The Psychology of Carnival

All staged events are not created equal. That’s especially true when it comes to carnival, and even truer for the Caribbean and the African and Indian Diasporas in the wider Americas as it relates to carnival. It is a celebration, yes! But what is its underlying function to revelers? And can we view the event’s appeal outside the prism of mere fun, is what I am asking and seeking to answer, since I am making the case that it’s not like other festivals.

To not hold you in great suspense: Carnival is staged to allow personalities, in that moment, to take in a little more oxygen than they normally would or be allowed to exhibit, to reverse to some extent the opiatic symptoms due to the oppression and regression induced by a culture that seeks to marginalize its subjects.

In other words, it’s a time and space to enlarge one’s personality, with little or no punitive reaction by that culture and its gatekeepers; it’s an opportunity for the individual to occupy a larger social space, if you will, particularly the so-called underprivileged in that society, than would be allowed under typical circumstances (and not be further stigmatized). Carnival was created with such intentionality in mind, at least allowed to serve as such an outlet for the most marginalized, as it applies to colonies, but of course all oppressed people by their governments/masters, be it religious or secular.

To fully appreciate the psychological benefits of carnival, one has to reflect and analyze the marginalization of individuals and their personalities during regular times in the society. Family and non-family members alike seek to envelope or box the experiences of each other, to purposely regulate the other person’s expression of self and, in turn, esteem, psychology and ultimately personality.

In effect, keeping the other small is the norm because the group as a collective suffers from a smallness of stature in relation to its government, ruling class or to other groups far removed physically. Hence, the weight of being dominated is projected in the most self-serving of ways by individuals, resulting in a vicious cycle that permeates particularly in small communities.

Allegiance among friends or even family members might serve as the only safe harbor for one’s desire/appeal to “be more” in those realms aforementioned, even on Carnival Day. For the many revelers bearing their breasts or wearing their masks, the feeling is identical: still freeing. Carnival is no typical party, or social event for that matter!

Carnival should never done; we need a revolution of our psychology as an oppressed people. Let me further qualify the previous sentiment by saying that I am referring to the spirit of carnival, not suggesting a mode of constant jamming and drinking or even bearing of breasts: the freedom to simply shape one’s existence organically is the plight. Succinctly put by David Rudder and Kes the band (2013), “live yuh life like yuh playing mas.”

By Yao Atunwa




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