CARNIVAAAAL

Carnival

I can heartily assert that I’ve always been big on pageantry. On one occasion, when I was about four years old, I was wandering around the stockroom in the charity shop where my nan and granddad then worked and I happened to fall upon this bright pink, sequinned dress (I say ‘dress,’ but I’m not quite sure what it actually was, though I have been told that it was most likely some kind of modern dance costume.) Needless to say, I loved it, and my grandparents were forced to part with the couple of pounds that the shop would have sold it for. I used to love getting this costume out and putting on the sparkly pink arm warmers. Sometimes I used to eat my dinner in this get-up (to me, there was nothing unusual about this). This, I suppose, set the tempo for the many fancy-dress and themed parties I was to have throughout my childhood and into my adolescence, right up to the present (I haven’t yet decided on a theme for this year’s event, but rest assured that there will be one!) I could recount many other examples on this score, but I would need to dedicate an entire post (and some) to the effort. I would like to conclude this little jaunt down memory lane, however, by recalling the moment when I discovered Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World. At the time that this book fell into my hands, I was just about to leave university and embark on a Master’s course at King’s College London. It was unlike anything I had ever read and it was all that I really wanted to read; in short, I found it utterly cool. In this world (the world created by the Renaissance writer François Rabelais), Bakhtin envisions a carnival that is so grotesque that it renders its participants equal through a kind of levelling laughter. In this world, masqueraders don costumes that allow them to transcend the ordinary social barriers that proscribe their daily lives: jesters become kings, and kings become fools.

A lot of time has passed since I first read Bakhtin, and while I think that his theory of carnival and masquerade continues to offer interesting insights, these insights do little to inform our understanding of what carnival is really like in the black Atlantic world. Over the weekend, for the first time in my life, I went to the Notting Hill Carnival. For me, it was a beautiful experience, and encapsulated all of the things that I love to do: dress up, eat, drink, and dance. It was also, and indeed primarily, a learning experience. My knowledge of carnival – of its intersected and diasporic history, of the people that have kept its traditions alive and channel the politics that underlie it – has expanded over the past year, and what I have learnt has infused my conception of our persistently segregated world. As a white woman that studies black history, I am reminded daily of the need to step outside of myself and see myself as a seer, as someone that makes a career out of discussing a history that is not my own, but which I am nevertheless passionate about. In this way, my going to carnival was not just about ticking something off of a list, but part of an ambition that I have to deepen my understanding through lived experience.

This experience sadly coincided with news about Miley Cyrus burlesquing black culture in a sexually degrading dance routine at the VMAs, and served only to reinforce my belief that we all need to do a better job of understanding and learning about each other. When I was getting ready this morning, I didn’t hear much about Miley or the VMAs on Radio4’s ‘Today’ programme (it being Radio 4, I guess), but I did hear a discussion about the recent LSE report whose research found that children in inner-London schools were not in any way hindered by the presence of foreign-speaking children in their class. No, I thought to myself, not hindered, but enriched. I don’t want my children to grow up sheltered from such experiences and only hearing me talk about them in the abstract, and I hope very much that they will get to share them with me, so that we can continue learning together. Next year marks 50 years of the Notting Hill Carnival. Let’s make it a big one.

 

 

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