Carnival spirit in my partner’s eyes when water cannons blasted the crowd during SOAKA, a party that starts at 4 a.m. and goes well into the afternoon. Then again during Carnival’s opening ceremony when everyone is doused with mud, paint and oil. And while posing for a photo on Carnival Tuesday with a group of cute girls wearing beautiful purple, black and pink costumes, when he proudly displayed his Haitian flag. His eyes glistened in a way they never did back up North. I could tell he was feeling it, that feeling of pure bliss and belonging that permeates every fiber of your being.
In the 1800s, Carnival was originally meant for white, French plantation owners as a time to celebrate before Lent. Enslaved Africans were unable to participate in the extravagant masquerades and balls indulged by the planters. However, when emancipation brought freedom, Afro-Trinidadians created their own parallel celebration and named it “Canboulay.” They danced through the dark streets, carrying torches, beating drums and singing songs with cheeky lyrics. They participated in stick fights and wore revealing, outrageous costumes.
Prudish, Victorian-era white culture frowned upon the “obscene” nature of African Carnival. White aristocracy outlawed African percussion instruments in an attempt to stomp out their celebration, but then African perseverance birthed the steel pan—the country’s national instrument. Plantation owners forced Africans to stop speaking in their mother tongue, but then Africans created Calypso music to mock their “owners” and secretly communicate with one another. Canboulay was banned entirely, but then it was rebirthed as J’Ouvert and spectacular costumes were created to represent characters in Trinidadian folklore.
Even when suppression came in the form of outright criminalization, the ways of African people endured and eventually established the longstanding traditions associated with the festival today. Despite every effort, white people could not restrain the indefatigable African spirit. It merely shape-shifted. And that is the true meaning of Carnival.