On February 23rd, 2020, in a harbinger of tragic things to come, organizers of Venice’s famed Carnevale announced that the festivities would conclude earlier than planned. The reason: a novel and deadly coronavirus, previously thought to be confined to Asia, had been diagnosed in Italy. 12 months later, in the midst of a global pandemic, Ash Wednesday came and went with public celebrations cancelled around the world.
Even as millions suffered and died, scientists worked to develop several safe, effective vaccines. Their amazing work leaves Carnival devotees guardedly optimistic for 2022. While sharing their hopes, we opined that the first glimmers of a bacchanalian revival would be detected, not in Rio or Port of Spain, but in London, Toronto, or New York. Before discussing the accuracy of this prediction, some background may be in order.
In each of these cosmopolitan cities, the populace includes large and vibrant West Indian communities. Beginning in the 1960s, immigrants and their children organized celebrations inspired by their ancestral traditions. Given the local climate, these events are typically held in the summer, rather than the weeks preceding Lent. The shameful inequities of health care mean inoculation rates in the UK, Canada, and the USA have, to date, outpaced those in the global south.
The Torontonian extravaganza known as Caribana was first held in 1967. It typically kicks off in early July, to coincide with Canada’s national holiday and runs until August 1st – the date commemorating the 1834 abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. Complex legal wrangling means the Caribana name is no longer used officially, yet it remains a season of fetes culminating in a massive parade. At least, that was the case before 2020.
After a prolonged, oft-criticized rollout, July 2021 found nearly 2/3 of Toronto’s adult population fully vaccinated against Covid-19. But matters were complicated by the emergence of the highly transmissible delta variant. In May, the city announced that permits for events on public property would not be issued before September at the earliest.
A number of soca-themed cruises were held on Lake Ontario, and restaurants through the Greater Toronto area hosted a “Patio Lime” series with music and masquerading. The parade traditionally provided income for scores of food vendors, but the government’s decision nixed that for another year. Carnival Flavours, held in the Scarborough Town Centre, was promoted as a way to rectify that. “It brings us one step closer to having a parade again” said Andre Newell, Marketing Director for the event. “2022, we’re coming back bigger, and better than ever.”
Some were less than impressed. “It’s falling flat for me” said Stephanie Hinds, a writer who covers cultural affairs. While agreeing that Covid made a typical Caribana impossible “they could have done something more than park a bunch of food trucks in a parking lot and call it a festival”.
Others objected to the fact that Carnival Flavours grafted Antillean cuisine onto Street Eats, a previously planned food truck rally. “I didn’t realize it was going to be a mix of other cultures” said Daniel De Souza, Art Director for NOW Magazine. “The Caribbean food festival is obscured by having tacos and other things. People aren’t going to know what Caribbean food is.”
There are layers of irony here. For starters, Mexico does in fact have a Caribbean coastline, and well-established Carnival traditions. De Souza’s statement also highlights the fact that for some in the West Indian diaspora, “Caribbean” is used exclusively to denote former British colonies. Yet Hispaniola and Cuba alone have a larger population than all the English-speaking islands combined, and the New World’s first Carnival occurred in what is now the Dominican Republic.
In recent decades “Caribbean” (i.e., Anglophone) Carnival has emerged as a brand of sorts, with many countries hosting off-season galas that attract revelers from abroad. Yet many aspects of these festivals – Jouvert, soca, steel pan – originated in Trinidad & Tobago, rather than being historic manifestations of a culture common to the region.
Today, the summer bacchanals in Toronto, London, and NYC all celebrate the ideal of Caribbean unity. But in each case, they were initially organized by migrants from the “Twin Island Republic”. London’s Notting Hill Carnival, held over the Bank Holiday weekend in August, started in 1966. Prior to the pandemic, it regularly attracted up to 2 million participants. A virtual program in 2020 was well-received. In 2021, the success of Britain’s vaccine distribution fueled expectations of “Colours Again” this year.
Alas, in June the board of Notting Hill Carnival, Ltd announced they would “not be on the streets due to the ongoing uncertainty and risk Covid-19 poses”. The statement went on to describe an “incredibly difficult decision” which took into account the organizers’ “responsibility to deliver a safe, spectacular, successful and sustainable Carnival”.
This brings us to the -decidedly disunited – United States of America.
Since 1969, New York City’s Caribbean community has made its presence known on the first Monday in September: Labor Day. That is when a loud and gloriously shambolic procession makes its way along Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Away from neighborhoods like East Flatbush, Brownsville, and Crown Heights, the parade itself attracts the most attention. Yet it is actually the climax of a cycle of fetes held in clubs, restaurants and homes across the borough. The West Indian American Carnival Day Association also organizes a series of costume contests and performances on the grounds of The Brooklyn Museum.
Of course, none of that occurred in 2020. On August 10th, 2021 WIADCA released a schedule of events that evoke The Tradition while reflecting NYC’s still tentative recovery from the pandemic’s deadliest days. Things kick off on the 2nd of September, and will continue through the afternoon of the 6th.
The Carnival of Miami takes place in October coinciding with Columbus Day weekend. Started in 1984, the South Florida celebration may lack the long pedigree of Toronto, Brooklyn, and London. However, geography alone means it is hardwired into contemporary Caribbean culture, and there’s an afterglow of tropical warmth even as autumn chills start to grip more northerly locales. After being scrapped last year, the 2021 edition has built a groundswell of excitement – and apprehension.
When Covid first arrived in the USA, New York and its environs made up the epicenter. Overflowing hospitals, refrigerated morgue trucks, and the constant wail of ambulance sirens – which would become commonplace across the nation- were first experienced in NYC. Yet state and city leaders promoted aggressive mitigation efforts. The public, by and large, cooperated with masking protocols and social distancing guidelines. By late summer 2020, New York State had made significant progress in “flattening the curve”. The delta variant has brought a rise in cases, but relatively high vaccination rates mean that, so far, the northeast has avoided the resurgent carnage ravaging southern states.
By contrast, at every turn Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis has effectively declared war on public health, doing everything in his power to thwart local ordinances designed to protect the citizenry. As a result, his state, with less than 7% of the US population continues to suffer disproportionate rates of new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths.
To their credit, the organizers of Miami Carnival are going to great lengths to promote the safety of participants, declaring that they will “incorporate and go beyond” the requirements promulgated by the Centers for Disease Control. The slogan “No Mask, No Mas” has been adopted; temperature checkpoints will be set up, and hand sanitizer will be provided to those who arrive without it.
This is heartening, particularly considering that WIADCA has yet to announce safety protocols for their events in Brooklyn. Yet even the most conscientious visitors will be jumpin’ up in a state where politicians and a large swath of the public remain convinced that a worldwide tragedy, still unfolding in far too many places, has somehow been an elaborate hoax.
It is our most sincere wish that those who attend the festivities in New York and Miami will be able to enjoy the vibes with a minimum of risk and a maximum of bliss. Yet it is hard to avoid seeing them as sequined and feathered human canaries, winging it toward the coal mine that awaits us in 2022.
Ultimately, The Tradition has survived wars, plagues, and dictatorships, across three continents, for hundreds of years. In one form or another, it is likely to continue for many more. What happens in the coming weeks and months will determine how much longer we must endure the drab routine of loss, and how soon we can make a communal return to joyous abnormality.