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GOING ALOFT: Chapter 16, Junkanoo

Illustration by Gina Ramseur

“Are you going to John Canoe?” the Bahamian dockhand at the Green Parrot bar asked us, one day in late December.

“John Canoe? What’s that?”

“It’s a big party. We throw it every year. People dress up in parade costumes and play music in the streets through the night. There are floats and dancing. It’s lots of fun.”

“Sounds like a good time. Sure, we’ll be there.”

Illustration by Gina Ramseur

Illustration by Gina Ramseur

I learned later John Canoe, or Junkanoo, was once practiced as a festival here in coastal North Carolina. According to one historian, Professor Stephen Nissenbaum of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, “it involved a band of black men—generally young—who dressed themselves in ornate and often bizzare costumes . . . accompanied by music, the band marched along the roads from plantation to plantation, accosting whites along the way. . . . In the process, the men performed elaborate (and to white observers, grotesque) dances that were probably of African origin. And in return for this performance, they always demanded money, though whiskey was an acceptable substitute.”

Nowadays, the festival continues in Nassau. Wealthy tourists of all colors come to the dancers, and arrive on the sleek ships docked in the harbor. They leave their tribute money with the merchants who line East Bay Street. This is the peak of the tourist season; the better the spectacle, the more money the locals make. It is one hell of a party.

*     *     *

Saint, Artist and I walked through crowded streets the morning after the night before. A swarming mass of people, Bahamian and tourists together, still were clapping on the sidewalk and dancing on the corner. We ate greasy street food, sold cheap from the rows of food trucks: steaming curried chicken, and French fries smothered in salt and ketchup.

A brass band marched down East Bay Street, blue-and-gold-uniformed with wild red feathers in their hats. Their instruments were shiny in the sun: rows of soaring trumpets, glorious rumblings of tubas, saxophones and trombones, the mid-octave glue. The surging percussion kept everybody moving along the street. They beat out the rhythm of life itself. A heartbeat, a pulse, waves across the water. It was impossible not to dance. It was syncopated and simple: boom baboom baboom boom, CHK! A feeling of raw community spread—like the island was one big party. Everywhere we went, people were smiling to each other, keeping time to the music with a foot or a finger, wishing everyone happy Junkanoo.

Following the marching band down East Bay Street came a float, a papier-mâché rendering of the American capital dome, riding atop a crimson and gold train with “AMERICA!” emblazoned in blue across the cow-catcher. A bald eagle, wings frozen in patriotic flight, served as a figurehead. The old American flag, 13 stars in a circle on the blue field, fluttered on the sides.

Next came rows of Bahamian men, bedecked in red, white and blue outfits, each one more vibrant and loudly colored than the last, wildly dancing. Their legs stomped as if to ward off evil spirits. They were led by a man with a shield on his chest and the golden wings and legs of an eagle on his back. Atop his head he wore a crown, and on top of the crown was the head of the eagle, a wreathed banner emblazoned with “In God We Trust” wrapped around its head. Above that, a colorful cluster of stars exploded from a golden field with a blue flower covered in stars in the middle. His headdress was twice as tall as he was. Still, he danced and pounded his feet to the powerful rhythm.

“Who we are?” screamed a hyper DJ into a microphone.

“War—eee—orrs! War—eee—orrs!” the crowd roared in response.

“What we want?!” the DJ asked.

“Mu—sic!” the crowd demanded.

Over and over he asked, and the crowd answered. Saint, Artist, and I shouted back, too.

The America train had passed; approaching us now was a glorious float the size of a school bus that depicted President Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. being carried in the talons of a great eagle. Both leaders looked stoic and serious. On one side, they were flanked by a man playing a drum; on the opposite, a black man with a beard blew into a conch shell. Behind these figures was an old white man riding an elephant, with the GOP logo on a flag behind him; opposite him, President Barack Obama, riding a Democratic donkey like Jesus entering Jerusalem.

The parade was the tourist spectacle to end all tourist spectacles. The ugly practicality of it, the fact that it was put on to make money, suddenly dawned on me. The locals were catering to the cruise-ship crowd. Why else would they pander to us, waving our flag and wearing our colors? I looked around at my countrymen, fresh and pink off the gleaming white ships behind us, as they watched the entertainment and clapped lamely, spreading our money around and buying trinkets and having a good time. That was the American role here.

I didn’t have much money, but I had unwittingly played into the game. With taste buds tired of rice and beans, I spent all my cash on street food. But we were actually here to try and cut ourselves a piece of the cruise-ship pie—which meant, I realized, taking a slice out of the mouths of the islanders it feeds who have nowhere else to go—the people dancing in the parade. The quest for money was part of what motivated us to sail across the dangerous ocean, I now understood. Captain was desperately going further into debt and hoped for a big payoff. I felt naïve for thinking it was all just a big, romantic adventure.

On the side of East Bay Street, closest to the hill, a sea of black Bahamian flesh danced and celebrated. On the harbor side, the bleachers were filled mostly with white cruise ship passengers and probably some yachtsmen like ourselves. The dichotomy exists. Yet, here we were together, facing the parade—both sides of the street watching the same thing, clapping to the same music, dancing to the same beat. Both sides had come to watch the parade, to unwind a little, to escape problems, if only for a day. Together we groped for catharsis; together we reached for release.

Yes, money had an important role to play here. But wasn’t Junkanoo also a celebration of unity, of people coming together? It had to be a beautiful symbol of union between races, of friendship between countries. Didn’t it? On the bottom of the glorious float waved a banner of Dr. King’s most famous words: “I have a dream!”

*     *     *

Later, we headed back toward the dock—past the nucleus of the party, reaching the fringes. The beat still thumped in the distance. Flotsam and jetsam of floats, scattered along the sidewalks. Mostly Bahamians now. Drunken black men held their heads and leaned up against the walls of buildings. They sat on the ground, their costumes half-off, bare-chested and exhausted. A giant turkey, off a float from the night before, was abandoned in an alley. Outside a dingy bar that didn’t serve Kalik, a Bahamian man asked us, “Green or white, green or white,” as he looked distractedly down the street.

In the hot midday sun, the gargantuan severed head of Barack Obama lay sideways on the sidewalk, as if staring emptily toward the street. The papier-mâché torso lay twisted beside him, a steel rod sticking out of the neck where the head was mounted. Martin Luther King Jr. lay in pieces nearby—legs sprawled over the curb; balled-up black fists. The floats were disassembled and we were left with reality. A young Bahamian boy walked in the street to circumnavigate the carnage. Out of sight, out of mind.

John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.

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