How Breathtaking Black Indian Queens of New Orleans Protect Sacred Spaces

Assessing the dynamic role of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs and Black Indian Masking

Allison Gaines
Oct 25, 2020 · 14 min read
Queen Tahj | Photo Credit | Pinterest | Leigh Troyer

When I smell warm, fresh beignets and hear the trombone man, I know I am home. When people think of my city, they may recall New Orleans is the birthplace of Jazz. We can listen to live music on any night of the week. It is unlike any Jazz you may hear sizzling out of your radio. Something about those dynamic horns, drums, and smiles all around produce a one of a kind experience. They invite your hips to swing.

Since 1699, we became gracious hosts of the annual Mardi Gras celebration. Most Americans do not realize that it is more than a party; it is our city’s living embodiment. While it is true that you can see some nudity, drink freely in the street, and enjoy our creole cuisine, many people remain unaware of the social hierarchy that drives our society.

In many ways, our culture represents the intersection of American pride and despair. As a port city, New Orleans rose to power through its role as a slave trading post. Within the French Quarter, white people auctioned Africans, and the parish became a significant asset for human traffickers. Even after the emancipation of slaves, white people consistently treated Black people as inferior residents. Celebrations were subject to the same level of discrimination.

In addition to the Jim Crow laws which governed the South after reconstruction, Louisiana adapted special state laws. Due to the 1724 Code Noir of Louisiana, Africans, Native Americans, and free people of color could not join social clubs or participate in the Mardi Gras celebration. If you want to know if you could join, grab a brown paper bag. Compare your skin color to it so you can get an idea of the standard. The brown paper bag test determined eligibility for the upper echelon of New Orleans culture.

Here is a secret many people do not know about my city; secret societies run the parish. Yes, the celebration that millions of Americans enjoy is run by those acting in the shadows. Many formed to fulfill a social need for wealthy residents. Originally called Benevolent Associations, these Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs helped to shape the city’s hierarchy. Currently, the city has nearly 70 such clubs. Some are more prominent than others. Many Social and Pleasure Clubs host luxurious annual balls, parades, participate in social advocacy and charity.

Using the Code of Noir, they could ban Black and Indigenous people from becoming members of their whites-only secret societies. However, they could not stop Black people from developing their own. The gumbo roux thickens.

Black New Orleanians founded The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club in 1909. It became the first Black Social Aid and Pleasure Club, renowned for its community leadership, annual ball, and decadent parade. During the 1970s, their membership increased due to the Black power movement. Every year, their members select a King, Queen, and a full royal court. They publicized this information in The Times-Picayune newspaper, where you can find photos and their selected announcements.

2019 Zulu Queen Kailyn Rainey | Photo Credit | LSU

While outsiders may think of these titles as superfluous, each member of the court represents New Orleans society’s pride and joy. These are the leaders in the community, and even the young people involved represent our future aspirations. For Black people, this level of social organizing takes on a new layer of meaning. Not waiting for white people to acknowledge them, The Zulu Social Aid Club represents Black culture’s redemption.

The Zulu Social Aid Club is known for challenging the originally all-white parade, Rex, on Mardi Gras day. Ceremonies start fashionably late, and Zulu is known to begin very early in the morning. In the past, the King of Zulu occasionally led the procession through part of Rex’s route. This dynamic made the white folks have to follow the Black parade. Imagine the looks on their faces when it happened the first time. Now, the leaders of Rex and Zulu meet at the river as a sign of peace. However, these secret societies would be challenging to understand without knowing the racial animus that created them. Parades reflect the local politics and culture of our area. They are not parties as much as they are social displays of gravitas.

In addition to prominent social clubs, New Orleans is the home of Black Indian Tribes. Many people call these tribes “Mardi Gras Indians.” Today, over 90 Black Indian Tribes reside within New Orleans. Each tribe has a Chief, Queen, and many other members that support the royal succession. They never announce where they will show up, but locals know where to find them. Their beautiful suits draw enthusiasts from around the city.

Mardi Gras Indians — the parade most white people don’t see. The ceremonial procession is loose, the parade is not scheduled for a particular time or route…that is up to the Big Chief — Larry Bannock (Bannock & Mardi Gras New Orleans).

