The photo exhibit, Two-Faced Resistance: Syncretism, Picong and Mas, was conceptualized in 2019 and finalized in 2021. Working during the confinement and uncertainty of the pandemic, with its disproportionate impact on Black people and people of color working essential jobs during the lockdowns, I reflected on the relatively minimal inconvenience of the contemporary world and what enslavement must have been like for African people who endured the nightmare of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Over twelve million African people were enslaved between the 16th and 20th centuries in the Americas, at least 1.5 million of whom died enroute (Manning 1992). Imagine, beyond kidnapping and torture, forced removal from a homeland, family, community and from freedom, to exist in a space that is pregnant with violence.
Africans in the Americas existed in a geographic space that was notoriously harsh. From as early as age four, enslaved boys and girls worked the fields on hog gangs, attending to livestock, or in perilous domestic duties, and were subject to physical abuse (Reddock 1985). During harvest time enslaved people worked as many as 20 hours per day, with women working alongside men with the same expectations of productivity. Long life was not necessarily guaranteed due to the harsh physical and psychological conditions, malnourishment, and prevalence of disease. Scholars of slavery in the Caribbean note how Europeans were obsessed with race and racial classification and the sexual proclivities of the people they enslaved. Gender did not matter when it came to working enslaved people to their deaths. However, it mattered – as did erroneous and odd notions about different tribal groups – when orchestrating the breeding of humans like livestock (Turner 2017). Consequently, some of the rhetorical resistance of carnival involves visual artifacts and rhetoric on sexual and gender inequality, as is evidenced in characters such as the Baby Doll (Figure 1).
There is a master narrative that Africans enslaved in the Americas accepted their fate. This could not be further from the truth. Africans everywhere resisted. The Haitian revolution was unique in its scale of success, but not its form. Hundreds of rebellions by enslaved people in the Caribbean and the act of maroonage – establishing a maroon society in inaccessible, harsh terrain and defending it – were important to resisting slavery. However, overt violence was not the only form of resistance. Suicide, abortion, infanticide, passively withholding labor, property destruction (for example, by burning cane fields), and poisoning were all strategies to end the nightmare that was slavery. In 1800, Governor Picton of Trinidad introduced the “Slave Code” that gave French enslavers who heavily populated the island free reign in forcefully disciplining the people they enslaved. So strong was the threat of poisoning and the use of spirituality to cause the death or demise of someone that obeah1 was specifically outlawed in these codes, as well as other forms of rebellion or resistance (Carmichael 1961).
Acts of aggression were not the only methods used by the Africans. We know from our praxis today that resistance took shape in the form of religious, spiritual, and cultural rituals, in the continuation and passing down of healing and nutritional practices, and through expressions of joy. Africans were intentional in recreating home spaces amidst violence and dehumanization; when they could not escape physically, they were fugitives in their minds.
In historian and calypsonian Hollis Liverpool’s important work, Rituals of Power and Rebellion (2001), he notes that the shifts in carnival coincided with important historical events or transitions in West Indian and global history. Emancipation, heralded by the 1833 Slave Emancipation Act, the decades that soon followed, the turn of the twentieth century, the period between the Great Depression and World War II, as well as the late 1960s, all saw important legislative and social changes that influenced the look of the festival, including the types of costumes that would become the archetypes of carnival today. Africans celebrated emancipation using the traditions they had always found ways to uphold, among them drumming and dancing. The earliest carnival celebrations occurred in August for many islands, although similar celebrations occurred at Christmas and New Year’s (and possibly during the Pre-Lenten season).
Even though the British government had restricted or banned many forms of musical instruments, singing and dancing, enslaved Africans in Trinidad and Tobago created their own escapes and did so in very innovative ways. Ask the average (non-Afrocentric) middle-class Trinbagonian about carnival and they may tell you, “we inherited it from the French.”2 This attribution error is no accident or a reluctance to engage with an identity; it is an important part of the architecture of racial capitalism known as slavery and the sugar industry that existed in the British West Indies, which brought a diverse mix of Europeans to the island, resulting in Spanish, French, English and Portuguese customs and language (Williams 1984). The Europeans imbibed and reveled during their Pre-Lenten masquerade balls – an excess to prepare for the alleged asceticism of Lent. Meanwhile, outside the regular and intense surveillance of plantation owners, Africans plotted, recreated their own worlds, and played.
