Lesson of the Day: ‘Feathers and Female Power: The Costumes of Carnival’

Part 1: What do you know about Carnival?

Carnival celebrations typically occur in Christian religions right before the season of Lent, a time of solemn religious observance that occurs between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Rio de Janeiro has a famed Carnival celebration, Mardi Gras is celebrated in New Orleans, and in Venice, people celebrate on land and in the Cannaregio Canal.

To get a sense of what a Carnival celebration is like, spend a few minutes exploring the following resources:

Then, respond to the following questions: What are some of the main features of a Carnival celebration? What sights, sounds, smells and tastes might you experience if you were there? How would you describe the atmosphere?

Part 2: The history and meaning of Caribbean Carnival

In the featured article, you’ll be learning about Caribbean Carnival, celebrations around the world that are specific to the experience of Caribbean immigrants.

Read these two paragraphs from the article “The Fun Police: Law Enforcement Comes to Carnival” by Mychal Denzel Smith that describe the history of Caribbean Carnival:

In the late 1700s, French colonists in Trinidad began hosting masquerade balls that the enslaved Black Caribbean population was banned from attending. Undeterred, the enslaved peoples hosted their own festivals, often as a way of mocking their enslavers. Upon emancipation in 1838, Black Caribbean peoples participated in the Carnival celebration, bringing in their own customs and cultural traditions.

The event spread to other parts of the globe as Caribbean-born people migrated. Similar celebrations made their way to New York City in the 1940s — first concentrated in Harlem, then moving to Brooklyn in the 1960s — to London (the Notting Hill Carnival) and to Toronto (Caribana, launched in 1967). All of these festivals were outgrowths of the Carnival celebrations already flourishing in Trinidad, Antigua, Barbados and the Dominican Republic.

This year, Caribbean Carnival celebrations around the world have been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Read these reflections from loyal enthusiasts on what they missed most:

It’s obviously the people, you can’t replicate that. It’s a meeting place, people catch up if they haven’t seen each other sometimes for years. You’ll always bump into old school friends or work mates, family. I miss out not seeing people, and catching up and giving each other a hug and a high five and dancing in the street. Putting smiles on peoples faces, that’s what I miss. — Keith Franklin, 60, D.J., London

There’s so many intersections of us. We’re not just Caribbean. We’re not just Canadian. We’re not just Black. We’re also gay, trans, bi, pan, all of these different things. I feel like there also could be a lot of stigma toward those things in our community, and there aren’t a lot of places that we can just free up ourselves and be who we are without judgment or without physical harm taken toward us. It’s really nice to be able to create that space for everybody to love on ourselves. — Rebecca Tessier, event curator, Toronto

Carnival to me is so important, it means that we are able to continue to celebrate the plight and sacrifices and the achievements of our ancestors. It all started in the Caribbean with the emancipation of slavery. And it has now evolved and developed in many different ways, and I think it’s very, very important for us to acknowledge that and to uphold the legacy, because it paves the way for our development, our future. — Allyson Williams, 73, co-founder of the band Genesis and board member of Notting Hill Carnival, London

Now, discuss with your classmates or reflect on your own in writing: What is the significance of Caribbean Carnival? What does it mean to the people who celebrate it? Why might missing the festival be especially painful this year?

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. How has the masquerade, or “mas,” that takes place at Caribbean Carnivals evolved over time?

2. Frances Henry, an anthropologist, says of Carnival, “It’s a celebration of women’s glory in themselves.” How does the article support her statement?

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