The Complicated History of Race and Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras World- New Orleans, 2006 (Photo: Bob Jagendorf, Flickr).

Another carnival season is underway. In New Orleans it can be a time of eager anticipation during the historic, festive occasion. Not only does the city attract and welcome scores of tourists who help boost the economy, but schools close as the city streets become the natural place for second-lines, floats, and parades. Add the array of colorful beads, costumes, king cakes, food, and the musical playlist, and it’s the perfect combination. After all, it’s not Mardi Gras until you hear songs like “Carnival Time,” “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” “Do Whatcha Wanna” or practically anything by Rebirth Brass Band.

While at the parades, a diverse group of people emerge reflective of the city of New Orleans itself with its African, European, and Native American roots. Yet there is another element–a murkier side and history. The performative and celebratory laissez faire culture cannot completely camouflage the latent and, at times, conspicuously racialized and racial dynamics of Mardi Gras.

I was reminded of this recently, while driving along the parade route in Slidell, Louisiana, along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain–a town roughly thirty miles from New Orleans proper and part of the greater New Orleans region–when I encountered a particular spectacle along the parade route. At a street vendor, along with a stand full of stuffed animals, plush Mardi Gras hats, and toy guns and knives, among the inventory, were massive Confederate flags. Perhaps this should not have been so much of a surprise given the town of Slidell was founded around 1882 and named in honor of John Slidell, an American politician and Confederate ambassador to France. Yet the moment elicited a not so “feel good” sentiment that, in essence, is the very opposite of what carnival should evoke.

Instead, the instance is instructive, as it calls to attention and serves as a direct reminder of the racial elements and, at times, the racist contours of Mardi Gras tradition. The celebration is steeped in a history of racial politics no number of floats or even the aesthetic beauty or grandeur of the elaborate krewes, songs, or dances could easily erase. Nor could the festive qualities – the precision of the marching bands, second-lines, or even the “hurricane,” a signature New Orleans alcoholic drink – entirely alleviate or make one disremember this dark side.

While Mardi Gras “often conjures images of massive celebrations,” most people fail to realize “the existence of a much darker side that stretches back to its beginnings after the Civil War,” as Elizabeth Leavitt asserts. It should not be all that surprising, then, when the Confederate flag (re)appears along the parade routes given the nature of Mardi Gras history. At the very crux of Mardi Gras–especially during the nineteenth century–was the reaffirmation of white dominance and efforts to suppress or curtail Black rights.

Take the case of certain 1873 parades in which the themes, costuming of krewes, and the imagery incorporated on floats and elsewhere sought to inscribe and reinforce white supremacy and southern (white) nobility. Through performative gestures and public displays, participants opposed a postbellum Reconstruction era and protested rights extended to African Americans in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which extended citizenship to Blacks and enfranchised African American men (in theory when not always in practice), respectively. The deep segregation and exclusionary practices of the krewes strategically intended to reinforce racial, social, class, and gender hierarchies “through various dynamics implemented and constructed to continue to ascribe power to (elite) white men in New Orleans.” Some early parades reflected a vector of social and political discordance in the city and the state generally. It was not until 1992 that New Orleans passed legislation to desegregate Mardi Gras krewes, which remained largely or exclusively white with the exception of a few Black krewes founded in a complicated response to segregation and discrimination.

Mardi Gras, ZULU Parade, 2012 (Photo: bradleyscircus, Flickr).

The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, one such organization, originated in the early 1900s. The majority of its members belonged to a Benevolent Aid Society (one of the few options blacks had for financial aid and assistance during illness, with burials, etc.) as early as 1901. In 1909, Zulu made its first public appearance on parade routes. And an appearance is precisely what they made. They initially dressed in “raggedy pants” and attire, but eventually adopted their signature look: grass skirts, blackface, bushy wigs or hairstyles, and exaggerated aesthetics (later including more elaborate, ornate head gear). Such attire was ostensibly a subversive, revolutionary gesture to putatively mock white-created caricatures of Black identity, including blackface minstrelsy. Their costuming simultaneously embraced Black identity, connecting them to the Zulu of continental Africa in ways that elevated darker skin tones and shades of Blackness in a color-conscious New Orleans. Colorism – whether in the form of brown paper bag, blue vein, or fine-tooth comb tests – further excluded from Black organizations or societies those who were not multiracial Creoles, fairer-skinned, or Black elites.

In this regard, Zulu and other Black krewes created and offered a space of belonging during the racial politics of the era. Some have challenged the appearance and costuming Zulu donned as stereotypical exaggerations of racist iconographies and caricatures of Blackness, or as offensive blackface. In 1973, Zulu became the first parading krewe to integrate, nineteen years before the 1992 krewe desegregation ordinance in New Orleans; as such, when white members joined, they essentially paraded in blackface. Activist groups such as Take Them Down NOLA, which protests and demands the removal of monuments and other public structures (school names, streets, etc.) dedicated to the Confederacy and white supremacists, have challenged the image of Zulu as racist and offensive.

If it seems that the racialized aspects of Mardi Gras are remote or that the racist elements are restricted to the past, the visibility of Confederate flags at vendors on the parade route indicates otherwise. Moreover, that there are 2018 Mardi Gras beads commemorating the removed statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee (an image of the statue appears with the inscription “Forever Lee Circle”) speaks to the divisive nature and history of race entangled in Mardi Gras. Institutionalized racism, along with reminders and symbols of a complicated racial past, are ubiquitous during the current political climate.

If one hoped Mardi Gras, with its festive and celebratory elements might offer reprieve—that it would be an opportunity to let the good times roll (laissez les bon temps rouler)—for some it will not. In the costuming of certain krewes, some parade goers will see costumes that bear resemblance to garb of the Ku Klux Klan. At some of the parade vendors, they may see flags or other emblems invoking a desire that the Confederate South will rise again. Still others will be bombarded with beads, including the Confederate monument beads that for some will represent history, while for others it will emblematize a legacy of slavery and racial terrorism. Therein lies the complicated nature and, indeed, history of race that undergirds Mardi Gras.

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Trimiko Melancon

Trimiko Melancon is an associate professor of English, African American Studies, and Women’s Studies at Loyola University. She is the award-winning author of Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation and editor of Black Female Sexualities. Her writings also appear in African American Review, Callaloo, The Black Scholar, Reconstruction, and Journal of Popular Culture. She has also written and provided commentary in other public venues: Ms. magazine, Huffington Post, Elle, Wired, The Good Men Project, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, and the BBC World News. Follow her on Twitter @trimikomelancon.

Comments on “The Complicated History of Race and Mardi Gras

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    Great piece. Will white folks ever let go of the losers which embody the Confederacy? Probably not. Minds are calcified. Sankofa

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    This article failed to put into context the given class phenomenon of the Zulus and definitely issues of colorizations of which the Zulus were an integral part of promoting (see Colored Creole by Ms Saint Julien for a basis of understanding this phenomenon in New Orleans )…

    The Question to be raised is do you really want to integrate The U S S Titantic?

    As a life long LOUISIANA resident—-I make sure to boycott that madness EVERY YEAR!

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