This year, to keep people protected from the pandemic, the Notting Hill Carnival (NHC) will be streamed online as a series of events celebrating its origins and driving spirit. And, even if people can’t gather face to face, it feels more vital than ever to channel that spirit.
This has been a challenging year, with the pandemic punctuated by street protests following the murder of George Floyd in America. How are we as black Britons to process these troubles and heal? In part, perhaps, by appreciating the strength of our community – which is where Carnival comes in. We have six decades of shared memories, that resonate from St Pancras town hall to the present day.
The meaning of Carnival
Carnival has always reflected the energy and activism of the times, while being many things to many people. My journey with it started in the 1980s, when my Ghanaian father would drive me from our home in the London suburbs into the heart of the street festival. Dad was a taxi driver, whose raison d’etre was conversation: he revelled at the chance to chat with more than one person at a time, and exchanged a ceremonial ‘hello!’ with every passer-by, which left little time for dancing.
However, my experience of Carnival changed when I attended with my extended Trinidadian family. This was the early 1990s, by which time the crowds seemed to have doubled. I remember holding our cans of Red Stripe above our heads to avoid spillages, bodies pushing heavily behind us, as we navigated our way towards the sound systems. Our traditions of jerk food and dancing continue today, but the experience is now enriched by taking my daughter to enjoy the painted revellers and costumes along the parade.
To historian and NHC ambassador Fiona Compton, the origins of Carnival are revolutionary. They go back to the 17th Century when, as European colonisers held Lent masquerade balls, enslaved Africans staged their own festivities. But as Compton points out, these were a form of rebellion.