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How Carnival, Mardi Gras Thrive During a Pandemic

A group of samba dancers in bright red and purple costumes in Sao Paolo, Brazil, during Carival in February 2020
The Samba Schools Parade at Anhembi Sambadrome during Carnival 2020 in Sao Paolo, Brazil. BW Press/Shutterstock

Rutgers scholar discusses how the African diaspora festivals continue to evolve

By turning houses into stationary floats and releasing music on time while delaying the parades, people across the Americas and the Caribbean who celebrate Carnival and Mardi Gras are preparing to keep the festivals alive during the pandemic.

Kim D. Butler, a Rutgers University-New Brunswick scholar of history and Africana studies, reflects on the meaning of the festivals, their relationship to the African diaspora, and how they will survive while the world fights COVID-19. The world’s largest Carnival, in Rio de Janeiro, begins Feb. 12. Mardi Gras in New Orleans will be held Feb. 16.

Q: What are the connections between Carnival, Mardi Gras and the cultures of the African diaspora?

Carnival is one of the great cultural traditions in the African diaspora. Many people do not fully appreciate how African the Americas are. In the first three centuries after Columbus's arrival, five out of six arrivals from the Old World to the New World were from Africa. Because of this, we see some traditions with direct connections to Africa, like elaborate costumes and masks. We also see newer traditions that reflect the day-to-day realities of African descendants, especially following the end of slavery when they were able to fully participate.  Carnival traditionally celebrates the pleasures of the flesh, including eating meat (“carne”) and other excesses to be given up during the solemn fasting for Lent, so it ends on Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday") before the official start of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

Q: What is the cultural significance of Carnival and Mardi Gras today in the countries where they are celebrated?

Carnival is a chance to feel free from the strict social rules that regulate our daily life. Yet at the same time, Carnival is traditionally a time for people to voice their thoughts about major social and political issues through creative parodies. In Brazil, one of the popular samba schools, Mangueira, used allegory to criticize the omission of African and Indigenous contributions to the building of the nation and address the 2018 political murder of Marielle Franco, an advocate against racism, homophobia and police violence. Our own Mardi Gras, in New Orleans, is a whole season celebrating community. Each krewe, or Carnival club, reflects a particular facet of New Orleans's multi-ethnic history, including the famous Mardi Gras Indians who honor the Native Americans who helped Black people escape slavery. Trinidad has the largest Carnival in the Caribbean, which led to the new musical genres of calypso and soca and an important new musical instrument invented in the 20th century: the steel drum. Here in the United States, Caribbean immigrants also celebrate Carnival in various cities throughout the summer, so you can dance to the top Carnival hits and taste the foods from all around the Caribbean in a single festival.  One of the largest Caribbean Carnivals takes place annually in Brooklyn during Labor Day Weekend.

Q: In the countries where Carnival and Mardi Gras are important, how might people observe them this year when the parades and large gatherings are canceled?

Kim D. Butler
Kim D. Butler is a Rutgers University-New Brunswick scholar of history and Africana studies.

COVID has forced the cancellation of the festivals, but not their spirit. Carnival is all about creativity, and it’s showing up in the ways people are finding ways to celebrate. In New Orleans this year, they've invented something called the “house float,” where artists, who would have worked on actual floats for the parades, are hired by locals to decorate their houses. That way, simply driving through the city, you can see the elaborate allegorical art –- except it's you that's moving, not the float. Toronto's Caribana Carnival did online events last summer. Carnival clubs in Rio de Janeiro’s main parade have more than 3,000 paraders, so it’s harder for them to pivot. Brazilian cities have typically postponed Carnival, but the clubs are still releasing the wonderful original music created for this year, which is truly a poetic genre of its own. Wherever people love Carnival, they will find original ways to celebrate the joy of life despite the challenges, which is really what Carnival is about after all.