While many discussions about these tribes revolve around Black Indian Chiefs, the Black Indian Queens protect sacred spaces. They take pride in themselves, their attire, their family, and traditions. Using their authority, they maintain safe spaces for Black people in New Orleans. You can find these areas scattered throughout neighborhoods, parks, shared quarters, and the streets themselves. You can identify some of these spaces by the massive oak trees that reach across the street to intertwine in the Uptown and Downtown areas.

When the Indians meander through their communities, they provide a sense of belonging, a sense of self. It’s about uplifting and empowering [Black people] to feel good about themselves rather than feeling ‘less than,’ (Love, 2016).

While I will save the story of New Orleans gentrification for another time, it is essential to understand why these spaces need protecting in the first place. A street named Claiborne cuts through Uptown and Downtown. Black businesses used to line this area, and Black Indians would meet to trade under the Mighty Oak trees. The city named this street after William Claiborne, the first territorial governor of Louisiana. The selection of this name was a political statement.

Claiborne is a renowned white supremacist who led militia to kill African people who attempted to escape slavery’s wretched grasp. Charles Deslondes led The Enslaved People’s Uprising of 1811. You can also discover a street named after Deslondes. So, already you can perceive the implications of reclaiming this area as a safe place for Black people.

Orleans Parish maintains a perpetual game of tug-a-war between those who supported the Confederacy and those who stood on the side of Black liberty. In 2015, under the leadership of Mitch Landrieu, the city voted to remove Robert E. Lee’s monument. That gives us an indication of where New Orleans may land on this issue. In placing an interstate through these neighborhoods, white city leaders displaced Black businesses.

Photo Credit | Pinterest | Jan Lilley Strother

Oak trees lined the neutral ground, businesses and homes, churches, so it was like a real neighborhood. Smith-Simmons points at what used to be the oyster house Lavada’s. My classmates and I would put in and buy a loaf and divide it between four, five people, and you still had a nice sandwich. Now, that property is a parking lot (Kaplan-Levenson).

Still, despite it all, Black people meet under the bridge to celebrate freedom. To everyone unaware of the history, it looks like a regular party. However, the celebration demonstrates joy in the liberty we won and hopeful trepidation about our future.

Even though they destroyed the trees that lined these neighborhoods, local Black artists paint murals under the interstate representing our communities’ culture of unity. When New Orleans residents see the Black Indians, they feel hope. After enduring enslavement, displacement, Jim Crow, and the Code of Noir, white people could never take away the Black strength of New Orleanians.

Photo Credit | Daily Express

On Super Sunday and Fat Tuesday, Black Indian Queens reclaim sacred spaces. They reflect the unbroken will of Black people. Their ages range from tiny babies to older women. When you look upon them, you can see their grace and dignity, bearing witness to the pride of New Orleans.

Just like Native people struggle to protect their sacred spaces, people like Tahj try hard to preserve what they do and how they do it, because as 500 years of colonial conquest on this continent goes to show, letting just anyone “in” is a double-edged sword at best (Bracy, 2020).

Interesting Facts About Masking

Black Indians create a traditional hand-sewn wearable tapestry, a skill they inherited from Indigenous allies. When they wear these suits, Black Indians call the custom masking. Masking comes from Black proximity to Indigenous tribes. Some tribes became slaves after losing particular battles, like the Natches Tribe. However, a large population of Native Americans maintained their sovereignty.

The Mardi Gras Indians named themselves after native Indians to pay them respect for their assistance in escaping the tyranny of slavery (Bannock & Mardi Gras New Orleans).

African and Indigenous cultures blended, creating the Black Indian Tribes of New Orleans. While these tribes originally represented warring factions, they now share a mutual respect for one another. On the days they mask, The Chief, Queen, and tribe come out and show the community their custom suits.

The Big Chiefs of two different tribes start with a song/chant, ceremonial dance, and threatening challenge to “Humba.” The Big Chief’s demand that the other Chief bows and pays respect. The retort is a whoop and equally amazing song and war dance, saying, ‘Me no Humba, YOU Humba!’ (Bannock & Mardi Gras New Orleans)

“Humba” means “humble” in this context. Through this ceremony, Big Chief will challenge another one and tell him to be humble. Their songs fill the streets, and many residents crowd around to see who will stand down. The Big Chiefs participate in this ceremony, replacing the violence they once used to characterize these meetings. They then parade around the neighborhoods and cities with a procession. Black Indian tribes have some authentic language that only they and locals understand.

