Notting Hill Carnival is an unabashed celebration of everything it means to be black and British – and in divided times, it can feel like a life raft, writes Meena Alexander.
I was six months old when I first attended Notting Hill Carnival. Strapped to my dad’s string-vest-clad chest, we weaved our way through the streets of west London as steel pan players and bejewelled dancers swirled around us.
I recently asked my mum what they were thinking, taking a tiny baby to the world’s second largest street party. The sincerity of her answer floored me.
“I felt you had the right to know, learn and feel the equal value of both sides of your heritage, even at that age,” she said.
And she’s right. As the child of a Caribbean immigrant, it has always felt important to celebrate a culture I feel so connected to, despite growing up 4,000 miles away from its birthplace.
The birth of Notting Hill Carnival
The UK’s carnivals, from London to Bristol to Leeds, are, of course, transplants from the Caribbean islands; descendants of the music and pageantry first put on by emancipated slaves. What appears to many as a straight-up street party carries the weight of hundreds of years of history, folklore and religion on its back. And its British renaissance in the 50s added even more layers of cultural significance.
The first and largest carnival in Britain, Notting Hill, sprouted from the charred ground of a London borough rife with racial tensions, poverty and inequality.
Many Caribbean immigrants had settled there, lured by promises of wealth and work in the form of the British Nationality Act, which invited Commonwealth citizens to come and lend their hand in the ‘mother country’ during the UK’s post-war labour shortage.
But new arrivals soon realised that they weren’t as welcome as British government campaigns had led them to believe.
Turned away from decent housing by racism and xenophobia, many ended up in the poorest neighbourhoods, forced to live cheek-by-jowl with hundreds of people already fighting over limited resources. Tensions simmered.
On the 29 August 1958, a 400-strong mob of white men armed with sticks, stones and knives stormed through the streets of west London, with cries of “go home you black bastards” ringing off the tenement buildings.
They were out for blood, frothing and determined to “keep Britain white”. They attacked black people in the streets, trashed their homes and instigated widespread violence that continued every night until 5 September.
Notting Hill was far from the only riot of its kind – in the same week alone there were similar scenes in Nottingham – but it became a sickening symbol of the state of race relations in the UK.
The following January, Trinidadian-born activist Claudia Jones decided she would organise an event to “wash the taste of Notting Hill and Nottingham out of our mouths”.
This so-called Caribbean Carnival, an indoor event intended to provide comfort and solidarity within the black British community, would eventually grow into the world’s second largest outdoor event – eclipsed only by the legendary Rio De Janeiro in Brazil.
The growth of Notting Hill Carnival prompted smaller iterations to spring up around the country, each showcasing the vibrant culture of the Caribbean diaspora in their own way.
But at the heart of them all is the spectacle: masqueraders in jaw-dropping costumes, flamboyant floats and chest-pounding sound systems. An unabashed celebration of everything it means to be black and British. A chance to see ourselves reflected a thousand times over in joyous technicolour.
The power of carnival culture
Much has changed since the days of the race riots, but not enough. With a prime minister who has referred to the “watermelon smiles” of black people and their “picaninnies”, a government yet to right the wrongs of the Windrush scandal and a media culture that regularly demonises black Britons and immigrants, carnival can feel like a life raft.
For Linett Kamala, a director of Notting Hill Carnival and one of its first female DJs, who attends every year with four generations of her family, the carnival is all about community.
Her parents were among those who travelled from Jamaica to London in the 50s, and they experienced firsthand how carnival played a key part in bringing people together.
“It’s important to keep carnival culture alive in Britain because it recognises the contribution, in terms of creativity and intercultural relations, that people of Caribbean heritage have made to society,” she tells Stylist. “Carnival is a wonderful example to all because it does this in a positive, artistic, inclusive way.”
For black women especially, carnival can feel like a weekend of much-needed affirmation. It’s a time to be loud and proud in a society that so often shames us for it.
“The public, celebratory nature of carnival is of particular significance for black women because we’re often made to feel invisible in British society,” agrees Kamala. “Carnival is a time for self-expression, honouring our ancestors and being proud of who we are.”
There is power in seeing ourselves represented over and over again in the black and brown faces we see dancing, laughing and performing at carnival. We might not see them in magazines, or on television, or in parliament – but every August, we can be sure to see them here.
This is what my mum wanted me to be a part of, as early on as possible. This external representation of an internal pride. This valuing of heritage, and of ourselves as women.
The joy of carnival is that, for one raucous weekend, we get a glimpse of what our society could be. What it should be.
One free of bumbling, self-serving politicians who whip up hatred. One that does not treat black women as second-class, but celebrates them in all their diversity. One that is inclusive and united and jubilant.