Carnival Fever: Caribbean Feminist in the Soca Fete

Author shown on the right.

“But don’t you feel naked out there, and objectified?”
“Who are you performing for exactly?”
“These things happen in that many cities outside of the Caribbean?”
“Wait, children are in these parades too?”

I was having a little Carnival Tabernacle, and was feeling myself getting slightly annoyed by my friend’s colleague who seemed adamant about questioning me regarding all things Carnival related. My friend wanted to see photos of my costume, and other costumes from parade day, so I obliged and began scrolling through one of my online albums. That is when the comments began.

Her colleague leaned over to see the photographs and began to shake her head in what seemed like disapproval. She then followed up her actions with this line of questioning. To say the least, she was killing my vibe. Just days before, I had been on a boat ride, on the top deck, feeling the gentle sea breeze, as my nimble movements drew the attention of those on passing ships; before that — I was On Di Road, chippin down Hollywood Boulevard and wukking up behind a big truck to the blaring sounds of soca music. When Denise Belfon’s “Wining Queen” came on, I showed the tourist and onlookers who lined the world-renowned boulevard exactly why I am often referred to by that nickname. It was my 2014 theme song, and of course it still applies for 2015. The night before that, I conducted myself, with absolutely No Behavior inside of a fete. As we awaited the arrival of soca artists, the Dj played some of the biggest tunes of the year, and I found myself up on the stage, and up on some shoulders more than once. I will stop here before providing any additional and incriminating evidence, of “just how bad I does gwan”.

Anyhow, the whiny and nasally sound of this woman’s voice snapped me back into reality. There was no time to reminisce, when this woman seemed to be demanding answers to her inquisition. So, I turned to look directly at her, and she seemed so confused. It was as though she was trying to mask her curiosity with ethnocentric disgust. I suppose that she was wondering how I could be this unapologetic feminist, radio personality, and women’s rights activist that she had heard about, and still take part in something like this. I suppose that one of her comments — “you write about patriarchy, yet willingly wear those costumes”, was an attempt to get under my skin and shame me.

Unfortunately for her it didn’t work –I have never been one to feel shamed easily. If I do something, I own up to it. If I want to dance Wotless, I do just that. If others disapprove of my actions, I start humming Janet Jackson’s “What have you done for me lately?”, and assure them that I do not care. I figured out long ago that people are going to talk regardless, so life should not be lived according to what they will say. As award winning novelist, feminist, and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once stated, “There are people who dislike you, because you don’t dislike yourself”.

In that same vein, there are people who will try to make you feel ashamed of yourself, your actions, your decisions, your past, and yes, your culture, when you do not feel the need to be ashamed. I realized that I was not obligated to answer this woman’s questions, or explain myself, but decided to do so regardless. As a woman of Caribbean descent living in the United States, this is something that I have grown accustomed to doing. Whether it is explaining geography (we are all not from Jamaica), cultural cuisine (yes, people eat oxtails and even iguanas), and responding to stereotypes (not everyone smokes ganja; besides, my father smokes enough for both of us!) So, I decided to turn to Judgmental Judy and finally respond.

“But don’t you feel naked out there, and objectified?”
No, I do not. The fact that there are hundreds of people dressed the same way may have something to do with that. There are people of every size wearing these costumes as well. Skinny, muscular, full figured, curvy…all doing so without an ounce of shame, and isn’t that a feminist act? There is no room for body shaming in Carnival. It is also the ultimate sex-positive experience. One is free to love their bodies, all while embracing, celebrating, and even flaunting their bodies if they want to. Further, no one will call you a whore or a slut for doing so. It is a time of ultimate freedom, when even the most modest person, removes her restraints, lets go, releases some stress, and just lives in the moment.

“Who are you performing for exactly?”
In short: Me, myself, and I. Sure, there may be many onlookers lining any given parade route, but most people do not look at their participation in Carnival as an opportunity to perform for others. No one is cutting them a check to make that long trek down the road, dancing behind trucks with blaring sound systems. The same goes for the women who you see gyrating their hips and pushing back dey bumpa in ah fete. To some it may look like they are putting on a show, or dancing to catch a man’s attention, when the truth is that they are simply whining. I cannot tell you how many times I have lost myself in the music, eyes closed, back dampening with sweat, with my hands in the air. At times, it actually seems like there is no one left in the room, and you truly become possessed.

“These things happen in that many cities outside of the Caribbean?”
Yes! The Caribbean has always been a site of constant migration, and these post-colonial societies have produced a massive Diaspora that has formed cultural enclaves in many cities and countries around the world. You can find masqueraders in Berlin, London, Toronto, and a many cities in the United States: New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Orlando, Atlanta, Charlotte NC, Houston, Los Angeles, and the list goes on. Wherever Caribbean people go, we carry our flags and culture. Actually, when including the Carnivals that actually take place in the islands, one can attend Carnival every month of the year. There is bound to be one taking place.

“Wait, children are in these parades too?”
Yes! There are even children parades, where they wear age-appropriate costumes and are allowed to take part in the festivities. Children wait all year for Carnival just as much as adults.

The conversation pointed out a problem that many feminists from the Global South have with Western feminism, and that is that; it often continues to focus solely on the experiences of women in Western cultures; and marginalizes the viewpoints of non-white and non-Western women. This narrow focus on a singular – white- experience leads to a false sense of sisterhood, leaving differences among women to be ignored. This creates the notion that the experiences of white middle class is the norm.
It was for that reason that this woman felt she had the right to speak to me in such a condescending manner, chastise me, and question my authenticity as a feminist.

I did not feel obligated to respond to her line of questioning. However, I did so as a means to push back against and reject Western feminism’s homogenizing approach to liberation. Feminism is suppose to work to eliminate all the Isms: sexism, racism, classism, ableism, as well as ethnocentrism. My only hope is that my taking the time to explain a little more about Carnival, my decision to wear a costume, my love affair of dancing as wotless as I want to be, and not being ashamed of it, led her to reconsider her definition or views of what a feminist should look and act like. Feminists can march, protest, write, and roll it! We are multidimensional beings living in a three-dimensional world.

Lastly, I am making it a point to experience as many Carnivals as possible, so if you find yourself going to check out the festivities. Look for me, I will be Di gyal behaving di worst.

Cherise Charleswell, BA, MPH is a Bio-cultural anthropologist, self-proclaimed Womanist, author/writer, public health researcher/practitioner. She is the creator and host of Wombanist Views RADIO, a Segment Producer for Pacifica Radio’s Feminist Magazine (90.7FM KPFK), Women’s Issues Chair of The Hampton Institute, and the Chair of the National Women’s Studies Association’s Social Justice Task Force. Cherise is of Caribbean descent with heritage from numerous islands: St Thomas, St John, Tortola, Puerto Rico, St Kitts, and Anguilla. She is currently releasing Walking in The Feminine: A Stepping Into Our Shoes Anthology, and working on the book project, The Link Between Food, Health, & Culture In the African Diaspora.

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