One of my favorite stories in all of HBCU lore is the story of Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick meeting his wife during Carnival in Trinidad, which he called “one of the greatest festivals on Earth” in a 2014 interview with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb.
Carnival Tuesday (or Fat Tuesday — “Mardi Gras”) celebrations rose out of enslaved Africans’ creating their own traditions to partake in the revelry that consumed the French plantation owners before entering the Lenten season the next day (the derivative Latin words, carne and vale mean flesh and farewell, as in giving up the desires of one’s flesh to enter the season of repentance and sacrifice). Banned from the masquerade balls hosted by the plantation owners, slaves embedded customs from their indigenous lands. Many of the Africans living in the Caribbean came from cultures that had their own strong masquerade traditions, particularly around celebrations of life, e.g. birth, death, puberty and marriage. They created costumes representing various African deities, and costumes (like devil costumes) mocking the slave owners. The stories of Mardi Gras in the United States began when French settlers brought the Carnival tradition to Mobile, Alabama (then the capital of Louisiana) in 1703. Much of the history is the same as that of the Caribbean Carnival, including the formal exclusion of slaves and the separate celebrations they created to celebrate life in their own traditions.
Upon emancipation the newly freed slaves in both regions would infuse their Creole and African cultures into a celebration that would forever signify the end of slavery and a celebration of life.
J’ouvert, or “daybreak” parties emerged at the same time, and often involve the smearing of paint and mud, which many believe pays homage to the civil disturbances in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in which people smeared themselves with mud and oil to avoid recogntion. In some places, J’ouvert is celebrated on August 1 — Emancipation Day — and in others, including Trinidad, it is celebrated the Sunday night feeding into Carnival Monday.
As we go forth into the Lenten season, which for some of us means fasting and abstaining from the revelry, it is nice to remember that the season is a continued celebration of life everlasting.