I love Mardi Gras! I love sharing my culture and heritage with others regardless of where I am in the world. It’s a holiday meant to be shared and to us native Gulf Coasters, the holiday is like a second Christmas. We go to balls and parades, gorge ourselves on king cake and moonpies, and show off our bead collections.
But sometimes loving something means you ignore some of the more problematic aspects, more than the possibility of maybe getting shot, someone throwing up on you, or your car getting towed.
So…are we celebrating colonialism, capitalism, or classism? Or all three?
What have you noticed about Mardi Gras or Carnival? I’ll go ahead and put it out there: it’s a colonizer’s holiday.
The cities and nations that famously celebrate Carnival have a strong history of colonization. Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, Barbados, Cape Verde, Belize, Mexico, Panama, Italy, Belgium, and of course, the United States.
For those unfamiliar with Carnival, it’s a celebration of various lengths that prepares revelers for the Lenten season. In the United States, the Mardi Gras season officially begins on January 6, Epiphany, and concludes at midnight right before Ash Wednesday, although on the Gulf Coast you may see folks preparing for Mardi Gras as soon as Christmas is over.
One little known fact about American Mardi Gras is how the tradition thrives because of local businessmen. That’s not hyperbole or some anti-capitalist sentiment. That is history. One of the earliest krewes (Mardi Gras-themed social club) was the Cowbellion de Rakin Society from Mobile, Alabama. It was largely a group of Anglo-American businessmen who also had business interests in New Orleans. The spiritual successor of the Cowbellion is the Mistick Krewe of Comus from New Orleans, currently ran by New Orleans businessmen of Anglo-American heritage.
Let’s face it: dressing up like an imaginary king and raining throws on your “subjects” is big business to the Gulf Coast. That’s why the Mayors of Mobile and New Orleans continue to squabble over the pointless notion of “the original Mardi Gras.” It’s all to get those sweet tourist dollars. Neither city is hurting over those dollars, by the way. Mardi Gras is the largest tourist moneymaker for Louisiana and Alabama.
Complicated krewe culture and history
The Gulf Coast is a strange region. For the most part, its time as a French colony has led to some relaxed ideas on race. It’s one of the few places in the United States you may actually see black generational wealth. But it’s still a region in the Southern US, which means it’s Jim Crow time.
Mardi Gras krewes are mostly segregated. This is clearer in Mobile than in New Orleans but is still true in New Orleans. While there have been more inclusive krewes in later years, such as Mobile’s Condé Explorers, the effort is a slow one. The most exclusive krewes, whether in Mobile or in New Orleans have stayed lily white. In the 1990s, New Orleans attempted to bring up the racial divide, which was fairly evident in the famously “chocolate city.” But as in Mobile, many whites will claim that African Americans just weren’t interested in joining Rex and the like because they had their own mystic societies and krewes. Way to sidestep Jim Crow, dudes.
Jim Crow has caused African Americans on the Gulf Coast to start their own traditions. The Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association in Mobile and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club and the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans are the most visible organizations created out of the Jim Crow years. But even with the organization of these groups, there was still a question of class. The black society in both Mobile and in New Orleans have historically been lighter-skinned individuals. While it doesn’t appear to be an issue today, colorism still runs deep, even in integration efforts. Class and skin color are intertwined.
In order to join a mystic society, pleasure club or krewe, you still have to be the right type of person. Who is the right type of person? Remember that Mardi Gras is ultimately about business connections and opportunity…
Cultural Appropriation? It’s complicated.
I am bothered by whites comping second-line culture as some sort of magical Mardi Gras block party. While many of the second-line brass bands will be happy receive a paycheck from that couple looking to “second line” during their New Orleans wedding, I’ve seen both in Mobile and in New Orleans second-line brass bands with no black musicians or participants. Seeing an all-white brass band with white people bouncing parasols and handkerchiefs up and down rubs me the wrong way. It makes me madder than a $30 bowl of red beans and rice.
Let’s be clear: second-line culture is African American. The trend to push black musicians out of this tradition is a visual representation of the gentrification overwhelming post-Katrina New Orleans. Second lines are an offshoot of other New Orleans and Gulf Coast traditions regarding social, benevolent, and funeral clubs. And just like other aspects of Mardi Gras, it was a way black people could normalize their existence under Jim Crow. Long story short: social clubs and funeral clubs existed because it was difficult for black people to be fairly insured. Oftentimes, black people could not be insured or were forced to pay astronomical premiums for decades in order to be covered for a $3000 death benefit. And death ceremonies were significant to those in the African diaspora, especially along the Gulf Coast and the Deep South. To be able to put your loved one away in style and to provide perpetual care, especially after a long life of discrimination and strife, is monumentally important to the black people of the region.
So this trend to hire a “second line” brass band to follow you and your drunk friends around ignores this storied history. And to exclude blacks completely is especially egregious. But because New Orleans, Mobile, and other Gulf Coast cities thrive on those sweet tourism dollars, the Creole cities of America will continue to chip away at their culture at the insistence of ignorant tourists looking for “authentic New Orleans” experiences.
