Tue | Sep 26, 2017

Carnival belongs to brown people?

Published:Sunday | April 10, 2016 | 4:00 AM

Last Sunday, as I was on Waterloo Road watching the carnival parade, I ran into one of my neighbours. He asked me, "Carolyn, weh yu a do inna brown people business?" Since he's just as black as me, I threw the question back at him. He laughed and said he was taking pictures.

I suppose his ridiculous question was intended as joke. But it really wasn't funny. A couple of days later, he stopped at my gate and said, "Hi, browning!" Now this was taking a joke too far. I wondered what was going on in my neighbour's head.

On Sunday, I wasn't supposed to be in brown people business. By Tuesday, I had become an honorary browning? I know that money and social status can turn black people brown. But this transformation was rather sudden. And it had nothing to do with me.

 

FLESH-COLOURED TIGHTS

 

My neighbour's strange question and even stranger greeting reminded me of a most unfortunate encounter I had at Jamaica carnival. It was one of the early stagings of the event and, at that time, it did seem as if carnival really was brown people business. All the same, I decided to take my chances and jump up in a band.

As soon as I arrived at the assembly point, I was reprimanded by one of my co-revellers. With much irritation, she said, "You were supposed to wear flesh-coloured tights!" It was early in the day and I was in the mood for revelry. Not a colour clash.

So I nicely informed her that dark brown was the closest shade to 'flesh-coloured' that I could find. But my co-reveller was not impressed. Some 'flesh-coloured' people in the Caribbean really do have a hard time accepting the fact that flesh comes in a wide range of colours. As far as she was concerned, flesh had only one colour. And it was not dark brown.

And, come to think of it, the real issue for my co-reveller may not have been my brown tights at all. It could have been my black self! The tights could just have been a good excuse to express annoyance with my presence in the band. I suppose I should have felt lucky that my co-reveller was willing to have me in the band at all. Flesh-coloured or not!

 

FAIR IS FAIR

 

A few years ago, I had another startling encounter of the flesh-coloured kind. When I was introduced to the sister of one of my friends, she exclaimed in amazement, "This is Carolyn? The way you talk about her, I thought she was fair!"

To be fair to my friend's sister, she didn't intend to be malicious. Her response to me was completely spontaneous. She just couldn't imagine that her brown sister could be so friendly with a black person. We don't like to admit it, but Jamaica is still a very colour-conscious society.

And it's right across the Caribbean. The Trinidadian historian, C.L.R. James, gives an excellent account of colourism in his book Beyond a Boundary: "Associations are formed of brown people who will not admit into their number those too much darker than themselves, and there have been heated arguments in committee as to whether such and such a person's skin was fair enough to allow him or her to be admitted without lowering the tone of the institution."

James recounts the exceptional circumstances in which blacks could jump the colour barrier: "Should the darker man, however, have money or position of some kind, he may aspire, and it is not too much to say that in a West Indian colony, the surest sign of a man having arrived is the fact that he keeps company with people lighter in complexion than himself."

 

WHITEWASHED CARNIVAL

 

These days, carnival in Jamaica has definitely got blacker. It's no longer an association of mostly brown people. The majority of the revellers parading in the streets last weekend were certainly not brown. Which makes my neighbour's question even more ridiculous. Cultural events like carnival keep evolving.

I was not surprised to see that a conversation is now taking place in Trinidad and Tobago about how the colour of carnival is changing there. The headline of a Clutch magazine article published in February this year asks an intriguing question: 'Is Trinidad and Tobago Carnival becoming whitewashed?'

The author of the article, Tiffanie Drayton, focuses on the body image of female revellers. She confirms that carnival has always celebrated a wide range of body types. But there's a new trend. The 'healthy-body' female is giving way to a new slimmed-down Euro-American model. The article asks a compelling question for which there doesn't seem to be an easy answer.

"What will become of carnival in Trinidad and Tobago as the years progress and the festival grows even more popular with non-natives? Based on these trends towards Westernised beauty standards and gimme-all-ya-money capitalism, we should fear that this festival meant to celebrate blackness may reinforce the very oppression our African slave ancestors fought dutifully to free themselves from."

I now have the right answer to my neighbour's question. Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago started as black people's business. Jamaica Carnival started as brown people's business. Now, it is everybody's business. No matter the colour of the flesh.

- Carolyn Cooper is a cultural consultant. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.