Made up of English and French as well as invented words, the speaking and singing of the Indians is a form of verbal art that resists precise translation but is widely understood by Indians. In many Indian songs, “hoo na nae” is synonymous with the phrase “let’s go get ‘em,” while the meaning of the frequently heard refrain “tuway pockyway” is entirely dependent on the context (Sakakeeny, 2020).

As the Black Indians’ culture demonstrates, New Orleans has something priceless. We have a civilization created in the spirit of Black liberation. Protecting these sacred spaces also means safeguarding the progress which the descendants of slavery made. In doing so, they also protect the future potential of racial equality.

Queen Tahj of The Golden Eagles Black Indian Tribe

Photo Credit | Very Local New Orleans

Queen Tahj comes from a long line of Black Indian Queens. Queen Kim Fi Ya Ya proceeded her. Queens show their keen sense of style and talent in creating custom made suits to wear each year. While outsiders often call them costumes, locals call them “suits.” Queen Tahj hand-beaded and hand-sequenced consistent with tradition.

Others may think of [our outfits] as costumes, but we think of that [term] as a mockery, so we don’t say costume — we say a suit, Tahj continues. “Every year, we hand-sew and hand-bead suits and, on Carnival day, on Mardi Gras day, we wear them.” Making a suit is a serious endeavor: You get no help in constructing. You never reuse past suits” — Queen Tahj (Bracy, 2020).

Each Queen uses her skills and heritage to create fashion. These Black women are trendsetters, renowned as seamstresses, who usually only work for their tribe’s sake. Starting the day after Mardi Gras, they begin working on their suits. The process takes many months and is a unique journey. Part of the excitement of the Black Indians is that New Orleanians never know what to expect. Fans want to know what color they will wear, how the feathers will be positioned, and what story the tapestry will tell. While many people call them Mardi Gras Indians, Queen Tahj says that tribes go by a different name.

We are moving toward being called Black Masking Indians — Queen Tahj (Bracy, 2020).

By defining themselves as Black Masking Indians, Tahj represents the continuation of authentic Black New Orleanian culture. As a student at Tulane University, her tribe and community expect great things of her. Queen Tahj cares about maintaining these traditions, protecting sacred spaces, and honoring her title as Queen.

Photo Credit | Queen Tahj | Repeller

The Nyx Social Club Founder Posted All Lives Matter

Traditionally, these secret societies consisted of only men. Tired of being eye-candy, women organized. Many men vehemently opposed them marching. The first all-female parade in 1941 only allowed white women.

It wasn’t all glitter and sequins. First of all, it rained. Second, some men along the parade route threw rotten vegetables at the riders (Mardi Gras New Orleans, 2020)

Despite this misogynistic behavior, women continued to organize. The Krew of Nyx throws hand-decorated purses, and The Krewe of Muses throws beautifully decorated shoes. The city forced them to integrate by 1994 or risk losing the right to participate in parades. The size of these parades indicates that these organizations represent a powerful women’s movement in the city. However, the discriminatory past never entirely left. Protecting these safe spaces is essential because white people often offer Black people a Trojan horse.

The founder of the Krew of Nyx posted a tweet saying, “All Lives Matter,” which is a classic retort to the Black Lives Matter Movement. She apologized and then accused women of bullying her as many members of Nyx asked her to step down.

Beneath the Nyx post, someone calling himself Richard Breua left a comment that disdained the Black Lives Matter movement and advocated “white power.” (MacCash, 2020)

The white supremacist ideology which existed at the beginning of these secret societies still runs within it. Like the mighty Mississippi River, their racism seems to run through the city, muddying the waters of morality. By ignoring Black Nyx members’ cries of injustice, the leadership made a clear choice that their feelings do not matter. Since the incident, hundreds of krewe members have quit and will no longer ride with the parade.

