Mon | Jan 21, 2019

The charge of the light parade

Published:Saturday | April 25, 2015 | 12:00 AMMel Cooke
Revellers taking part in the Bacchanal Jamaica Road Parade in St Andrew, recently.
A regular in the road march, Yendi Phillipps, was in her element during the Bacchanal road march recently.

Advisory 1: If you have had your fill of articles ranting against the annual carnival road march through urban St Andrew, there is no need to read any further. Just sigh or do a 'kiss teeth' and dismiss the article with a flick of your wrist, or put it down to sop up fridge water or wrap turned mangoes with grim, grinning vengeance. Dismiss the writer as another prejudiced, frustrated, wannabe browning and a hater. That is the beauty of choice.

Advisory 2: If you enjoy reading articles ranting against the annual carnival road march in urban St Andrew, you may still want to skip this one. It is not going to say anything new - but, come to think of it, neither does the pastor, and the church is still full. Gwaan read, nuh?

Last week Sunday, as happens around this time every year, there was the charge of the light-skinned parade along the streets of urban St Andrew. Not that all of the persons - and here I speak specifically of the women - were of pale hue, but the predominant skin complexion in the numerous images I have seen of the road march is on the pink side.

And that is pretty (pun intended) much how it has been for as long as I have seen the cavorting in the streets of urban St Andrew around this time of year.

Once again, I was reminded of the disappointment of law students I knew at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, in the early 1990s when carnival became a widespread affair in Jamaica. Having gone to Barbados for two years and then returned to Jamaica for two years at the Norman Manley Law School, they had experienced similar celebrations in the Eastern Caribbean. However, what they found being paraded - literally - as carnival was woefully inferior to what they had revelled in closer to South than North America.


The major complaint was that the activities were too commercialised and segregated, that the general population was a spectator to the parade, tagging on behind the final truck but definitively separated from the costumed revellers.

Twenty years later, and with only one organisation marching at Easter time, the situation remains much the same. Carnival in Jamaica is costumes without an accompanying culture; hip swivelling without a sense of history; consumption without conscience; an orgy of the flesh of the light for others to ogle.

Carnival in Jamaica is an imposed, top-down affair. Which is quite fine, as it suits the organisers, it suits the sponsors, it suits the costumed participants; it suits those who want to have an eyeful of the flesh, which is always beyond their reach; it suits the cross-dressers who are still so uncomfortable in their own skin that they have to make a point of being comfortable in it; it suits the persons who still pay said cross-dressers (invariably not pale unless chemically colour corrected) attention, even though their antics are as stale and infantile as well-used diapers.

However, it does not suit me, with my understanding of why carnival exists in Jamaica. It is there as a public display of the light-skinned brigade's unease with itself, as a class though not necessarily as individuals, in the country, a discomfort which is translated into a desperate flaunting of the pale flesh to reassure itself that it maintains its fascination for the darker masses.

It is also a desperate display of social dominance by a class which becomes black as soon as it disembarks from an airplane to any of the three major First World countries within a direct flight's reach from Kingston or Montego Bay. It is a class of which significant numbers left Jamaica in the 1970s and found out it was black. For them, Buju Banton was wrong in Untold Stories, when he sang, "Who can afford to run, but what about those who can't? They will have to stay." Many members of the annual light parade and those connected to them can leave Jamaica and resettle somewhere else at very short notice.

But they are not going anywhere. Here they are special. Elsewhere they are nonentities. It is like a lottery scammer or drug smuggler who makes a lot of money and is killed sitting in his expensive car, dressed in flashy clothes, wearing tons of jewellery and with a wad of cash in his pocket, right on the same corner he hustled and murdered to escape from. His world was simply so small; he could have gone anywhere an airplane flew to (subject to visa restrictions), but was simply out of place apart from that little corner.

Uptown invasion

It is a similar situation with the Jamaican light-skinned brigade, from which the light parade is culled at Easter. They generally live in a very limited physical space in Jamaica, somehow apart from the rest of the society - at least, in the numbers that seem to appear from nowhere at carnival time. Then comes the time of wiggling and jiggling and people like me say damn, a which part so much a dem come from? Dem really live a Jamaica?

They do, but not in the Jamaica whose citizens regularly use the roads that the carnival road march wends its way through each year.

So the road march serves a similar purpose, but with a more general focus, than the Miss Jamaica World and Miss Jamaica Universe contests do. It reinforces the notion of a light-skinned standard of female attractiveness, but with the twist of overt raunchiness and coming much closer than the stage at whichever venue the finals of the beauty contests are held. Close enough to touch, but don't try.

Behind the grinning and grinding, the excitement and exposure, there is a grim determination to claim a physical place by a social class which occupies a tiny, tenuous space in this country, a hue which means nothing in 'white man country' and which is devalued when it gets too close consistently to the darker majority. Once a year, in numbers, is enough to reinforce their sense of self and remind all that they are free to show skin and skin out in the streets during broad daylight, in a way that no other sector of the society can.

And the fact that they need to, and are allowed and encouraged to do so, makes carnival road march in Jamaica a very pale, ineffective, fleeting imitation and superimposition of a wonderful culture on this land.