May marks Haitian Heritage Month, and to celebrate, Miami Book Fair is partnering with Sosyete Koukouy of Miami, Inc., to host the Little Haiti Book Festival Online. The monthlong initiative will take place each Sunday and feature four days of presentations by authors from Haiti and the Haitian diaspora — the events will feature panel discussions, performances, storytelling for children, and more. You can register for the free events online at Miami Book Fair’s website.
The New Tropic will be spotlighting each week’s event in our Wednesday newsletters for the remainder of May. Because this Sunday’s panel is all about Haitian Carnival: Art, Culture, Religion, Little Haiti Book Festival coordinator and author of the Badass Black Girl book series M.J. Fievre shared an essay on the custom’s song-filled history, importance, and capacity to uplift:
On May 9, 2021, award-winning writer Edwidge Danticat, author of After the Dance: A Walk through Carnival in Jacmel, and Dr. Nathanael Saint Pierre, a Reverend at St. Augustine of Hippo Episcopal Church, will discuss “Haitian Carnival: Art, Culture, Religion” at the Little Haiti Book Festival Online.
No, it’s not Carnival season in Haiti — and yes, the news from the Caribbean island has been particularly alarming in the last few weeks. Why Carnival then? Because an understanding of Carnival leads us to a better understanding of the joys and pains of Haiti.
One of Carnival’s oldest, most revered customs is mocking those in power, and Carnival songs often include messages about resistance to oppression and violence.
During the first American occupation in 1915, a general sends his wife Angelica back to the U.S. because of “marital issues.” A song is born, seemingly about an incompetent spouse. The true meaning, however, is clear to all: “Yankee, go home!” Both the peuple and the bourgeois wanted the Americans out of Haiti.
In 1986, only weeks before dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was forced out of Haiti, a popular band practicing for Carnival in St. Marc dared to parade with a coffin stuffed with effigies of Baby Doc and his wife Michele.
In 1990, Boukman Eksperyans sings “Kè m’ pa sote.”
During Carnival in 1991, after neo-Duvalierist leader Roger Lafontant forces provisional President Ertha Pascal Trouillot to resign, the rasin band Koudyaj sings, “Manman poul la.” Later that year, a coup d’état outs President Jean-Bertrand Aristide; at Carnival, the people of Bel-Air sing, “I lost one of my shoes.” The song is about Father Aristide.
When Aristide’s marasa René Préval (former prime minister) is elected president in 1995, some people at Carnival dress as roosters, the symbol of the Lavalas movement; they sing the politically charged song, “Pale Yo” (“Tell Them”), which proclaims that the Haitian people are “like little matches, catching fire.”
Haitians parade in the streets of Port-au-Prince and sing, in colorful robes and spooky masks. Shaking their hips, they defy the laws of gravity and give life to the yearly bacchanal of music, flesh, dance and drink. Nèg Gwo Siwo lead the parade, bodies coated with tallow, cane syrup and sweat, entranced in the pure rasin melodies, the deep rhythm of trombones and trumpets. More and more passersby join the street procession, getting into the rhythm, as they sing and dance. The bann a pye will cover miles, fueled by their hypnotic beats and a good dose of rum, singing, “Souke dada’w jan’w vle,” or “Grenn zaboka sèvi zòrye.” More and more people will be swept up in the rush! The social barriers are taken off – liberating the mind and the body.
My first memory of Carnival is from a balcony of a house on Grand Rue. It is 1985, and I’m only four. The air smells of sugar-baked beignets and greasy pate kòde and fritay. Staring down at the mass of painted, feathered, jeweled humanity dancing below, I feel alive — transported, wrenched free from my skin. I throw back my head, cup my hands to my mouth to give out a long, wailing howl. The sound is lost in the throbbing beat, the shaking roar of rattles and gourds. On the cha, dancers dance, horned masks bobbing, powdered feet stamping. Beneath their feathered mantle-cloaks and elaborate masks, who can tell who they are? Countless voices are singing, a hoarse, bellowing roar: “Adorez les pigeons!” My mouth opens and my eyes are frantic as they follow the doves flying around the cha. My body pulses like a single giant nerve, but I’m not allowed in the crowd.
It’s not until I’m in my twenties that I truly lose myself in Carnival, however. My friend Jenny and I plunge into the sea of revelers, and we shuffle behind one float until we’re out of breath, and then run back to catch up the next one. Blur of colors. Beads. Sequin. Glitter. Majestic kings and queens dressed up in richly embroidered costumes and multicolored feathers. Carnival: An ecstatic fête of pulsating music and swirling dancers. Thousands of frantic souls drenched in sweat – marching, bouncing, dancing to the most vivacious music in the world. I am both frightened and elated. I hardly breathe, swallowed by the bacchanalian mass, the colorful crush of humanity. I throng among the glamorous and keen, the bizarre, the hungry, the in-between. Sweat dampens my hairline and glues my clothes to my skin. The crowd squeezes the breath out of me.
It is a bit claustrophobic and scary.
And yet … once you’re in that crowd — I suddenly get it. Carnival is about the Haitian soul, our desire and determination to be free and live and love life richly and expressively, despite poverty and political oppression. Carnival takes the lid off the pressure cooker.
Carnival is a big shout out: I AM, WE ARE, and WE WON’T BE DENIED!
Haitian Carnival: Art, Culture, Religion takes place on Sunday, May 9, and you can register in advance on Miami Book Fair’s website and Facebook event page. The full itinerary for Little Haiti Book Festival can be found right here.