01 Jan 1970 |

What about carnival

What has carnival ever done for black Britons?


HERE WE go again (‘groan’).  The Notting Hill Carnival, the annual orgy of music, booze and gyrating flesh which we are told time and time again is an expression of our forefathers/mothers enslavement and a consequence of our condition in Britain.

But what has it ever done for us?

Doubtless it is our one enduring legacy to this country that we call home. Sadly, we can point to no greater black British institution than the carnival and, for 50 years and more, that annual weekend in west London has been a crutch to lean on and an embrace to keep us warm in the otherwise foreboding environment we call “Inglann is a bitch”.

But what good has it done us?

No, really, what good has the Notting Hill Carnival ever done us? Tell me one thing that the Notting Hill Carnival has ever done for black Britons. I can’t think of one and I’ve been going to it for 40 years.

That’s right. I remember when it was a black carnival with a few sympathetic white people, especially local residents back when ordinary people like you and I could afford to live there. It wasn’t until 1976 that you started seeing a few thousand (5 to 10 thousand, I would say) white people attend.

Compared to today when there are a million white people and counting, it was still considered a ‘West Indian’ carnival four decades ago. I don’t think the media even used the phrase ‘Caribbean’ carnival until about 1987. Now, though, journalists have dropped the West Indian/Caribbean tag altogether and started talking of it as the biggest ‘street festival’ in Europe. So we cannot even claim it as ‘ours’ anymore. It belongs to everybody now. Except it doesn’t because it is ours. And, more discriminatingly, it is US.

WE are still responsible for it, especially when things kick off.

WE still provide the vibe.

WE still do the music and the dancing. It is still black music.

WE provide the costumes.

WE show everybody how to enjoy themselves.

Carnival is US.

And when one in two of the people at carnival happen to be black (I know this number diminishes with the years), it is clear to onlookers who may say it belongs to everybody, that they are just bystanders/revellers/invited guests and that WE are the main event.

WE are the ‘talent’.

WE are the entertainers.

WE are the purveyors of the culture.

WE are the minstrels.

And when the one or two of the people who go to carnival who aren’t black (I know the number increases every year – and I personally don’t have a problem with that) they KNOW that carnival isn’t them. They know it is US.

Maybe it’s the way we claim it

Maybe it’s the way we own it.

Maybe it’s the prejudice that goes before it.

Maybe it’s the prejudice that comes after it.

But what has it ever done for us? Except give us a bad name. We don’t even control it anymore. So WE don’t control US. How can we ever hope to break the chains that hold us back in Britain when WE don’t control US. They even close the banks to let us know that when they give us a ‘bly’ on the streets that we’re not getting anywhere near control of the economy.

When carnival is over on Monday night, our ‘guests’ get to go back to being whoever they are. They get to go back to being architects and surveyors and bankers and multi-millionaires, whilst we continue to be the happy, clappy, gyrating mass of flesh and sweat that we are viewed as down the prism of a television lens by which the rest of the country sees us (remember only four per cent of Britain will be at the carnival, the rest will only see the cacophonic mess that is “US”).

Why do you think that the condescending view of black people is that we like to party? LOUDLY. And… to excess. Go to any court where a black person is in the dock for a public disturbance and you can almost see the white judge and jury remembering the last Notting Hill Carnival and making the inferences.

Carnival conditions the mind of employers that black people are not serious.

If there were other rival expressions of black culture and black people it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But carnival is the only one that ever makes it into prime time and, to be frank, it’s not a good look. And if carnival was white folk, there are still so many other expressions of white folks and lasting monuments to them that no one would draw the conclusion that is all there is to white folk.

Look, we’re all middle-class now. And those of us who aren’t are aspiring to be. We would do better if the pervading image of black people were that we were much more serious and deliberate and that we were much less ‘loud’ and much more subtle and ‘sober’ in our appearance and institutions – that we never come here for joke. And when we’re ready, we’ll drop it crucial.

That’s why, unless you can tell me one good thing that it’s done for us, I won’t be going to carnival this year.