- Carnival and the Formation of a Caribbean Transnation
America, we are often told, is a land of immigrants. Cultural manifestations patterned after one celebrated by them in home countries attest to the fact that keeping the cultural home fires burning is a time-worn and comforting way of enjoying the new country without forgetting the old. Philip W. Scher's study examines how a small Caribbean nation, Trinidad, successfully exports its flagship cultural manifestation, Carnival, to America. The result, the author argues, is the creation of a transnation: "a group in diaspora that imagines itself as a collectivity with a specific history and a body of quantifiable traits and characteristics in relation to a nation or nation-state that exists in the present in a putative homeland" (1).
Trinidadians, with unbridled chauvinism, have long boasted that their Carnival is the greatest show on earth. They further back this claim by pointing to the spread of Trinidad-style Carnivals to the rest of the Caribbean islands and to the major metropolitan center to which Trinidad emigrants have gravitated. One such center is Brooklyn, New York, whose annual Labor Day carnival parade has become the showpiece of Carnivals outside Trinidad. What goes into the staging of this parade, as well as its history and connection to its Trinidad original, is the subject of this interesting interplay of anthropology and sociocultural history. We are taken through the development of Carnival in Trinidad and shown how it became a national festival through the motivation of the emigrants and their eventual desire to integrate themselves into the host society. The inventiveness of the newly arrived Trinidadians is shown in the way they set about using the metaphor of Carnival to help fill the void created by their move away from the Caribbean. We visit the sites (ma' camps) where new masquerade costumes are designed and made, and we are also taken through the political maneuvering necessary for this emerging transnation to obtain official permissions or overcome various community objections.
From the anthropological point of view, it is refreshing to see a study that delineates basic precepts and concepts with just the right amount of restraint. One suspects that the author, an admitted participant in Carnival both in America and in Trinidad, it so-called mecca, has placed his overriding fascination with this intriguing culture within an anthropological framework. In so doing, he ha done what many Trinidadian, even other Caribbean, scholars have surprisingly not done with the same objectivity. Here is an outsider writing with the sensitivity of an insider, but avoiding some of the annoying faux pas usually associated with the eye of the outsider unaware of all the facts or subtleties.
A book dealing with Carnival and its dazzling array of costumes begs for illustrations. Unfortunately, the ones in this volume are of such low quality as to do a disservice to the subjects illustrated. That nitpick notwithstanding, the study provides an illuminating and convincing look at how Carnival has indeed "become a central [End Page 158] symbol in the formation of a Trinidadian transnation" (1).