Colour of Carnival

It’s very rare that a feature story, especially in XX, is written by the person being featured themselves, but today is different. When I first met Amanda McIntyre, I was so blown away by her – by her personality, her essence, just her presence in its entirety. Within five minutes of sitting with her, I was so captivated by her bold persona. To put it into perspective – in a world of black and white, she is screaming colour. Through her work with WOMANTRA, her commitment to teaching, her words on paper and her utmost dedication to culture in its purest form, Amanda has proven that all it takes is a little bit of confidence and a lot of personality to make a change.

Today, Amanda is a cultural activist – but her love of Carnival (arguably one of the most popular forms of Trini culture) started at a very young age, and she’s sharing it with us today.

I recall my early experiences with Carnival. Each year on the Friday before Carnival, my primary school would have a ‘jump up’ at which all classes presented a band. The year I remember most clearly was when I was in Standard One. Our teacher enthusiastically told us that the name of our band was ‘Carnival is Colour.’ A great energy of excitement filled the room and shone from the faces of my classmates. I know it must have been on my own face too because through and through my body exhilarated with the vibration created by the hundred thousand thoughts of what our costumes would look like, how we would dance and how much of a good time we’d have. Our teacher instructed that we make our costumes at home and then at school we’d all be given matching headpieces so that we would be identified by ourselves and others as a band.

When I got home that afternoon, I met my grandmother as usual in the kitchen. She was sitting on the blue bench that my uncle had made years before. Pots were on the stove, covered and preparing to surprise me. She could not have heard me coming because, as was often the case, her head was bowed towards her chest and her eyes were closed. When I announced myself with “Good afternoon Mama!” she drowsily raised her head. This day I couldn’t wait for her to respond, I quickly relayed the great news about the band and all my ideas for a costume. There would be so much colour just swirling around me.

Then my grandmother went from the kitchen to her bedroom with me following closely behind and lifted the hem of her bed sheet. With both hands she raised the mattress and appearing there mysteriously in the dusty darkness was a piece of fabric. The colours were splendid blotches that seemed to melt into each other like a liquefying kaleidoscope. My grandmother lifted the fabric with her right hand, before she returned the mattress to its space on the bed frame. Emerging from the shadow that was made by the mattress, I saw the vibrancy of the pigments and knew it would have to become part of my costume. I held the cloth with one hand and carefully ran the fingers of the other hand over it to explore its texture, while my grandmother still tidied the sheet on her bed.

She then took the material from me, to unfold it and reveal its full length and width. Her arms lifted high above her head and with a swift, sudden shake she flagged the fabric into the air. She seemed to wake up the colours that had been sleeping for who knows how long under the mattress, and they appeared even more zestful than before, casting a spell of playful dizziness on my eyes.

After she had got out her bag of sewing things, my grandmother and I sat closely side by side on the very bed that had just born this fabric. She had spools of thread, a small pair of scissors, needles, a measuring tape, fasteners and a silver thimble in a little white bag which she kept in the top drawer of her bureau. In these years, due to her failing vision, she was already blind to the eye of the needle, so she gave it to me with some black thread since I could see clearly and, hopefully, knew what to do.

I put the edge of the thread in my mouth saturating it with saliva to make it pointy, then with silent, tight-lipped concentration took it slowly through the millimetre of space at the top of the needle and pulled it out on the other side, taking it the full length of my arm. Another arm’s length on the other side evened it off. I cut the second side to separate it from the spool, brought the ends together and back into my mouth again to seal them with a little wetness before I held them together between my thumb and index finger to rub out the mystery of a knot. It felt like mystery because I would just rub the thread until it coiled and looped, before I’d pull and a knot would suddenly appear.

I was proud to be able to do something my grandmother could not. In my childish arrogance I believed that she depended on me while I still had no idea what were her plans.

With a gesture, she motioned for me to stand up in front of her. Her arms moved around my waist with the measuring tape, then from my waist to my knees. I looked on in wonder as her hands, with fingernails painted in the usual mauve polish, dexterously folded, cut and straightened the cloth. With the parts laid on her lap, she brought the jigsaw together by sewing the thread along their edges, darting in and out with the needle, perforating and leaving a trail of black hyphens as her fingers glided skilfully along the fabric. And just so, the fabric transformed from a sheet into a flamboyant skirt.

She held me by the waist and turned me slightly to the side. I was still in my school uniform. I took down the zipper and raised my arms while she lifted the navy blue overall above my head and rested it on the bedside. In my starched white school shirt and underwear, with my sneakers still on, I waited for the miracle to happen.

She held the skirt in front of me as if it were a magical item. Next she opened the waist with her hands, bent and lowered the skirt in front of my knees. I stepped in. She carefully brought it up to my waist and fastened the sides. My ‘Carnival is Colour’ skirt fit me perfectly. I twirled around the room, while my grandmother, surely pleased with herself, smiled brightly.

When the day of the ‘jump up’ arrived, I matched the skirt with a red T-shirt and my bright lemon coloured sandals. At school everyone looked spectacular in their creations. Then all together with bright head pieces covered in feathers and jewels that our teacher had prepared for us, we took flight like a flock of enchanted birds moving over the school yard, then across the stage. While the idea for the band had entered my mind only when my teacher first described it, the vision remained with me for years after and became part of the dream of my adult life. 

Amanda T. McIntyre is a published writer, cultural activist and a co-director of the Caribbean feminist group WOMANTRA.  

Photos by Cecil Evans


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