Speaking of Cultural Appropriation…
One page from the “I’m not racist, but…” playbook is from those “not-racists” who believe that racial equality was achieved when Martin Luther King spoke in Washington in 1963 and now minorities are just trying to tell whites what to do while continuing to “wear jeans” or “eat hamburgers.” So the not-racists will ask, “If you say that whites second lining is cultural appropriation, then what about non-whites celebrating Mardi Gras? Didn’t Mardi Gras come from the French?”
First of all, Mardi Gras is an inclusive holiday. Secondly, yes, Mardi Gras, or Carnival, as celebrated in the United States, came from French colonial culture, which as natives to the region WE ARE A PART OF. French-American colonial culture was multicultural from the jump and this is evident in the former capital cities of Mobile, Biloxi, and New Orleans, all of which display the multiple national flags and symbols of our heritage on nearly every oak tree-lined corner.
So those of African, Latinx, Native, or even Asian heritage are a part of the Mardi Gras cultural tradition as much as those from European heritage. Plus, not-racists who claim that other racial groups “appropriate” from whites all the time don’t seem to know what colonization is. Many of the modern Mardi Gras traditions, such as the use of drums and umbrellas or parasols came directly from Africa. Also, most of us have European heritage as a consequence of colonization.
For example, most of the Asians from the Gulf Coast are primarily of Vietnamese, Laotian, or Cambodian descent who arrived after the Vietnam War. There are plenty of Vietnamese restaurants that combine Creole-Cajun cooking traditions with Vietnamese food. And it’s an awesome combination. Given that France colonized Southeast Asia and then these Asians relocated to a French-inspired region in the US, a Vietnamese-styled gumbo just makes sense. A Vietnamese-American living in New Orleans who creates a bánh mì po’boy is not cultural appropriation, but it is cultural appropriation if I claim to make a great phở.
If you still have a problem with that explanation, then maybe you shouldn’t celebrate Mardi Gras if you aren’t Catholic then.
Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club Blackface Claims
The Zulus are a black krewe. But every year, someone mentions their grass skirts, coconut throws, and dark makeup as some racial double standard. The problem I have with this is that the call to end the blackface isn’t from some place that says black Americans should retire stereotypes about a savage Africa. It’s almost always because some white person wore blackface and other whites are making some sort of symbolic “how come they can say it” substitution argument.
The history of black people donning blackface is a complicated one, but for the most part, it is not the same as a white person donning blackface. Blacks in blackface were often using it as a means of controlling their own narrative. I don’t understand why African Americans must set an example for whites on how to behave in mixed company. It is not okay for white people to wear blackface. Period.
As for the Zulus, it’s up to them whether they want to retire the practice. They probably won’t however.
The ultimate problem with Mobile’s Joe Cain
A tradition exclusive to Mobile, Joe Cain Day is a city holiday. The parties and the parades are declared to be “for the people.” While I love the sentiment of a parade for the people, as a native Mobilian, I’m becoming more and more uncomfortable with the actual history of Joe Cain. Here’s the story:
Joe Cain was the man credited for returning Mardi Gras to the war-torn city of Mobile in the 1860s. Cain paraded solo through the city streets in order to raise the spirits of Mobilians. Okay, that sounds good. What is usually ignored is that this was considered a taunt to the Union troops that occupied the city post-Civil War. Uh…okay. And the group that joined him were a group of Confederate veterans who called themselves the “Lost Cause Minstrels.” There we go…
Then there’s Joe Cain’s costume. He is dressed like a “Chickasaw chief.” One with the completely made-up name of “Slacabamorinico.” The city claims that this was because the Chickasaw were considered a resistance force to the US. Which is strange, because that mirrors the Mardi Gras Indians’ oral history, but it was a resistance to white colonizers and white supremacy, not the US in particular. Are we led to believe that a white man who was sympathetic to the Confederacy dressed like a Native American as some sort of homage? Did the Boston Tea Party protestors claim the same thing? Is this one of the first instances of the model minority myth?
Mobile is a city that is 51% African American and yet we continue to bombard the citizens with Confederate propaganda. Mobile was only in the Confederacy for 3 1/2 years, yet as an important port and naval stronghold, Mobile was a decisive battleground for the Confederate’s ultimate demise. So on one-hand, Mobile recognizes its role, both in the slave trade and in the Confederacy. On the other, we now have a bunch of sweaty and possibly drunk white men in “Indian regalia” parading through the streets every year. And every year, Joe Cain makes the shortlist for the “Best Mobilian Ever” alongside the likes of Hank Aaron, Lonnie Johnson, and Willie McCovey. And oftentimes, he wins.
Making Mardi Gras for everyone
We are still struggling with this in 2019, but we will eventually get there. Faced with accusations of racism and classism, many of the classic krewes and mystic societies have attempted to open up at least their balls to the general public. Newly-founded mystic societies and krewes are doing away with legacy memberships and country club mentalities. And just as African Americans started their own traditions, other groups have done this as well.
Both Mobile and New Orleans are Southern cities with prominent LGBTQ subcultures that exist side by side with the overwhelming Christian presence and culture. It’s a running joke that combined with Mardi Gras (and possibly because of the cultural Catholicism), The Gulf Coast is a sinful area to the rest of the South.
The local LGBTQ communities have adopted the spirit of Mardi Gras as part of their sense of belonging. And that’s the way Mardi Gras should be. Ultimately, Mardi Gras is about enjoying life, expressing yourself, and going with the flow.
Laissez les bons temps rouler!