Playing and Praying

The Politics of Race, Religion, and Respectability in Trinidad Carnival


  • Milla Cozart Riggio Trinity College



carnival, colonialism, race, religion, Caribbean, Trinidad


Theorizing carnival throughout the Americas means dealing not only with class and social issues in the context of modernity but also with the complexities of slavery, indentureship, colonialism, and neocolonialism reflected in this pre-Lenten festival. Dealing with carnival generally, it is impossible to separate its Christian, primarily Catholic, framework from the politics of its evolution and development. In the Americas, and in the island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in particular, the carnival story is further complicated by deeply embedded African and Asian influences. In a nation in which political parties are still largely race-based, with the division identified as “Afro-” or “Indo-,” politics are entwined not only with race and religion but also with class distinctions that realign supposed antagonists. This article traces the Afro-Trinidadian People’s National Movement (PNM) party’s paradoxical attempt to claim carnival as a national festival, while negating the essence of the emancipation carnival narrative that underlay its claim. It then examines warrior traditions crucial to that narrative. Afro-based kalinda, the martial art form that spawned stickfighting (or bois, as it is called in patois, with the fighters known as “boismen”) intermingled with Indo-identified stickfighting known as gatka, and the Indo-based, whipcracking jab jabs (devil-devils). Though racially distinct, these Afro- and Indo- traditions, which are actively being revived today, share world views (radically different from the ethos of Christian “respectability”) that honor the living presence of ancestors, acknowledge conflict as basic to life, respect nature as a living partner in human community, and practice rituals that are as sacred and protective as they are fundamentally violent.

Author Biography

Milla Cozart Riggio, Trinity College

Milla Cozart Riggio, James J. Goodwin Professor of English, Emerita, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, received her PhD from Harvard University. Since 1995, she has focused on Trinidad Carnival and culture. Among her edited books and monographs are Ta`ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran (1988); The Play of Wisdom: Its Text and Contexts (1990); a special issue of TDR: The Drama Review on Trinidad and Tobago Carnival (1998); Teaching Shakespeare through Performance (1999); Carnival: Culture in Action—The Trinidad Experience 2004); Festive Devils of the Americas (lead editor, 2015); and Turning Tides: Caribbean Intersections in the Americas and Beyond (co-edited with Heather Cateau, 2019). She co-edited Medieval and Early Renaissance Drama: Reconsiderations (special issue of Mediaevalia, 1995); Renegades: The History of the Renegades Steel Orchestra (2002); and In Trinidad: Photographs by Pablo Delano (2008). She has also written on Hindu Ramleela performances in Trinidad and gave a plenary presentation at Power, Performance and Play, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Leeds Carnival, Leeds, England, 2017.




How to Cite

Riggio, Milla Cozart. 2020. “Playing and Praying: The Politics of Race, Religion, and Respectability in Trinidad Carnival”. Journal of Festive Studies 2 (1):203-35.