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Carnival of Resistance and Resilience: How Notting Hill can help the people of Grenfell heal

From Telesur

For the Notting Hill district in West London, when masqueraders arrive for Carnival, they will do so in contravention of the attempts by the Tory-led council to use the Grenfell disaster to move the Caribbean-style event from its traditional Notting Hill home.

Costumed masqueraders pose before taking to the streets as part of Notting Hill Carnival.
When Tory MP Greg Hands asked if it was “appropriate to stage a Carnival near a major national disaster,” he did so in the long tradition of the members of local government who have attempted to either shut down or move the festival. But he also acted out of ignorance. Carnival is a big, street party, with loud music and pretty girls in pretty, and sometimes, skimpy costumes, but it’s more than just a party.

“I think what Hands is missing is that while there are hedonistic elements to Carnival it is also both serious and political. It was used by people of African descent on the Caribbean plantations as a practice of resistance to oppressive power and a cultural form that kept African traditions alive,” says Dr. Emily Zobel Marshall, who is a researcher within the department of Cultural Studies at Leeds Beckett University. She says Carnival “is now a celebration of the process of emancipation from slavery and the role that slaves themselves had in gaining their own freedom.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan rejected Hand’s suggestion. He says the move, “would further alienate a community that already feels betrayed.”

Dr. Nicole Ferdinand, from the Department of Events and Leisure at Bournemouth University, provides context to the London Mayor’s decision. She says “the streets of Notting Hill as a festival site contributes to it staging on many levels: infrastructural, social, metaphorical and geophysical. Many in the community would argue that the social and metaphorical meanings Notting Hill has for the Carnival are unique and cannot be duplicated at another site.”

She adds, “In tracing its development over the last 50 years I would agree with this assessment.” Ferdinand also says while the Carnival can be moved, moving it would change the event significantly.

As for Hand’s stated concern about the appropriateness of staging Carnival near a site where many persons lost their lives. If it was out of concern for the well-being of survivors, does he have a point?

In Trinidad, the birthplace of the Caribbean-style Carnival template, the festival has had a long history of providing healing for distressed persons, because it was a space where the dispossessed could lose themselves in dance and music and temporarily forget the troubles of their daily lives. But it was also a space where they could comment on the behaviors and hypocrisy of their colonial masters, the government and the “powers that be” without censure. By empowering the disempowered the pervasive narrative of Carnival, should one care to listen to the masqueraders, calypsonians and soca singers, is that the festival provides a psychological release.

Satori Hassanali is a mas player and an art psychotherapist. He asserts that Carnival as therapy is possible, but it may depend on the participants’ use of it, consciously or unconsciously, as a place to recover from trauma. He also points to the origins of Carnival. The early masqueraders in Trinidad were African slaves. The festival offered them “a medium through which disenfranchised/subjugated/vulnerable peoples could express, explore, and thereby learn to respond to, cope with, and even reconfigure/restructure the systemic infractions that plagued them … well that, in essence, is therapy.”

The unconscious masquerader could still access the psychological benefits of Carnival. As Hassanali explains, “the modalities making up the creative arts therapies (Art-, Music-, Dance-, Play and, most specially given this topic, Drama-Therapy) are all governed formally by shared principles and elements that have been informally present in our ‘Mas’ since its inception and throughout its evolution.” He says those structures seemed to have resisted the commercialization within the modern Carnival and therefore can still offer a space for persons to challenge the status quo, and perhaps effect positive social or psychological change.

Marshall is also a mas player, she typically takes part in the Leeds Carnival. She finds the experience, “transformative at a personal level – with your costume, your mask and your dance you are able to transcend your identity and become the masquerade – this in itself is a profoundly liberating and emancipatory process.”

It is instructive to note how deeply rooted Carnival is to the people of Notting Hill. As Ferdinand pointed out earlier, moving the Carnival will change its structure because most of the people behind the festival are either from the area or spend a lot of time in the sector.

“Members of the Notting Hill Carnival Community were among the first to come forward to assist the residents of Grenfell Towers, especially when the local authority was slow to respond,” she says.

“They provided emergency supplies as well as emotional support,” but she also says the burden of assisting the community remains with the Kensington and Chelsea council which has responsibility for the Grenfell Tower and the Notting Hill Carnival route.

This year for Notting Hill Carnival, spectators and masqueraders are being asked to wear green as a tribute to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire of June 14. The Notting Hill children’s Carnival took place Aug. 26, and the adult street parties will run from Aug. 27 to 28.

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