African/Asian/Black/Brown people occupying any nominally "white" space en masse threaten the authorities - the overseers - even though this spectacle is also beautiful and seductive.
To these nervous observers, the fun "show" is also, fearfully, a "show of force," as if those lithe cavorters, plus those laid-back dudes "liming," might morph into sly guerrillas.
Thus, governmental Toronto is ambivalent toward Caribana, the most lucrative annual festival in the city and yet also so restricted in terms of resources (granted stingily, with suspicion), routing and respect.
The city showers more police than applause on this Caribbean-Canadian carnival, this black-and-brown-and-beige bacchanalia, because it is uneasy about these "visible minorities" who are suddenly visibly despite all contrary StatsCan assertions the flagrant majority.
But thus it has always been and not just in Toronto, and not just for those of Caribbean heritage. In 1789, the town council of Shelburne, Nova Scotia, passed a law "forbidding negro dances and frolicks."
During slavery in the U.S. South, whites tried to stop slaves from singing "seditious" spirituals. Joseph Farley reports this incident: "One time when they were singing, Ride On King Jesus, No Man Can Hinder Thee, the padderollers [patrollers] told them to stop or they would show them whether they could be hindered or not."
In old Ontario, states Dorothy Shadd Shreve, "the preference of blacks for passionate sermons, hymn-singing, and the other expressions of spiritual religion, actually provided a rationale for segregation."
"Freedom songs" powered the U.S. civil rights movement, but they also drove the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.
Reggae, calypso and samba: all raise hackles and roves as much as they raise consciousness.
Black folks worldwide have always been, to quote the classic Funkadelic jam, "one nation under a groove."
Martinique-born liberation theorist Frantz Fanon pointed out 45 years ago that the First World colonial/imperial "enemy gives the impression that he is floundering and getting bogged down. And as for us [his opponents], we sing, we go on singing."
But such singing ain't innocent. It's rich with scat, bebop, indecipherable "cool" codes, slang, secret messages and hidden meanings sometimes sexual, sometimes political, but always sinuous, soul-searing and polyrhythmic.
If black song strikes officious ears as rude and raucous (complaints now levelled against rap), black dance strikes monitoring eyes as lewd and lascivious.
And during Caribana, limbs, already flamboyant in tint, become more so.
Clad in shimmering fabric, fluorescent feathers and spangles, those limbs move feverishly but gracefully, elegantly.
This strutting display disrupts the staid architecture and sombre concrete of so many power capitals, so many bleached citadels.
For this reason, despite all the nay-saying and second-guessing about Caribana, its success in shaking up and rousing deadened citizens has led to its proliferation in miniature across Canada.
Those jouncing, jazzing limbs communicate life and its rebel lust to continue, to flesh out love, and to burst the confines of morbid economies and politics. They declare, "We will dash everything that denies our beauty."
Indeed, these upstart bodies are sexy: this flesh got flash. Each dancer is like a rainbow catching fire, or like terra cotta lightning amazing your eye.
There is the spice of curry, the scent of curry, in their exciting wake. Impossible not to taste coconut in each dazzling kiss.... Muscles coil, uncoil. The erotic becomes electric. Clothing, where it remains, glows.
Contemplating the connection between poetry and black anti-colonial struggles in the late 1940s, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre writes, "It is" the rhythm in the tomtom, in jazz, in the throbbing of these poems, which expresses the temporal aspects of the Negro existence."
While his romantic essentialism is questionable, I think Sartre's right that Afro-heritage peoples, because we are (says he) "the most oppressed," possess "more than all others the sense of revolt and the love of liberty." These qualities glitter in our love of high life, our jit and jive.
Writing on Caribana, Bajan-Canuck author Cecil Foster quotes one man's comment that during this great street festival, politics is the furthest thing from folks' minds. But no, the politics is where it's always been: in sensual display and in the shouts, the whoops, the partying.
Tobagan-Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip sees Caribbean, especially Trinidadian, mas (masquerade) and carnival as originating in the need to voice and parade resistance. It's about "Africans" having their freedom to move and move and move out of the nowhere of slavery and into history."
Thus, the slinky, "wining" anatomies of Caribana revellers may incarnate, for Philip, an African aesthetic she dubs "kinopoesis: dynamic and quick moving (African dialects and their demotics)."
Caribana rhythms (plus the witty, risqué rhymes of Calypsonians) inspire exuberant ruction and intellectual riot. And in their motion and their music, annually flaunted since 1967, in a city suspicious of black-brown-beige bodies not penned in cells or prone on stretchers, the Caribbean heritage workers and immigrants and "new Canadians" (often of multiple generations) force upon the wary police and the white politician the awareness the analysis that Toronto is not only theirs.
This city is not only the preserve of the plush, pallid powerful. Yeah, Caribana, this intense, popular theatre, this fete of masked and large-living types, busts through glass ceilings and mashes up media filters to reveal how segregated Toronto starkly, really, is.
No wonder Caribana has been co-opted and cooped up on the Lakeshore! No wonder its gorgeous, anarchic pageantry has been turned into a ceremony not unlike the Queen's changing-of-the-guard"
And there are problems with Caribana. Its privileged music and culture(s) Trini do not reflect enough the diversity of Toronto's black/brown communities.
Youth lack influence, too. Parental nostalgia for the moods and styles of homelands that are no longer what they were in 1960 (or 1970, 1980, 1990, or 2000) overrules any serious pursuit of "the shock of the new."
Most irritatingly, the makers of the extravaganza realize almost no financial return for upping the profits of Toronto's hotels, bars and restaurants.
Nevertheless, for one brief moment every August (the anniversary month of the 1834 British abolition of slavery), the streets are taken over by many of the "coloured" underclass who in fact keep the city running.
For a day, a weekend, a week or two, here they are, "jumping up" on sidewalks and Lakeshore, with good friends, family, neighbours and visitors, letting feet drum, voices trumpet, calling together African, Indian, Chinese and European diasporic communities from all over the world, Canada and the GTA.
For one moment in the year, between Black History Month and the CNE, the streets are theirs.
But there is one more glaring "downer." The people are "jumping up," yes, but not on city council, not in Queen's Park,and not in Parliament.
Caribana is a statement of presence, not yet of power.
True, pride in-presence is important, showing off our vibrant colours is important.
But Caribana will not reflect empowerment until those who occupy the streets and classrooms also occupy political and financial offices.
Not until we "wine down Bay Street can we expect the authorities to dance to our tunes.