Before Trinidad Carnival, there was Canboulay (cannes brûlée means canes burning). Canboulay was how enslaved Africans in Trinidad celebrated emancipation.
Each part of Canboulay is enmeshed in West African tradition and divine spiritual guidance. The wearing of masks can be traced to the tradition of Yoruba, Igbo, Fon, Ewe, Kongo and Bantu. The instruments were preserved across the Middle Passage and fostered solidarity between West African tribes whose languages, customs and world views differed from one another. For those of you who aren’t familiar with West Indian culture, “playing Mas,” is dressing up in costumes on Carnival Tuesday prior to the start of Lent season.
Playing Mas is a significant part of the Trinidad Carnival experience because this is a celebration of Black liberation. Carnival’s West African roots are embodied by its drums, music, costumes, dancing and sisterhood which has transformed my life for the better. Black Trinidadians celebrate their freedom by burning sugarcanes which was the island’s major harvesting crop. It was an act of defiance against bondage. There are parallels across the African diaspora of successful uprisings and riots. Enslaved African women in Colombia weaponized hair braiding to map their escape routes. Enslaved African women in the US transformed cotton root and okra into early forms of birth control.
When police attempted to dismantle Trinidad Carnival, people responded with riots. The Canboulay riots were a direct response to criminalization, police harassment and anti-Black racism. You can watch a reenactment of the Canboulay Riots which is a tribute to honor our ancestors and the ongoing struggle for Black liberation in Trinidad & Tobago.
As soon as I dressed up in my Mas costume, I felt a shift happening. I felt more connected to my ancestors who’ve made the freedom of movement I have today possible. Blackness has always been fluid. Blackness transcends borders, languages, and belief systems. Although I went solo, I never felt alone. I believe that carnival is the most powerful way to bring the Black diaspora together. After all, it’s a celebration that embodies a personal mantra of mine: I am Black, woman and free.