Commentator Dean “The Sportsman” Greenaway recently made an important point about August Emancipation Festival.

“We celebrate a festival, not a carnival; & rise ’n shine, not j’ouvert,” he posted on Facebook.

These are not petty distinctions. This is not mere fussing over semantics to hold on to names that are fast slipping from Virgin Islands usage.

As a researcher, educator, and practitioner in cultural studies, I say without apology that we are disrespectful to dismiss as quibbling or out-of-touch any Virgin Islanders’ claim to the ancestral or folk language that expresses their own sense of heritage and cultural identity.

That said, we must be honest in acknowledging that decades of increasing and collective switching from the folk usage (Festival, Rise ’n Shine) to the popular usage (J’ouvert, Carnival) have taken strong hold in the absence of adequate national intervention. That is how culture rolls. To blame immigrants and visitors for the change is totally reductive.

Instead, blame the void in our cultural development for the lack of sustained institutional plans, policies, and programmes to educate, communicate and effect the rooting and establishment of the names we want to use for identifying our emancipation celebrations.

The difference

Let us examine the difference between August Emancipation Festival and Carnival. Though I personally lean towards the former for its historical significance in the life of African descended people in the diaspora, I am not here to proclaim one form of celebration superior to the other. I acknowledge that they are different seasonal events with common overlaps by virtue of our inherent modes of cultural expression. But I believe each has its place and serves its purpose.

What I want to emphasise is my observation of the former becoming increasingly subsumed by the latter. Instead of making the same old complaints, we would do well to examine each contextually and make some decisions for the change we want to see.

I grew up knowing August Monday holiday, but it was as an adult living here in the VI that I understood it was about the celebration of emancipation. It was named a festival likely based on the connotation of religious feast days or holidays, like Harvest/Thanksgiving. The derivation is not surprising since the Church of England/Anglicans and the Methodists/Wesleyans in the VI initiated the holiday. The early association of VI Festival with the coronation also served to keep it within the realm of a sacred, courtly celebration.

Catholic colonies

What few of us appreciate is that the Carnival holidays in the colonies that were largely Roman Catholic were also sanctioned by the church. In their tradition, the secular celebration preceded the Lenten holy days of abstinence beginning with Ash Wednesday. Thus the two prior days of Mas(querade) fête and indulgence known popularly as Lundi Gras (fat Monday) and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday).

With the growth of postmodern Caribbean tourism and its hedonism and music festival niches, each destination is constantly vying to outdo the other with expensive musical line-ups and mass Carnival productions superseding more traditional and conservative festival parades and pageants. In Antigua, for instance — as in Toronto, with its large Caribbean population — the two events have merged, with the meaning of emancipation disappearing into the spectacle and bacchanalia of the Carnival genre.

Several Caribbean destinations have even removed their carnival extravaganzas from pre-Lent to save their tourist industry from being squashed by Trinidad’s massive productions.

Nevis ‘Culturama’

Like our VI, Nevis has retained the word Festival but refers to their celebration as Culturama to keep the focus on the island’s culture and heritage. Even so, the rise of carnivalesque elements — including contemporary J’ouvert bacchanal and Rio-styled “feathers-and-flesh” imported costume parades — poses a challenge in minimising the emphasis on honouring the ancestors and the spirit of emancipation as a monumental moment in history.

The VI has had a longer tradition of celebrating Emancipation/August Monday than several Caribbean nations. Yet we have not made nearly enough strides in re-examining and reconstructing a unique VI renaissance celebration that focuses on its distinctive emancipatory character outside of staging another carnival.

Emancipation celebrations

Over the past 30 years, more Caribbean nations are consciously celebrating emancipation as separate from Carnival.

St. Lucia, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago come to mind. This has allowed for focus on the possibilities of our African ancestry, our story, heritage and culture, through public and private sponsorship of diverse creative artforms and intellectual expressions like lectures, conversations, symposia, film productions, exhibitions, theatre, poetry, drumming and dance rituals, culinary and agricultural fairs, organised calypso competitions and watersports.

70th anniversary

Next year in the VI, I want for the 70th anniversary of August Emancipation Festival to tap into the brilliant but often neglected creative resources we have among us. Let us put aside our insecurities and presumptions to come together as of right now to start planning a real fungi kind of Emancipation Festival for 2024.

We have work to do. Now. We cannot expect people to just revert to the original word signifiers for our major emancipation celebrations just so. Cultural change does not just happen so!

I keep hearing the banal phrase about culture evolving as if culture is some object that we let do what it wants to do, go where it wants to go. No. The responsibility is on us to do more than talk by activating cultural formation: create, recreate, construct, deconstruct, stimulate, nurture, interrogate, promote, circulate — and do what we must to achieve the cultural outcome we imagine. Come on, BeVI. We must rise to the occasion if we want to shine.