Carnival as Contentious Performance
A Comparison between Contemporary Fort- de-France, Pointe-à-Pitre, and London Carnivals
In the 1970s, in a context of increased racial tensions and growing nationalist claims, the use of rhythms, instruments, and clothing associated with Africa among the black populations of England, Guadeloupe, and Martinique became part of a cultural and political repertoire aimed at resurrecting and denouncing a long history of subordination. Similarly, the mobilization of carnival by Afro-Caribbean activists today can be considered as a tactical choice—that is to say, carnival has become part of the standardized, limited, context-dependent repertoires from which claim-making performances are drawn.
Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Fort-de-France, London, and Pointe-à-Pitre between 2000 and 2018, this article analyzes how cultural movements have drawn on carnivalesque aesthetics to both memorialize and display the complex history of black Caribbean populations. I argue that Caribbean carnival has been subject to constant reinterpretations since the eighteenth century and that, as such, this repertoire is not only a model or a set of limited means of action, but also a convention through which carnival groups constantly reinvent their skills and resources. Furthermore, this article shows that the repertoires mobilized by the carnival bands I study in Europe and in the Caribbean cannot be reduced to an aesthetic gesture that serves political claims, and that they are part of a historical genealogy that testifies to the irreducible character of a way of life.