As a sound system blares “Mind your funky business, leave me alone,” Elton — a tall ,middle-aged man, dark skin well-moisturized and proudly dressed in red from his cap to his trousers — proceeded to set me straight on my possible impressions of Cambridge Carnival 2018:
“Any time you hear people say that they came to Carnival and they saw women dressing half-naked, and stuff like that, that is just a form of them expressing themselves,” he said. “You don’t have to agree with how they dress, but it’s them having their day and expressing themselves.”
In the 26 years since Cambridge Carnival’s inception, it has outgrown a Central Square location and become the largest festival in the city. The festival is both competitive for the performers and convivial for the attendees. The organizers aim to ensure Central Square’s historical connection with the Caribbean remains strong in a fast-gentrifying community.
As Nicola A. Williams, president of the Carnival, told me: “If you ask someone whose family that has been here for a couple of generations that’s black in Cambridge, most likely they are Bajan,” because, “around River Street and Western Avenue, Bajans came here in the early 1900s and settled.”
On River Street, people bring out their chairs to watch the beginning of the parade. Williams emphasized that, although gentrification remains a concern of hers in terms of “how our community is shifting,” Carnival remains a culturally significant “homecoming” for many black people — including those who continue to live in Cambridge and those who have since moved out of the city.
Elton’s description of the festivities was apt. Many scantily clad black men and women braved unexpectedly sharp winds on a 70-degree day, whining to soca, reggae, and dancehall on the grey Cambridge streets. One group competing in beige shiny bikinis and feathered swan wings danced in circle formation. They called themselves “Dhalpuri” after the flavorful flat bread concocted in the 19th century by Indians and Africans in the Caribbean. A confection, by themselves and for themselves.
I only approached Elton because I was born in Trinidad and Tobago — the name his hat declared in silver-plated letters. Carnival too was born in T&T, with its characteristic calypsonian sound, when the cultures of African, Indian, and Caribbean immigrants collided in the 17th century. Many of its references remain familiar to me since I previously attended similar festivities, both in the island nation and in my adopted home of London. I cannot lie — knowing that a cultural artifact has spread across the world from my country, 1.3 million people strong, ensures that I feel pride in claiming it as a national heritage. When I arrived at Cambridge Carnival, I saw Haitians, Dominicans, Jamaicans, Barbadians, Grenadians and more with their flags on show. Fittingly, I quickly bought a T&T flag from a street vendor and tucked it into my back pocket.
Performative as my flag-bearing may be, Carnival welcomed people who did the most. Judges at Cambridge Carnival adjudicated bands based on five criteria: craftsmanship, creativity, visual impact, presentation, and exuberance. Judy A. Walter, who has judged Carnival for over 10 years, illustrated the pressure to impress: “This is a very expensive event to participate in… It is not something that people go into lightly.”
Boston Socaholics, a band that has won awards at Boston Carnival three years in a row, and at Cambridge last year, plan their themes for each event a year in advance. This year, they paraded under the banner “Journey of the Warriors.” Members wore multicolored headdresses some four or five feet high and wide, unafraid to twist and turn unencumbered along Main Street. Children joined in, pushing costumes when their parents were too tired to do so alone. Andrea Mercury, a band leader for Socaholics, noted that, even though more people have joined over the past few years, “we usually have the same people returning every year; it is a community, it is like a family.”
Diners brunching in cafés looked on bemused, unknowingly missing out on the Caribbean food that was being sold further down in the parade. Pholourie, doubles, rum cake, aloo pie, and the aforementioned dhalpuri roti — the soothing smell of dishes that make me feel both instantly hungry and instantly at home. The only Harvard students I saw at the event, freshmen Mason T. Forbes ’22 and Asa P. Coleman ’22, had come for the music and jerk chicken after Forbes’ brother’s friend from Dorchester told them about the event.
Cambridge Carnival uses the Trinidadian model of parading and open dance but retains elements specific to the city. “There is a huge participation with the Haitian community, for example the Rara group that come with their percussion,” said Williams. But to say that the Carnival’s unofficial slogan of “beauty in diversity” was fulfilled would ignore the dearth of white Cantabridgians at the event. While Walter notes that her credentials as a scholar of African Dance meant no one “has ever questioned” her place as a judge, most of the few white people at the event belonged to three noticeable constituencies: families, photographers, and the police.
Kyle Mangione-Smith, a film student at Emerson, remarked on how the Carnival stood out of the ordinary run of events in the city. “Cambridge isn’t a colorful place,” he said, in reference to both its fashion and people.
“I live in the same apartment as my boyfriend, and he has lived there for like 10 years now and it is interesting because he talks about when he moved in, it was just entirely different, because it has been so gentrified in such a short period of time… you mostly only see white people.” However, he said he appreciated the event. “It is definitely nice seeing something other than generic tech bros that pay $10 for a sandwich.”
In reference to the high number of police officers present, Williams said that there were “more than you would probably want to see,” but emphasized that “public safety is a number one priority for us.” From 2004 to 2007, Williams worked as a creative consultant for Notting Hill Carnival in London. Upon her return, she helped the Cambridge Police Department develop a public safety plan for the following years of the event. On Carnival day, members of the organizing committee were stationed with police in their command center. “They are constantly in communication with us, because we are in charge of the event and they are there to support us,” she says.
London’s Notting Hill Carnival has an equally resonant cultural significance but occurs on a very different scale, being the largest street festival in Europe. It was founded by Claudia Jones, a black Trinidadian Communist and journalist, in 1939 as a response to race riots that sought to push black Caribbeans out of the area in which they had settled. Carnival, with its vibrancy and openness, sought to retain hope for an infant Black British community under the slogan: “A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.”
Working in London made Williams realize how important it was to preserve the diasporic character and cultural freedom within Cambridge. “I have had to advocate, and sometimes challenge the city in certain ways, only because I know how important it is to share your voice through art and culture and music and dance,” she says. “To share your culture without being censored… this is activism, and this is much bigger than us.”
—Magazine writer Che R. Applewhaite can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.