“Let’s go to Caribana (Toronto’s annual Caribbean festival)!” they suggest.
“We should go to Miami Carnival!”
“The Houston Caribbean festival is so great, no?”
“The Labour Day Parade is going to be great this year, why don’t we go?”
They are often surprised by my response: Unequivocally, “Hell no!”.
In the past, I would’ve taken up any offer to wine down d place in the streets of some city or another to the sweet vibes of Soca music. I was open to it all, but that was mostly just because I had no idea of what I was getting into. Also, I hadn’t quite experienced the “real deal”– Carnival in the Caribbean or abroad– yet. However, with every year I spent in Trinidad and Tobago during Carnival, and the more I frequented the North American versions of the festival, the harsher and more blatant this simple truth became: Carnival outside of the Caribbean is, well, pretty damn lame. Much of it is really a watered down, shell of some poorly designed replica of a cultural product taken way out of context and put into a space where it couldn’t possibly thrive, despite the best of intentions.
It was a few years ago during a family trip to Miami for its version of the festival that I really started to come to terms with that fact. When I arrived to the venue for the parade, boy was I shocked to find out that the entire shindig would be going down in a stadium. By that point, I was used to the idea that bands would take to the streets to celebrate, not be confined to such a small space, but since we had come from far just to attend (New Jersey), I figured I should give it a try anyways. Jam packed with masqueraders (those wearing costumes who paid money to participate in the parade) and onlookers alike, the entrance was a frenzied, poorly-managed mess, which was fine, exciting even at first. The sounds of blasting Soca music filled the air and for a moment it felt like it could’ve possibly been a good time.
And then police began to use taser guns on men, women and children alike.
“Step away from the entrance!” multiple uniformed officers bellowed, “no one else is being let in!”
“No one” included those who paid their hard earned cash to participate in the event and it most certainly included myself and my family who just managed to avoid being tasered and trampled. Dejected, we made our way back to our car and had breakfast at a local Denny’s. That literally summarized my Miami Carnival experience.
Yet, at that point I was stilling willing to cast that experience aside as an anomaly and hold out hope. My next attempt at finding an authentic Caribbean Carnival in America? The New York City Labor Day Parade. Expecting a sea of masqueraders, food and music trucks followed by moving bars (like how it is done in Trinidad), I was surprised to find the streets instead lined with police officers and barricades, while bands comprised of mostly women made their way down the pretty much empty road trying their best to feign a good time. I was far from impressed. Then to worsen matters, that year, shots rang out later into the evening, a commonplace occurrence I learned.
This, I came to understand, was American Carnival. The over policing. The violence. Very few participants in the band and next to no men. No booze (publicly consuming alcohol in America is illegal). Barricades to keep people in and/or out. It was all a hot mess.
But I blamed all of these shortcomings on America. Perhaps, I could find a comparably good time in Canada, the country that boasts having the largest North American street festival, that has millions of annual visitors? It was worth a shot. I saved my pennies and made my way to Toronto to see what the hoopla was all about.
That year I had what Trinidadians call a real “Carnival Tabanca” because I didn’t get to make my way down to the West Indies for Trinidad Carnival, so I was really looking forward to good vibes in Toronto. Admittedly, the parade was far better organized and seemed very family friendly. Police presence was not nearly as heavy as it was in America. But I could not get over the high fences that lined the streets, creating an almost zoo-inspired barrier between the parade participants and onlookers who stood watching from bleachers on the other side of the fences. As I wined my waist and tried my best to enjoy myself, I couldn’t help but feel slightly discomforted by the gazes from those who may or may not be able to fully grasp or appreciate Caribbean culture. What, exactly, did they think of my gyrating waist? I hated being burdened by such thoughts.
There is an essence to Caribbean Carnival; freedom from the white gaze, laws or their ideas of decency. It is that freedom that I crave so intensely when I traverse North America looking for an authentic experience. I just want to hold a cup of alcohol in my hand and wine in a band down d road, worry-free. I simply cannot pretend anything else can compare to that wonderful freeing feeling. So when my friends all beg me to go to some version of Carnival here or there in North America this summer, I’m just going to tell them, “Lewwe save our damn money and go experience the real deal.“