Remembering the original purpose of the Notting Hill Carnival

Reveller at Notting Hill Carnival (Photo credit: Pixabay)

This year marked the 55th anniversary of the annual Notting Hill Carnival that first took place in the Notting Hill area of Kensington, London, during the August Bank holiday weekend. This Caribbean-style street festival is one of the longest running street parties in the world and the largest street carnival in Europe. Over the last two decades this event has resulted in some two million people, attending each year to follow the three-mile parade through the streets of London. Young and old, Black and White, as well as people from all socio-economic backgrounds, gather from all over the country, and the world, to join in the fun, singing, dancing, and eating of Caribbean food and drinks. This event represents and symbolises a time of celebration. However, it has to be asked whether the carnival’s purpose is entirely in keeping with the original objective of its establishment.

Following the large-scale arrival of Caribbean migrants to Britain after the Second World War, the decades of the 1940s and 1950s were characterised by a number of ‘race riots’ especially in large cities like London. It was largely in response to these racial discrimination and racial tensions that the Caribbean feminist, Marxist, and anti-racist political activist, Claudia Jones, decided to hold a Caribbean carnival. In 1958, Jones founded the West Indian Gazette, Britain’s very first Black newspaper to help provide a voice for the Caribbean communities in Britain. During this year Oswald Mosley’s White Defence League and White racist gangs attacked the Black community groups and violent riots broke out on the streets of both Notting Hill in London and Nottingham. There were five nights of street fights and general riots in August, over the bank holiday weekend in which just over one hundred people were charged with offences related to the violence.

It was within this context that Claudia Jones decided to help improve Black and White relations by showcasing the very best of Caribbean culture and education. Her idea and intention was for this event to be a means or opportunity to educate and inform, through entertainment. On 30 January 1959, the first Caribbean Carnival took place at the St Pancras Town Hall. For the first five or six years, these events were associated with, and sometimes specifically referred to as, Claudia’s Caribbean Carnival. The focus of these early carnivals was centred on performances by Caribbean artists, activists, writers and community leaders with particular emphasis on the need for racial and ethnic unity and understanding. The show also consisted, in part, of a Caribbean cabaret, and a Caribbean beauty pageant in which notable Caribbean writers such as  Samuel Selvon and George Lamming officiated.

The current Caribbean carnival focuses on street parades, music, food stalls, and for most people, and it would be surprising to find anyone who is there to be educated about Caribbean people and their history and culture. The focus seems to have shifted towards three days of entertainment. Of course, while there is nothing, ultimately, wrong with an entertainment festival, it might also be a good idea to have more stalls and floats which exhibit Caribbean writers or outstanding achievers. Leaflets with short simple and easy to read material, could be given out to the tens of thousands of people so they can learn a little more about Caribbean people and their rich cultural traditions and heritage. This could be one small step towards keeping that original dream alive of blending education through entertainment (edu-tainment).

Tony Talburt is a Senior Lecturer at Birmingham City University in the UK.

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