J'Ouvert (breaking of dawn)
My J'Ouvert began well before the traditional 4am call to revelry of the masses upon the road. It started around 2am in a garden level apartment of an old friend in the Bedstuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. When I walked in the celebrations were well underway with free flowing alcohol, sound system barking out soca tunes and spirits lifted in a dancing game. I dropped my bag and joined in intent on catching up with all of the good times I'd already missed. The host of the evening shouted my name above the din, opening up introductions to one and all. Carnival spirit ruled the moment and strangers became friends and distances disappeared. It was one of those magical moments that characterize century’s old traditions and rituals that comprise carnival. Many outside of cultures that celebrate carnival often aren't aware that it is a spiritual and religious ceremony that on one hand prepares participants for the Christian season of lent and on the other celebrates the spirit of freedom of its African ancestors. As I made my way through the room and danced deeper into the morning I was reminded of the liberation of spirit that comes through music and communal gathering. While I'd celebrated many a Carnival season this was to be my first J'Ouvert!
As the night receded and the dawn crept towards us we began to prepare ourselves for the ritual to come. We roused those that had drifted to sleep. We changed our clothes from normal street wear to things that we didn’t mind getting a little roughed up. We draped ourselves in our national colors or grabbed a flag to wave. The beauty of diaspora carnival is that it bridges the divide that might exist on any other day. On this day we are all West Indian; Island people sharing similar cultures and traditions. Our J’Ouvert crew represented Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands. We were a rambunctious and jovial crew as we wove our way through the streets of Brooklyn heading towards Ocean Ave and Eastern Pkwy. This early morning ritual was being repeated across the city, mirroring traditions transplanted with West Indian immigrants as they settled in New York City as early as the 1920’s. The closer we got to the Parkway the more my excitement began to build. I had been waiting the whole year for this celebration. It had been almost 15 years since I’d had the pleasure of witnessing the pageantry of carnival make its way down Eastern Parkway. The joy and pride at hearing steel pan and reggae as all around you people are wearing and waving their colors with pride. It has to be one of the most exhilarating experiences one could ever have. As the sky began to lighten and the sound of the pans hit my ears I knew this was a transcending moment. They say the spirits comes a calling in the early morning hours. I felt the ancestors rise as a strangers smile greeted my eyes and colors flew through the air….As freedom moved through dancing winding and gyrating bodies…As old friends appeared and disappeared…As I allowed myself to be swept away into the fantasy of J’Ouvert morning.
My once white shirt was now streaked with reds, blues and oranges. Explosions of silver hand prints decorated my chest and white flecked my nose. Somehow through the revelry my mind came into sharp focus remembering that the root of this moment was the slave celebrating freedom and defying oppression; Claiming, endowing and recreating a new ritual that is all his own. I saw in J’Ouvert the power of the feminine. I watched as women stood in full ownership of their bodies, their sensuality and sexuality. Whole beings capable of taking a wind and giving a wind back. Denying a suitor or beckoning one with a twitch of a hip. During J’Ouvert and carnival the sacred Goddess is reborn she sheds the skin of limitations and is reborn whole and complete. The dawn gave way to morning, revelations, tired feet and sore hip flexors and still we journeyed on. Old and Young recreating this ritual determined to play there part in keeping tradition alive. For some, like me there are new awakenings and for others a rediscovering of the sacred in the everyday. By the end of the day months of planning, crafting, sewing and rehearsing will have filled hearts and minds with the power of freedom and pride. Even when the crowds have dissipated they will have carried with them a spark of the divine whispered in every note and suggested with every winding waist.
(artist +activist) uses his/her artistic talents to fight and struggle against injustice and oppression—by any medium necessary