In Rituals (2001), Liverpool contextualizes the evolution of carnival as:
a complex nature of relationships between oppressed lower class and an elite who aimed at protecting elite economic and social interests; between an emerging African middle class and an African lower working class; between Africans bent on keeping their traditions and Indian indentees who looked down on such traditions; between Whites proud of their European ancestry and Free Coloreds who assimilated many European customs; between a society that was rich in creativity and one that looked down on the creativity that involved lower class elements. (x)
The dueling forces or opposing frames through which carnival is understood, interpreted, and internalized by the people in its midst are articulated in the form of mas – performance and costuming – and public discourse about the political, economic, and social aspects of carnival. It is in this context that carnival in Trinidad and Tobago evolves. The dichotomous objectives, intentions, and preoccupations of masqueraders are the context by which we must understand the intentions and strategies, the technologies of resistance in carnival today. How did Africans escape the plantations, the brutality of enslavement and the recurring trauma of displacement and kidnapping? To where did they escape? And where in the future did they go?
Many practices and artifacts of carnival in Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the so-called “West Indies” connect to African ancestral practices. Europeans were extremely suspicious of Africans’ religious and healing practices. They carried to the “West Indies” all the offensive stereotypes of the dark continent they would subsequently ravage or claim for mineral and agricultural wealth after kidnapping more than a million of its people. To survive and maintain a sense of groundedness, and to simply live, Africans engaged in the calculated practice of syncretism. Most of us commonly hear of this practice in the context of African traditional religions such as Santeria and orisha where Roman Catholic saints would merge with the orishas to continue worship in ways that The Church would sanction. Syncretism also existed for the arts; for instance, the African martial art of kalenda was similar to the capoeira of Brazil in ways that emphasized the celebratory aspects of it, such as the drumming, dancing and singing, rather than the lethal art of stick fighting. Similarly, Africans employed lyricism through the use of musical forms like carisos – songs with erotic themes typically sung by women, and later, when kalenda songs were banned, by men – for enjoyment, acts of bravado, or to critique and warn of brutal overseers and slave masters.
These musical forms, along with the employment of whatever tone and percussive instruments could be fashioned from available materials, would eventually give us the calypsos and soca of contemporary carnival. In movement, the throwing of powder in sailor mas conjures up images of the disbursal of efun in traditional African spiritual ceremonies. The dances of the fancy sailor, and other traditional dance forms no longer integrated specifically into carnival, are still present in the broader Black culture of Trinidad and Tobago. They echo the complex ancestral dances to honor the orishas of the Yoruba, Mokos, Kongos, Asantes, Coromantees and other West African groups that were forcibly brought to Trinidad. The art of kalenda or stick fighting, the use of mas, dance and lyricism evidence articulations of subversive rage that allowed masqueraders and kaisonians to challenge the status quo while maintaining relative safety and access to a livelihood. Masking traditions, both ceremonial and the quotidian, were integral to West African culture; for example, egungun and the practice of adorning in mud, molasses, oil, or paint (Figure 2), and gelede to honor women’s role in society. The songs they used were celebratory; they also applied a language of resistance through the use of picong, a humorous, sarcastic rhetorical device to insult or ridicule their opponent or abuser in ways that might only be understood by an in-group.
Revelry served as remembrance; it was also a form of resistance. There is a belief that Trinidad carnival was simply Africans appropriating European culture because carnival culminates two days before Ash Wednesday, the start of the Christian Lenten season, and many colonizers held masquerade balls in the Catholic tradition of feasting before Lent. The retention of African traditions occurred in spite of suppression, and carnival was one such tradition – a combination of cultural and religious festivals common in their ancestral homelands. When in 1868 drumming was outlawed, Africans used various shapes, eventually finding that a systematic method of denting tins gave a distinctive sound. By the 1940s, this practice evolved from the use of paint tins and biscuit tins to oil drums supplied by the American and British oil companies present in the colony. Today, we have large steel drum orchestras with at least seven different modes of scale, featuring one of the only acoustic instruments known to be invented in the twentieth century (Smith 2012).
