Halloween is part of the Carnival tradition, a holdover from the traditional Catholic year full of commemorations of the lives of Jesus and his saints. As part of that tradition, Halloween should be a time when the world is turned upside down, when the powerful are mocked and those with less power play pretend games in which they imagine “what if” they ruled the world. This year however, our Carnival — Halloween — racist costumes that mock the powerless are worn by rich celebrities, and privileged young white men don blackface. Welcome to Trump-o-ween 2016.
Historically, the liveliest time of the year for inverting culture’s structures was during Carnival, the week leading up to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) was the last day to eat meat before the imposition of Lenten fasting, and in the “last blast” celebrations that took place, the spirit of chaos was celebrated. Historians who write about Carnival celebrations often refer to the work of Francois Rabelais, whose 16th-century series of works about Gargantua and Pantagruel feature scatalogical descriptions of the giants excreting or vomiting, and engaging in sexual activities.
Carnival was about the flesh: the indulgence of the senses. People ate, they drank, and they had sex, and in the parades and parties that marked Carnival days, not only were those activities indulged in, but the literature and artwork about those activities were themselves provocative. But Carnival was not only an indulgence of the senses: it was a turning over of the world order. The high became low. Kings became servants. Bishops did not ride donkeys to symbolize their humility; they were pictured being ridden by asses. And women were on top. Women were depicted as rulers of their husbands, just as kings were depicted not just as commoners, but as lowly servants in charge of the most menial of tasks.
Carnivals featured the revenge of the “weak.” Not only were the powerful represented in ways that showed them now serving those over who they had dominion, they were depicted acting in ridiculous manners. A bishop being ridden by an ass was not only serving the donkey, he was also being shown in a position that would suggest that the donkey might sodomize him. Men who were depicting a king playing a servant might also play that same servant-king defecating, which brought the king down to his most basic, human level. By showing the king in the position of taking a shit, the power that the king held over his people was satirized, too. A bishop who has been sodomized by a donkey, even in jest, is a less terrifying figure than the man who holds the keys to heaven in his ability to excommunicate someone from the church of believers.
Halloween was part of this Carnival tradition. It marked the nights prior to the day marking All Souls’ Day — the day of memorial devoted to the Church’s martyrs and saints. It was a night for marking the line between life and death — and it supplanted the Celtic holiday of Samhain, as many Catholic holidays were adapted to replace local festival days — it involved a large number of traditions. Not only was it a night for watching out for spirits who were said to walk on that night, but it was also a night when the rich gave food and money to the poor in exchange for their saying prayers for family members. It was a night of mischief and pranks and for telling frightening stories about the types of ghosts and various souls who might be looking for the opening between the worlds of the dead and the living. It was a night for mocking our own fear of the power of death and the unknown. It continued the tradition of mocking the powerful.
Halloween is not a night where those in power mock those who are without power. It’s not a night where bishops or governors or mayors walk down a street celebrating their power over the rest of us. And yet, this year, perhaps because Donald Trump has told white people that their racism is nothing to be ashamed of, we are seeing cruel Halloween costumes. Despite the horror of police arresting Native Americans protesting #NODAPL and locking them up in dog kennels, reports are pouring in of white folks not only dressed in Native American costumes, but costumes that bear signs openly mocking those who are fighting to preserve some of the last bits of land they own. Students wear blackface, despite years of being told that this is not okay. This year, when #BlackLivesMatter has focused attention on the extrajudicial killing of black people by cops, wearing blackface is an overt act of bullying and terrorism rather than celebration. Students wearing sombreros or other “Mexican” gear are mocking those who are threatened by Trump’s rhetoric that promises violence against immigrants.
The rightwing has its knickers in a twist because people like me take offense when Halloween costumes are labeled “inappropriate.” They claim that it is something called “political correctness” run amok, although in all the years that I have been asking, the only definition that I have been able to find for “political correctness” is when bigots are told that it’s not cool to be jerks. Donald Trump has told white people, especially white men, that those in this country who have been traditionally denied access to power, are in fact, in charge. That the reason that a white man can’t get ahead has nothing to do with an American political economy that increasingly redistributes wealth to the wealthiest few, but rather because everything is now weighted to make certain that women, people of color, and immigrants are given everything ahead of white men. They are aiming their anger at the people who are in the same boat that they are in, but rather than mutinying against their crazy captain, they’re trying to toss the rest of us overboard.
In the carnival foment of the politics of white resentment, this Halloween has become an opportunity to hold up to ridicule and mockery the oppressors. Halloween 2016 is yet another opportunity for Trump supporters to become the real monsters who walk the dark. The fact that Trump’s supporters cannot see the oppressor standing directly in front of them has been one of the greatest puzzles of this election season.
Follow Lorraine Berry on Twitter @BerryFLW