Our bodies remember

In Carnival by Angelo Grant

 When asked, the Moko Jumbie will assert that he walked across the Atlantic from West Africa and that, even though he has been brutalized for centuries, he stands “tall, tall, tall!” In his first life, Moko served his people as a God! Using his towering height, he was able to foresee danger coming from afar and would grow from the size of a regular man, stretch to the sky, and perform unexplainable acrobatics. Moko may not have been able to protect his people from the destruction that would befall them, but he never left their side. He walked across the Atlantic and now celebrates with them through the Watusi and Kilimanjaro bands amongst others as stilt performers during the carnival of Trinidad and Tobago.  In Trinidad, they would add Jumbie to his name, meaning spirit or ghost.  

Moko’s journey was not written on paper. History’s value has long been placed entirely in the written word. Arguments for the inclusion of our ancestors’ oral legacy in the historical canon remain on the fringes as Europe continues, unflinchingly, to flip the pages of its history book. However, as her nostrils inspired the dust of her sacred texts, we ran into the streets in rebellious jubilation, dancing the dances of our ancestors, bearing their strength. It is here, in the streets of the carnival so rich in African spirit, that we begin to wonder – beyond the stale written word and ancestral orality – whether our very bodies themselves are also sites of history.

Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, though a contested science, may provide evidence for what we know to be true. Epigenetics examines alterations in gene expression, triggered by one’s environment and experience, which may be passed on from one generation to the next. In other words, the experiences of one generation may be passed onto the next through heritable modifications in DNA expression, such that our bodies are coded with the experiences of our ancestors. A recent study titled Genetic Consequences of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Americas, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, analyzed the genotype array data from 50,281 research participants. The study, combined with historical shipping documents—illustrates that the current genetic landscape of the Americas is largely consistent with documentation of slave voyages. This study is one of the few that details not just the forced migratory patterns of the trafficking of African peoples, but also the impacts of the gene distributions of these peoples across the Americas. The research states that our DNA carries markers of rape, pillage, torture, and displacement.

I think about the history that unravels through the study of our genes and the lessons that can be drawn from them. If we conclude that our genes carry markers of displacement, then surely they also carry markers of joy. I know this because celebration follows my people everywhere we go. Even in the face of the greatest injustice, we have birthed the greatest display of joy and freedom – Carnival. A study of carnival is its own kind of scientific study. It is the study of how our people survive. It is here, in the streets of the carnival, on the same streets that sought to rip our ancestors of their humanity, these streets, now so rich in African spirit, that we revel. We run into the streets and towards the beat of the drum, the vibrancy of the mas, and the vivacity of the people into the realm of our own experienced history. Our bodies have a mind of their own, and they remember.

Moko Jumbie Red  by David Francke

         Our bands move like the thousand-year-old Omabe festival of the Igbo of Nsukka! Omabe is also a communal theatre. It dramatizes and ritualizes the descending of the ancestors from their resting place behind the Omabe hills. It features heavy drumming, involves masquerading, body painting, and provocative dancing. Our feet remember the Kete dance. Once performed largely by Ashanti royalty, these movements were repossessed by the Ashanti diaspora on the Caribbean islands and the antebellum South. And when we ‘bus a wine’, it is because we exist in more than one lifetime. It is undoubtedly and undeniably us. Our muscle memory affirms our dignity. And although these traditions are transposed and altered to adapt to the new environments, the movements, tools, and spirit remain. When I hear Moko say he walked from Africa, it is not a metaphor, he too is remembering that we didn’t just carry the trauma across the Atlantic, our DNA does not just mark displacement, we also carried joy. And it’s a tall joy!

And even though history has displaced the details of the rituals and movements of our ancestors, it is not our minds that recall, but our body that remembers. We repossess the lands, and repossess our history. The mas is the vehicle where history is free to roam the streets and bear witness to the freedom of her people. Once we obtain a little bit of freedom, history comes rushing through our veins! Every step, an ode to those who paved the way for us. I won’t spend time debating the merits of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, but I can say that not all history is written, not all memory is oral, and not all lessons are taught. Sometimes we just know. Sometimes remembering is an intuition born out of an ancient knowing.  And this is what I know, that the impacts of displacement must  have been so strong, it left genetic markers in my blood. But when I feel the mas, be it pretty, or dutty, or ole, I am connected to a spirit of resilience, a tradition of survival, and reside in a palace of joy. 

Our bodies are the temple of time, and sometimes we feel a joy so holy it echoes across generations. And this is what carnival is, a remembering of joy, and a revelling of freedom. It is calling upon all that has been passed down through our skin, and realizing we have been doing this for thousands of years! These aspects of our traditions – the dances, the masquerades, the characters, the music – were passed along through experience, through the body, just as they have in Africa, and persisted even long after the loss of our language. Adeola Dewis explains “ we are them, their blood runs through our veins – we inherit some of their traits, mannerisms, features, talents and beyond connected to them, we are an extension of them.” There is history in our carnival, identity in the wine, and memory in the masquerade. It is often lamented that those descended from African slaves in the diaspora have “lost their history,” but how can you lose what has been preserved in your skin and passed on through our bones. Every time we celebrate Carnival we call upon it, and we stand, tall, tall, tall! 

Tall, Tall, Tall!