Many aspects of Trinidad and Tobago carnival articulate two opposing sides – two faces. There was, and still is, the carnival of the elites, and there is the jamette carnival. Jamette is a creole word derived from the French diameter, a term used to describe those beyond the boundaries of polite society. Jamettes were never intended to have or evidence power. In fact, it is the attempt to violently suppress canboulay riots by a police captain believing himself to be acting with the blessings of the British governor of Trinidad, that led to the ordinances permitting a carnival of the people. Similarly, the characters and narratives of those deemed the underclass are the reason traditional mas characters exist as an essential aspect of carnival today. The jab molassie, a traditional carnival character, was originally created by the destruction of plantation property – molasses. Revelers would cover themselves in molasses and play devil, terrorizing people in the streets and demanding money (Figure 3). These coverings eventually changed to oil and tar, which is ironic in a petroleum-rich, post-colonial nation. Perhaps today they symbolize a wastage and affront not to the colonial state, but to its post-colonial, yet still colonized subjects.
Similarly, other carnival characters are strategies of resistance: the Baby Doll is a statement on rape and sexual violence against enslaved women by white men on the plantations, and gender inequality and the abandonment of women and children in the post-emancipation era. The Dame Lorraine, a mocking of the higher classes of elites dressed in frilly gowns at masquerade balls while Africans lived impoverished in the yards and barracks; the Bookman, writing names of those who would go to hell; and musical forms such as kaiso, extempo and soca speaking truth to power, all defy respectability and gender politics.
Carnival is an explosion of culture. With rules, customs, social morés, and trends, it is organized chaos, but also an intentional return, an embodiment of Sankofa – the adinkra symbol that counsels that it is acceptable to go back and get what you lost. Mas is play and a strenuous but joyful escape. It is deeply rooted in people’s determination to enact their given right to agency, and a voice, and to do so while embodying pleasure (Figure 4). To apply the language of sexual and reproductive rights activists and Black feminists Jasmine Walker and Amber Phillips, “Black joy is birthed from our rage as well as our joy” (Walker and Phillips 2017). Carnival reflects joy and rage, darkness and light; it reflects even the pieces we do not want to see.
Not every Trinbagonian participates in carnival or even agrees that it should occur. Whenever the crime or murder rates preoccupy the body politic, segments of the society argue that carnival should be canceled. Additionally every year, large groups of Christians, particularly evangelical Christians in the American evangelical and Pentecostal traditions and Seventh Day Adventists, flee the suburbs and urban centers to go to camps, usually on the beaches. Increasingly, as the middle class of this high-income and fossil fuel-rich nation is attuned to the tastes and customs of North America, people “fly out” to US and Canadian cities, or vacation destinations in the Caribbean, because they are not really into carnival. These signifiers of class status and religiosity are not new. Everything repeats itself. Carnival is present, it is the hardship of the past, and carnival is the future.
1Obeah is a term used to describe witchcraft or sorcery intended to help the practitioner or whomever has asked for assistance, or to punish wrong-dooers. The term is sometimes considered derogatory and would often be conflated with all African ritual or religious practices, but particularly those connected to orisha practice or Shango worship in Trinidad and Tobago.
2Under Spanish rule in 1783, the Cedula of Population brought many enslavers from French governed islands to Trinidad, giving them land based on the number of enslaved Africans they brought with them. It was one of the Spanish colony’s attempts to adequately populate the island. For this reason, until the early twentieth century many Trinidadians (more so than Tobagonians), including my great-grandparents, spoke a French-based patois as well as English.
The author has no competing interests to declare.
Manning, Patrick. 1992. “The Slave Trade: The Formal Demographics of a System.” In The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe, edited by Joseph E. Inikori and Stanley L. Engerman, 117–44. Durham: Duke University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1220pd1.8
Reddock, Rhoda E. 1985. “Women and Slavery in the Caribbean: A Feminist Perspective.” Latin American Perspectives 12, no. 1: 63–80. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0094582X8501200104
Turner, S. 2017. Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.9783/9780812294057
Walker, Jazmine and Amber Phillips. 2017. “Blueprint for the Black Joy Era.” Filmed October 2017 in Richmond, Virginia. TED video, 13:15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzP3AxOmmjY