Why This Year Mardi Gras Matters More
I am a native New Orleanian. The meaning of this is hard to explain to someone not from New Orleans. But New Orleanians get it right away. Being from New Orleans means red beans and rice on Mondays. It means brass bands and beads and boots thumping on baseboards in dive bars. It means costumes and carrying on. It means joie di vivre and the inextricable connection of sorrow and celebration, both real and permeating, existing alongside one another. And most of all, being from New Orleans means that Mardi Gras is not a day, Mardi Gras is a way of a life. Mardi Gras, the day before the Catholic tradition of Lent which involves fasting and sacrifice in preparation for Easter, is a euphoric celebration of creativity and community, music and merriment. Mardi Gras season is immersive: a time to, just for a moment, suspend from the worries of the world and remember the bigness of life.
And that is why I’m missing Mardi Gras so much this year.
Each year, starting on January 6, Epiphany or Kings’ Day, the entire city begins to orient towards celebration. Every grocery store and bakery stocks King Cakes — traditional oval cakes iced in purple, green and gold Mardi Gras colors. Parades start not long after. First the irreverent, satirical Krewe du Vieux walks through the French Quarter and then the floated parades begin weaving their way all over the city, leading up to the most elaborate ones the week before Fat Tuesday, many paying homage to Greek Gods: Muses, Endymion, Bacchus, Orpheus. Streets spill over with celebrating parade-goers dressed in purple (for justice), gold (for power), and green (for faith). Year-round, the firmament of oak trees on St. Charles Avenue streams with beads thrown to high to be caught by outstretched arms — they land in branches and glint in the sunlight. Brass band members swagger down the street playing trumpets and tubas and booming bass drums accompanied by dancers in sequins and go-go boots. Mardi Gras Indians suited in feathers and beadwork strut in the Treme. While oftentimes Mardi Gras is reduced to a drunken debacle by outsiders who think only of boobs and Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras season is firmly rooted in community and family. At its heart, Mardi Gras is about celebrating the beautiful, lavish, and decadent, and drawing close in celebration with those you love.
Along with the king cakes they sent in the mail, my parents emailed me posts of Mardi Gras Days past. In one, I am six months old sitting in a pile of beads with the tiniest gold crown miraculously poised atop my head. From the side of the frame is a hand reaching out towards my back. I had just learned to sit upright and my mom worried I would fall. Another picture shows my favorite costume ever: a queen. When I was seven, my grandmother spent weeks sewing, crafting the costume out of shiny red fabric. Ruffles flowed down the front and cascaded up and down the bottom of the dress. I wore a golden crown. I remember that Mardi Gras Day distinctly because it was freezing but I refused to wear a coat. I felt like royalty and I would not be covered.
Lately, I, like so many I know, have navigated in and out of a cascade of emotions: fury, despair, gratitude, the dimmest hope. Every time I sign onto social media, I prepare myself for emotional assault: the news of more legislation that denies people’s humanity or takes away basic rights, the shooting murder of two Indian men by a white men after he shouted: “get out of my country,” bomb threats to Jewish community centers, murders of two transgender women of color two days apart in New Orleans, children being dragged around threatened with a gun by an off-duty police officer who suffered no consequences for his actions, an undocumented woman with a brain tumor taken out of the hospital by ICE and put in a detention center where she underwent headaches and convulsions.
The pain and suffering is real. So is the need for continuing acts of resistance.
A month ago, I went online to price tickets home for Mardi Gras because I felt suddenly heartbroken that I wouldn’t be there. I tried to locate the source of this sadness. Why was this year different? Why was the missing so much more? And I realized why. Mardi Gras represents what is good about humanity.
It is nearly impossible to experience Mardi Gras without feeling surges of joy. The ornate floats; the irreverent humor about politics and society depicted on floats; the smiling kids yelling for beads atop ladders with special seats, their parents standing behind them; the gold and purple uniformed brass band led by a drum major, his knees shooting up to his chest, his golden felt hat rising three feet into the air; toddlers on shoulders reaching for stuffed animals from someone riding a float; parade-goers — black, white, brown, rich, poor, of all backgrounds — dancing in the streets with beads spilling around their neck and shoulders. Mardi Gras is a magical pause — one that celebrates opulence and beauty and light and levity and humor and community and family and open, unapologetic joy.
And Mardi Gras’ history, like this country’s history, is not untarnished by legacies of racism. Krewes were exclusively white for a very long time. Some of the most creative traditions rose out of this act of exclusion. The African-American Krewe of Zulu was created by black New Orleanians as a clever satire of the ostentation of the main white parade and King of Mardi Gras: Rex. Social Aide and Pleasure Clubs formed by and paraded in black neighborhoods during Mardi Gras because they were prohibited from participating in white Mardi Gras.
The Mardi Gras Indians also have their origins in this ban. As early as 1746, slaves dressed as Indians to celebrate Mardi Gras, and in 1885, there are the first references to a specific tribe of Mardi Gras Indians, the Creole Wild West Indians. Black New Orleanians began masking as Indians as a way to pay homage to Native Americans who invited runaway slaves from the plantations into their community. The Mardi Gras Indians formed tribes and began making elaborate suits, spilling over with elaborate beadwork and feathers, to march in on Mardi Gras Day.
Nothing in this country can be parsed from our heartrending history. We must always work to reckon with our collective legacy. And what being from New Orleans shows me is the capacity of the human spirit to thrive during and in spite of forces that would hold that spirit down.
What I saw at the Women’s March and what I know from Mardi Gras is this relentless tenacity of the human spirit. That full-throttled heart and heartiness, the resilience, the beauty, the creativity will not be stifled.
That’s the thing about this administration. They not only want to create a system that benefits the very few. They not only instigate policies that are racist, classist, misogynistic, xenophobic, transphobic, homophobic, and ableist, they bring an onslaught of terrifying proposals and initiatives all at once. Shock and awe. Grief and overwhelm. They say and do the most repulsive things in the hopes that those of us who are invested in others, even those different than us, will become defeated and bow down.
And the thing is: that’s not how the human spirit works. That’s not at the root of who we are. Our hearts can be shut down by trauma, can be quaking in fear, can be overwhelmed with residual pain, but we just need one spark of connection, one thread of hope, one moment of remembering the beauty of one another and this world and we can return to ourselves. We need only have one hand outstretched to us, one person to tell us they are standing with us, and we can remember who we are. We are human beings, alive and breathing, creative and compassionate. Sometimes celebration is the biggest protest in the face of oppression. Sometimes joy is the greatest act of resistance.