How a Trinidadian Communist Invented London’s ‘Notting Hill Carnival’

The Notting Hill Carnival was canceled final 12 months. But it probably wouldn’t exist in any respect with out the efforts of Claudia Jones.

For the Caribbean diaspora dwelling in London, there could by no means have been a quieter weekend than the one in August 2020 that usually would have seen the Notting Hill Carnival.

England has no scarcity of full-sensory pageant experiences, from music in Glastonbury to Diwali celebrations in Leicester. But there’s nothing fairly like visiting the Notting Hill Carnival. You exit the tube station, get off the bus or dismount your bike, and enter the irresistible hum of the celebrations, stepping off the pavement and onto the highway.

That hum you hear is the mixed sound of a whole lot of metal pans hammering out calypso; of the decadently adorned band floats; the candy whisperings of the woman with the Afro kissing the boy with the fade; the soca-infused bass of your favourite sound system; the rustle of the proudest feathers of a peacocking performer; the pinging of a bikini strap; the clangs of the jerk drums; the slosh of candy punch; the back-clapping of elders who nonetheless deal with Carnival as their private reunion get together and the exhilarated cries of kids who’re in attendance for the primary time.

That hum is heard by over a million guests to Notting Hill Carnival yearly, nevertheless it can be heard in different elements of Britain, on the St Pauls, Nottingham and Cardiff carnivals, and in cities all over the world: Port of Spain throughout Trinidad and Tobago Carnival; Rio throughout Carnaval; Toronto throughout Caribana; and New York throughout J’Ouvert. Of course, many of those celebrations have been canceled in 2020 due to pandemic restrictions.

God, we missed Carnival final 12 months.

After a summer season the place Black Brits have been engaged in a protest motion — one that will have originated within the Black Lives Matter protests within the United States, however which was harnessed to characterize our explicit struggles with racist violence, together with findings that, in Britain, Black persons are twice as likely to die in police custody than are white people — so many of us were desperate for distraction, to lean into the parts of our culture not enmeshed overtly in pain. Carnival has always been that reliable release, a chance to celebrate community and reconnect.

Sometimes called “the biggest street party in Europe,” Notting Hill Carnival is centered around the music, food and culture of the Caribbean diaspora. But it has its roots as a site of anti-racist resistance and rebellion, right back to the founding of the original Caribbean Carnival in 1959 by a Trinidadian activist, writer and editor named Claudia Jones.

Jones brought her iteration of Carnival to London in another time when people desperately needed it. The first “Caribbean Carnival” was held indoors in the dead of winter in January 1959, after a series of protests by Black Brits in areas of England, including Notting Hill, against police violence. These protests played out against the backdrop of the migration to England of the “Windrush” generation: the mass wave of nonwhite immigration to Britain in the postwar period. Over several decades, roughly half a million immigrants arrived from Caribbean countries. (The name “Windrush” refers to a ship, the HMT Empire Windrush, that brought workers in 1948.) The cultural contribution of this generation has inspired a spate of creative projects, from the acclaimed 2004 novel (and subsequent TV series) “Small Island” to “Small Axe,” the film anthology from the director Steve McQueen.

From these beginnings, Carnival evolved into an inclusive annual street party, thanks to the artists and organizers who followed Jones’s lead. In 1966, Rhaune Laslett, a community leader in Notting Hill, revived the festival as the Notting Hill Fayre, which brought Russell Henderson’s steel-pan band in to the streets, in an impromptu performance that is said to have launched the Carnival procession we know today. Leslie Palmer, an activist from Trinidad, introduced Jamaican sound systems to Carnival in 1973, which drew in the larger crowds and opened the festival up beyond the traditions of the eastern Caribbean islands.

Mr. Prescod noted that, at the time, there was “real confrontation, great argument” about the inclusion of sound systems, which involved shows built around the ascendant genre of reggae, played over elaborate amplification systems. But the sound systems stuck, he said, because “this is what brought, suddenly, masses of more people” to Carnival.

Prescod also pointed out that, “Carnival’s got two sets of roots — it’s got two feet. One foot here in Britain and the other in the Caribbean.”

Indeed, Notting Hill Carnival was modeled on Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean, which were themselves “the intervention of the emancipated Africans,” said Attillah Springer, a writer and activist. Enslaved people in areas of the Caribbean, and specifically Trinidad, took elements of European masquerade balls and subverted them, using their own rituals and traditions to find freedom in adopting masquerade — or “making mas” — and becoming different characters.

After emancipation, many of these traditions were merged into Carnival celebrations, including J’Ouvert, a pre-dawn ritual of abandonment that often sees revelers doused in mud and oil. “For a lot of people (myself included) J’Ouvert is the most important part of the celebration,” said Ms. Springer. “It’s dirty and dangerous and anonymous. It’s also highly spiritual and unapologetically political.” Ms. Springer called Jones the “ultimate jouvayist … to situate her within that consciousness of the transformative nature of those pre-dawn hours.”

In 2020, those days of celebration in Notting Hill were, for the first time in decades, silent. It was an especially difficult blow, given yet another summer of protests for racial equity and a pandemic that, in Britain, has disproportionately affected the Black British Caribbean community. As Notting Hill Carnival now takes place in August, there is still hope that Carnival might happen in 2021. But either way, its spirit persists. For Black Brits, it is “our Mecca,” in Ms. Compton’s words, or “our Christmas,” as a friend described it to me on Twitter.

At my first ever Notting Hill Carnival, as a young child held in my dad’s arms, I remember so desperately wanting to climb over the barriers and join the beautiful women sashaying down the road to the beat of the drums. I remember one woman fluttering her feathers at me. I cast her in a high regard that I had only ever previously held for princesses.

Last year was a quiet one, and a hard one. But Carnival will rise once again. And when it does, I have no doubt that, with the knowledge in our hearts that Carnival can be a political space and a celebration of resilience and renewal, we’ll return to the streets as energized and radicalized as Claudia Jones would have wished.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is a journalist, podcast host and the editor in chief of Gal-Dem magazine. She is the editor of two anthologies, “Black Joy” and “Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children,” and lives in London.

Produced by Veronica Chambers, Marcelle Hopkins, Dahlia Kozlowsky, Ruru Kuo, Antonio de Luca, Adam Sternbergh, Dodai Stewart and Amanda Webster.

Photo and video credits: group 1, Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images; Richard Braine/PYMCA, Universal Images Group, via Getty Images; ITN, via Getty Images. Group 2, Monte Fresco/Mirrorpix, via Getty Images; Hulton Archive, via Getty Images; Daily Mirror, Mirrorpix via Getty Images. Group 3, Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix, via Getty Images (stills); British Movietone/AP (video). Group 4, PYMCA/Universal Images Group, via Getty Images; ITN, via Getty Images; Steve Eason/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images. Group 5, PYMCA/Universal Images Group, via Getty Images (stills); ITN, via Getty Images (video)

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