On Tuesday, New Orleans celebrates another Mardi Gras. However, the festival is more than a day of welcomed over-indugence, it is full of cultural memories, rituals and histories.
In New Orleans, one of the few cities celebrating Mardi Gras, its carnivalesque roots come from French, African, and Native traditions. Although Mardi Gras points to just Tuesday, the celebration is really a season which lasts for about a month. Locals partake in a litany of parades, balls and parties during the time leading up to the major event. Much like its sister celebrations in Rio de Janeiro and Trinidad & Tobago, the city shuts down to revelers both near and far.
When you dig deeper into the cultural performances during this time, you’ll discover a past that is rich and ongoing.
Before the Crescent City
The origins of Mardi Gras in the United States do not begin in New Orleans, or even Louisiana. Rather, it starts two states over in Mobile, Alabama. When the French settled in the Gulf Coast, their first established city was 16 years before New Orleans in Mobile. To this day, the streets of Mobile and even its cultural make up evidences French influence. So much so, Mobile is also called, “France-Amérique.”
Following the Treaty of Paris which ended the Seven Years’ War — known as the French and Indian War, French settlers and enslaved Africans put on the first Mardi Gras in 1763. After the French lost to the British years later, many left, but quite a few Napoléon Bonaparte supporters stayed and settled throughout Western Alabama.
For the elite, Mardi Gras in New Orleans meant sordid sexual pleasures. During enslavement, wealthy white planters selected a temporary Black consort — free or enslaved — who was often fair-skinned. The arrangement ranged for a year, and if the women were liked, they remained until death. For Black women, this meant a level of elevated social status other than labor-as-servitude, so they were often encouraged to participate by their mothers or women in their family.
For certain events, women were hand-picked, dressed formally then shown off at an exclusive social party. The events have become to be known as the octoroon balls. The term octoroon, describes a person who has one-eighth African ancestry reified practices of colorism in the area. Depending on the fairness of your skin, you were afforded certain opportunities that darker Blacks did not receive.
Leading up to the Louisiana Purchase, in 1803 and shortly thereafter, many fair-skinned Blacks were concubines or descendants of white planters from French colonies such as Haiti, Martinique and Guadeloupe. When the French gave up their significant portion of land in what is now the MidWestern United States, they left their properties to their long-time paramours. As a result, at one point, Haitian mulatto women were the richest group in New Orleans.
Like many histories in the South, New Orleans practiced racial segregation. In the French Quarters, a highly foot-trafficked district where the heart of Mardi Gras parades take place, a practice of “whites-only” occurred until roughly the 1960s. Only Blacks who serviced whites or were performing could go into the area.
As well, whites held their own Mardi Gras balls and honored a white “Queen of Mardi Gras.” Even in parading, whites formed societies and associations called, krewes, that raised money throughout the year and prepared for Mardi Gras celebrations separate from Blacks.
For two centuries, Mardi Gras celebrations were racially divided, and to this day, this is why certain parades featuring whites and Blacks happen on different days. The Zulu Parade, which is a popular Black festival, historically took place before or after the major parades.
Blackface during Mardi Gras is worn by both Black and white parading groups. Most notably, the Zulu krewe, a collection of Black reveler, are best known of black face paint. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club started in 1909. Upon the urging of its founder, John L. Metoyer, the group switched from dressing as hobos to actors in a minstrel vaudeville play with characters who wore blackface paint and grass skirts.
Using racist tropes from the minstrel, the Zulu groups continued until they were met with resistance from African-Americans in the 60s and 70s, stating that the costuming was degrading and an insult. Afterwards, membership in the Zulu krewe dwindled, but revived in local notables joined. The Zulu parades are known for their unpredictable and wild yearly themes. Like their white counterparts, they too have annual kings and queens of their association.
More krewes using African cosmology with a more positive spin have emerged, like, the Krewe of Oshun. Founded in 1996, Oshun is the name after the Yoruba river goddess in Nigeria, West Africa. In New Orleans, a place known to still practice African spiritual systems, the Yoruba tradition along with those in Benin and Congo were transported with Africans and retained.
Beading, masking and customing
Exact origins of the start of throwing beads during Mardi Gras remain intertwined in several stories. One thread of history says that the beads started when a parader dressed as Santa Claus, passed out intricate glass beads to parade goers as a sign of giving away souvenir trinkets. Another narrative tells the account that passing out beads to crowds was symbolic in passing out food and coins to poor folk in times of old. The act showed generosity and Christian ideals of giving to the less fortunate. Another, and perhaps, a more recent story, signifies the exchange of flesh or sexual pleasure; hence, women flashing breasts when beads are thrown.
