I had never seen anything like it. There was a gentle guzzling of rain that had sunken over the already swampy New Orleans landscape, even the cement sidewalks had seemed to turn to a mushy mess. It was the kind of day that makes you want to curl up and nap, or at least, not be out in the streets with a bunch of drunkards that are tacked sweaty shoulder to sweaty shoulder. However, that didn’t stop the hundreds of thousands from coming out of their dry safe havens. They stomped down the street with umbrellas, raincoats and even garbage bags with cut-out arm and head holes, determination washed across their faces in hopes of getting the best “throws.”
Tents lined the sides of the road, where people were grilling out on George Foreman grills and guzzling hard liquor from the Big Gulps glued to their free hands. They were practically on top of each other, but nobody seemed to mind. Although the odds of everyone knowing each other were slim, it was as if they had all been neighbors for years.
“Rod Stewart is gonna be here,” a woman said to me from behind. An obnoxious felt hat sat atop her head and a purple boa was wrapped around her neck. “He should be coming by any minute.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle at her statement. What were the odds of the British rock star pulling into Uptown New Orleans on a gaudy float with a bunch of wealthy Southern white dudes?
I smelled cheap wine on the woman’s breath as she introduced herself as Kat. She pulled her sleeve up and showed me a number scribbled in smudged marker on her forearm. “I’ve got a ‘pee pee’ in my truck. If you need to use it, here’s the combo. My husband made me write it down in case I forget.” After she gave me an almost suffocating hug, like we were long lost family members, she disappeared into the crowd.
I never saw Kat again. But, her extension of hospitality is only one example of the sense of community that you feel on the parade route of Mardis Gras. Someone you’ve never met willingly shares their ‘pee pee’ with you. Even if it takes you at least 15 minutes to figure out what exactly that means…
Mardis Gras was originally a French-Catholic tradition that was brought to the U.S. in the late 17th century by Pierre and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne d’Iberville, colonizers sent by King Louis XIV to defend France’s Louisiana territory (present-day Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Eastern Texas). They arrived and set up camp on March 3, 1699, which was the French-observed Mardis Gras Holiday. As the settlers gained more influence in the area, the Mardi Gras tradition continued to grow and became synonymous with what eventually became the city of New Orleans. In 1837, the first formal Mardi Gras parade took place. Masked men paraded through the streets on horseback, enthralling bystanders with their romance and festivity. Today, parades are very much the same and are still organized by the “masked men on horseback,” now known as krewes, which are to me the most fascinating part of the whole Mardi Gras tradition.
The first krewe was organized in the early 1900s, when a group of Mobile businessmen wanted to form a secret society that would allow them to observe Mardi Gras with glamour and merriment. In contemporary times, krewes have morphed into a sort of “fraternity for grownups,” that has to do with wealth, class and demographics. Krewes are responsible for funding the Mardi Gras celebrations that encompass the public and can cost up to thousands of dollars per year for membership. The krewes have been known by many in the New Orleans community as being very problematic, especially with their float themes. One in particular, which is photographed below and titled Early America, is from one of this year’s parades.
This year was my first Mardi Gras experience. I was thrilled, as it’s viewed by many as a bucket list experience. I giddily waited as each float turned the corner, and eagerly ran up to it, practically brushing fingers with krewe members as I took the beads out of their hands. It was kind of a thrill each time, managing to catch one of their throws was gratification in and of itself. However, as “Early America” turned the corner and subsequently into my view, my stomach dropped. Smack dab on the front of the float was a statue of what appeared to be a Native American man, complete with the feathered headdress and grimace that have become synonymous in contemporary media with indigenous America.
My friend, Brenda, leaned over to me and asked, with a sullen voice, “Haven’t we established that this isn’t okay? Haven’t we had this conversation enough times?” I didn’t know what to say, and instead watched with perplexion as the krewe members on the float adjusted their feather accessories, being careful to avoid their sloppily (and probably drunkenly) applied face paint.
Abigail Morici, a Louisiana native, has been going to Mardi Gras since she was a little girl. When I visited her home in the Lakeview neighborhood, which is roughly 20 minutes from the French Quarter, she showed me a photo of one of her first Mardi Gras celebrations as a baby. She was sitting in a high chair seat attached to a ladder, which was decked out in purple and green décor. She explained to me that many parents build these tall high chairs for their children, so that they can see over all of the bobbing heads in the streets and get a good view of the parade. I saw at least 10 set up on the sidewalks at the parades I attended later that evening.
Abigail’s family seems to be the epitome of Mardi Gras spirit. Their walls are adorned with yellow, purple and green memorabilia and a half eaten King Cake sits on Abigail’s desk a week after the events have subsided. They sent the cake for her in the mail, just in case she was getting homesick in the weeks preceding. The family is also involved in a krewe. However, for the sake of security, it will not be named.
I start by asking Abigail about the heavy appropriation present in the parades.
“It’s there. We all know it’s there but nobody’s gonna talk about it. It’s the South,” she says, as she twirls in a swiveling chair.
“It’s basically who you know,” Abigail says, when I ask her about the selection process of membership in the krewes. “And I do know that a lot of krewes will not accept people based off of race, religion, you know, the usual. I have a friend whose dad has an ethnically Jewish last name and he wouldn’t be accepted into a krewe because of his last name.”
In reference to the floats, “They [the krewes] definitely aren’t aware of anything. They don’t see any of it as a problem, it’s just another theme for another year.”
The cluelessness on behalf of the krewes seems to be all too intentional, especially in the supplemental entertainment. In between floats, different majorette teams and marching bands from local schools perform. Their technique is impressive; the drum lines are cleanly in sync and the majorettes are perfectly on beat, from their coordinated lipstick to the foot they’re walking on, every last detail was clearly, planned, rehearsed and rehearsed again.
While there is a diverse array of talent, they are very clearly segregated. Not once did I see a mixed race team, but instead a series of divided ones.
I asked Abigail about the segregation in the parades. According to her, it reveals a truth about New Orleans schools, which is that they were, and continue to be, deeply segregated due to the interweaving of institutional racism in the area.
“Traditionally, New Orleans public schools are really bad,” Abigail says, “So, the people that can afford to not go public school, don’t go to public school.”
The oppression that the black community faces, both culturally and economically, is no mystery. People of color receive less opportunities in comparison to white people, which causes an imbalance of resources in their respective communities. As evidenced by the parade entertainment, they were forced to filter into two separate social pools, to the point that they still can’t walk alongside each other, even on a day that is supposed to be about sharing camaraderie, and ‘pee pee’s’.
In a hushed voice, as she looks down at her lap, Abigail mutters, “It’s unfortunate, but it’s true.”
So, what are we supposed to do with all this? You might be reading this and viewing me as the Bearer of Bad News, shrouded in a cloud of cynicism. Mardi Gras is supposed to be fun, it’s one big glitter bomb where you get fist fulls of free stuff thrown at you. What could be so bad about that?
Don’t get me wrong. Mardi Gras is fun, especially fun. The excitement and the build up and glamour of the whole experience is absolutely delightful. However, in coming years, as you attend the parades and wear your green, yellow and purple garb, I encourage you think about the beads you’re gladly catching. What are the roots and ideologies that put those beads into your hands? Do they line up with your morals, are they something you want to support by catching a bunch of plastic? They are shiny, and make great decorations after all.
Lead Image Credit: Pexels