Happy Mardi Gras!

It’s been a busy time for us here in New Orleans with parades every night from Wednesday through Mardi Gras itself, and all day on Saturday and Sunday, too.  So I wasn’t able to do a normal post this week (I promise to get after it soon!), but I do want to finish off Black History Month with a fourth and final post.  And what better thing to talk about than Mardi Gras!

While the oldest and most prestigious parade in the city is put on by Rex, whose king is legally in charge of the city today (yes, really), another long-running krewe is the historically black Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.   Zulu’s parade rolls right after Rex, though their route takes them through predominantly black neighborhoods, while Rex follows the uptown route along St. Charles Ave.  Trying to explain Zulu is a bit hard, but here goes.  The imagery the krewe uses in their parade and court is essentially a satire of white caricatures of blacks from the early 20th century: the riders present themselves as “Zulu Warriors,” all the members ride in black-face (even putting white makeup around their eyes and lips!) in imitation of the minstrel shows popular during that period, and they distribute what is now one of the most coveted Mardi Gras throws: hand-decorated coconuts.  But the krewe isn’t just for blacks.  Back in the 90s all krewes were forced to integrate if they wanted to use public roads for their parades, which means Zulu also has a few white members.  Reread this paragraph and sit on that for a second.  This definitely wouldn’t fly anywhere else, but like so many things in New Orleans it works because it’s traditional and because it’s tongue-in-cheek, and everybody is happy to have a good time.  Zulu is also unique for electing its King democratically and allowing him to pick his own queen–those roles being doled out by elite subgroups within most other krewes.  It’s hard to put your head around, but it all makes for a great parade.  While Mallory and I head out early to see it in person, you can check out a more detailed history on this page worked up by Zulu’s historians.

Another delightful part of Carnival culture is Mardi Gras Indians.  While the origin of these groups is disputed, the long and short of it is this: black men don fantastically elaborate, hand-beaded “Indian” costumes and parade through the city looking for other “tribes” to challenge.  While these meetings sometimes led to violent conflict in the past, the current tradition is for tribes to engage in a musical call-and-response contest to determine which sounds better and also to decide which “Big Chief” is prettier.  The loser has to bow down before the winner and let him pass through his neighborhood.  The beaded designs at the center of the costumes are closely guarded–so much that only a lucky few get to see a Big Chief’s main embroidery–and even the techniques they use to make them are kept secret from all but the tribe’s inner circle.  And these costumes are only used for a single season!  After that, they’re broken down and an entirely new design is made for the next year.  This may be familiar to some of you from TV: if you saw the first season of HBO’s Treme you’ll remember the strange, awesome scene where Albert Lambreaux puts on his headdress for the first time after The Storm.  Even though Indians don’t get much attention in popular representations outside the city, they really add a magical layer to Mardi Gras celebrations, and it’s always a thrill to hear the drumbeat and rush outside to catch a glimpse when they pass by.  To learn more, you can also check out this page that was worked up by the city’s tourism board.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got for today.  Have a happy Mardi Gras, and make sure you get in some good food and drink before Lenten fasting and repentance begin on Ash Wednesday!

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