Nonetheless, beads are an important part of Mardi Gras celebrations, as it continues the interactivity between those in parades and crowds. Over time, the shiny plastic beads have become synonymous with Mardi Gras. As well, it developed into big business for Chinese manufacturers.
A permanent cultural fixture in Mardi Gras are the Black Indians. Started in the late 1800s by African Americans who painted their faces and donned costumes of Natives from the Plains’ region, the associations of Black Indians are an integral part in telling the story of the Black Aesthetic in New Orleans, as well as surviving Southern racism and oppression.
The Black Indians are about 30 groups of mostly men, who make ornate customs throughout the year using beading and feathers. The customs sometimes are 8-to-10 feet tall and weigh up to 100 pounds. Techniques are passed from parent to child, and usually from father-to-son.
For decades, it has been an all-male club, but lately, women and girls participate. Black Indians are said to surface at a time when Blacks were forbidden to wear masks, so painting the face circumvented the law, which is also the case for the Zulus. During carnival, they walk through the Black sections of New Orleans with drums, tamborines and other musical instruments, singing songs belonging to the group.
Native people still live in-and-around New Orleans, and due to the area’s history of intermingling, just like Black folks, they come in an array of skin complexions. The story goes that when Europeans came to the area, Natives warned them of building on land below sea level. It was bound to flood. Multiple floods later, the white man still does not listen.
Whereas the men are Black Indians, there exists a long-line of women paraders called, the Baby Dolls. A century-old masquerade tradition where women in the community carry out costumed-street processions dressed as antique figurines. Preferring enclaves away from the tourist traps of the city’s festivities, the parades are for local folk merriment.
Some say the Baby Dolls started from sex workers who would parade in the early morning after a long night of work during the festivities. What is known, the Baby Dolls emerge in the early 1900s with Black women who dressed in bloomers, bonnets and other clothes from eighteenth century baby dolls. Employed vaudeville performances like the Zulus, they sauntered through the streets to entertain friends and neighbors during Mardi Gras.
Using an intersection of satire, parody and sexuality, the street ritual turned into a staple for many decades. The marchers often pushed public respectability, patriarchy and notions of womanhood. According to Mardi Gras scholar, Kim Vaz-Deville, the form of masquerade, which hints to West African tradition and American carnivalesque, the groups of women who costumed “became social and pleasure clubs.”
Over time, the appearance of the Baby Dolls almost became extinct until 2004 when women organized and began parading again. The book, “Walking Raddy,” edited by Vaz-Deville, takes an intimate look at how the revamped Baby Doll society with 12 independent groups, presents itself today as a “living art.” The recent re-emergence of the Baby Dolls show that the tradition holds historical significance and present viability.
The reign of the brass bands
The soundtrack to every Mardi Gras in New Orleans will be brass bands. A large part of festivities are countless bands and performance teams from elementary to adults. Being the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans Mardi Gras continues to be a city of musicianship.
While the bands are the first line, there is a coveted part of parading, called “second line” which holds the crowds that follows the band. Often dancing and singing along, the second line is as critical as the band. Revelers in the second line hold umbrellas and feathers as they walk behind the band, creating more merriment.
Outside of NOLA
New Orleans Mardi Gras does not exist in a vacuum. Throughout Louisiana, Mardi Gras celebrations in smaller cities and towns dot the state. As you move inland, away from the Gulf Coast, the festivities look different.
In the interior of Louisiana, village-like communities called, parishes, hold gatherings centering around food and music. In New Orleans, much of the cuisine centers seafood, but in the interior, the delicacy is pork. Cajun communities hold parades that are more like a masquerade hunting party. When the hog is slaughtered, the bits are portioned to family and friends who cook succulent dishes.
Mardi Gras, which translates into Fat Tuesday, is a festival marking the day before the Catholic period of fasting and prayer. By the time Fat Tuesday arrives, many folk have eaten, drunken and danced their fare share.
The day after, Lent begins. During the 40 days of the Catholic Lent, worshippers are tasked with abstaining from excesses. Many give up a self-indulgences like sweets, soda, meat and even sex. Lent is supposed to be a time of solemnity and meditation in which Catholics prepare for Easter, or the religious holiday of their savior, Jesus Christ rising from the dead to return back to the godly sphere of heaven.
Over the years, Mardi Gras’ popularity grows to show a part of the country that holds onto older traditions rooted outside of the British Empire.
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Kaia Shivers focuses on diaspora, features and news. She is the founder of Ark Republic and NYU professor.