Playing and Praying
The Politics of Race, Religion, and Respectability in Trinidad Carnival
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.