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Death to our darkest selves
For J’Ouvert, I was Death playing mas in Trinidad. Roaming the road, sharp silver scythe in hand, culling those closest to the ground, and knowing neither law nor sin.
I was also Woman, entangled in a long skirt, made of shredded, black garbage bag, for those used and discarded, refused, their pains mere abandoned detritus in the wake of killings. Carrying death’s scythe as a sign of its shadow overhead, like a cross to bear.
Such is the schizophrenia of living in T&T. Grieving amidst violence, with more than one murder a day, and historically-familiar rhythms of dark-night mourning, where women birth the lives that death takes away.
Lest we forget. Three boys in particular were on my mind. Jodal Ramnath, Denelson Smith, and Mark Richards. Jodal, six years old, killed within minutes of the New Year by gunmen shooting with high-powered rifles from the roof of a nearby school. Real life midnight robbers, missing poetic license. Then, judged by a population which hypocritically ropes off pretty mas for those with money, as if little Jodal’s photos of dressing up in gold, like a King costume, excused the coast guard, the police, the political parties, the shotters and the drug men from their responsibility to prevent harm to our children.
Later, Denelson Smith and Mark Richards killed in their school uniform by devils who come out for pay. Imps terrifying the young, with neighbourhood crossroads like judging points with scores counted and winners declared.
As Death continues to stalk through region and town, in now year-round fetes with dames, tiefs and dark souls in glittering clothes, justice seems to have taken to an armchair, like many others watching the macabre dance on TV.
For the insight it offers, post-Carnival, I want to hail out J’Ouvert’s mirror to darkest ourselves, and its metaphor for restless hope for a new day. For, when else could I or anyone else express freedom and pain, in public, in the dead of night, while passing the walled yard of sacred graves, wondering if it is still possible to save ourselves, heart beating hard at how, for some, it is already too late.
J’Ouvert’s mas and masking traditions often get eclipsed by the “pretty mas” of Monday and Tuesday. Beyond standard images of muddied revellers, J’Ouvert’s mas, which is as political as it is personal, as transgressive as it is stylish, is least likely to make it into Carnival magazines, for grim commitment to mixing anger with splendor isn’t easy to package, sell or consume. Yet, here one can find stories of iron meeting iron, hardship meeting creativity, contradictory realities meeting the next step with no easy resolution ahead.
This was evident in 3 Canal’s band, Black Jab Nation, where it was clear that many played a mas they individually imagined. Amongst women, there were hand painted masks, translucent cloths top-knotted and then slung over women’s faces, and mesh veils sewn, like brides’ own, to hang from men’s bowler hats, in a runway of women’s masking on parade. To see masking re-emerge is to witness a counterpoint to the contemporary focus on cosmetics for Carnival. As more and more women get their makeup professionally done, masking becomes more important to see and be seen on terms that the male gaze cannot easily penetrate, or get access to without consent.
Among women were also those bare-chested and covered in black paint. One woman in nothing but a regular panty, defiantly taking back the night in a world where women’s sexual safety relies on them covering their bodies in fear and shame, where consent means too little without an end to all sexual vulnerability and violence.
Lest we forget, there is history and richness of masquerade in J’Ouvert that prettiness cannot encapsulate. This haute couture ruins an aesthetic of colourful sequins, opting instead for a different language with which we can work out what it means to be brown and black bodies negotiating darkness, womanhood, motherhood, beauty and community in pursuit of our humanity.
Crick. Crack. Having played its mas, may Death now tire and offer respite, leaving Woman, already entangled with too many aching memories and stories, to tend to her days of unaccustomed strife.
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