Super Sunday is a Day to Rejoice

The scent of boiled crawfish and fresh beignets fills the air as the streets along the three-mile parade route fill with revelers (Love, 2016)

Photo Credit | Angela Calonder

In mid-March, all the tribes get together to celebrate and strut their stuff. This event is called Super Sunday, and for many locals, it is a beautiful scene they look forward to throughout the year. On that day, the tribes dance in the street as they walk throughout the neighborhoods. The Flag Boy, Spy Boy, and Film Man assist the chief. They ensure the route is cleared and safe for the Queen and Big Chief. When they arrive at a large park, they celebrate with the people. Everyone gets an opportunity to bask in this unification. Food and music fill the streets.

My cousin’s wife Shannon has Black Indians in her family, and when I spend time with her family, we always go march with the tribes. We attend the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club ball and shape our timeline for participating in these events. We walk for so many blocks that we feel exhausted in the end. However, the excitement of it all takes over, and I never feel tired while it is happening. When I meet a Big Chief, I bow and show respect. When they allow us to take photos of them, we do. You can find some of their suits in our local museums since they make a new one each year.

Black Indian Queens, like Tahj, protect these safe spaces so we can all rejoice in the culture we reclaimed for ourselves. Her emphasis on style highlights the importance of drawing a line in the sand. She wants people to respect her tribe, and her presence demands attention.

She also pays attention to fashion trends, incorporating them into traditional masking motifs: In 2017, she masked in a crop top vest, which had never been done before. This year, she brought rose gold to the Super Sunday streets for the first time. (Sunday is the traditional second line day; Super Sunday is the most significant day for Indians aside from Mardi Gras Day) — Queen Tahj (Bracy, 2020).

As a trendsetter, Queen Tahj will amaze us with her fashionable attire and leadership in the community. Queens, like her, are so important because they show an emphasis amongst Black Indians to respect Black women. Her breathtaking style and joy are a sight to behold.

Video Credit | Mark Anthony Neal via Youtube

In Closing

Black Masking Indian Queens have power, and they use it to protect sacred spaces. After Hurricane Katrina, many people wondered if the tradition of masking would continue. Their efforts to preserve these spaces is admirable. Queen Tahj is only 20 years old but understands why preserving culture is essential.

You cannot forget where you come from. Cultural preservation is necessary because, as we sing in our songs, we have to carry on. I think it’s important that the next generations are involved in [masking]. That’s why I make the kind of suits that I make — Queen Tahj (Bracy, 2020).

Author’s Note: As Mardi Gras gets closer, I will publish more stories about Mardi Gras and New Orleans culture. If you want to learn something in particular, feel free to drop a line.

References:

Bannock, L. (n.d.). Mardi Gras Indians History and Tradition (1003544850 773707814 Mardi Gras New Orleans, Ed.). Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/history/mardi-gras-indians/

Bannock, L. (n.d.). Mardi Gras Indians History and Tradition (1006423995 775445573 Mardi Gras New Orleans, Ed.). Retrieved October 25, 2020, from https://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/history/mardi-gras-indians/

Bracy, E. (2020, September 05). Politics of Style: The Making of Mardi Gras Style Queen. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://repeller.com/politics-of-style-mardi-gras/

Kaplan-Levenson, L. (n.d.). ‘The Monster’: Claiborne Avenue Before And After The Interstate. Retrieved October 24, 2020, from https://www.wwno.org/post/monster-claiborne-avenue-and-after-interstate

Love, B. (2016, March 09). These are the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/intelligent-travel/2016/03/09/the-secret-history-of-new-orleans-mardi-gras-indians-super-sunday-saint-josephs-day/

MacCash, D. (2020, September 01). Nyx drama rolls on Racist Twitter comment was ‘liked,’ and now the account is shut down. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://www.nola.com/entertainment_life/mardi_gras/article_5e5adf00-ec57-11ea-9d3e-f71f4f3e80d3.html

MacCash, D. (2020, September 01). Nyx drama rolls on Racist Twitter comment was ‘liked,’ and now the account is shut down. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://www.nola.com/entertainment_life/mardi_gras/article_5e5adf00-ec57-11ea-9d3e-f71f4f3e80d3.html

Mardi Gras New Orleans (Ed.). (, 2020). History of All-Female Krewes. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/history/history-of-all-female-krewes

Miller, C. (2020, June 01). Krewe of Nyx founder apologizes after #AllLivesMatter post a. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://www.radio.com/wwl/articles/krewe-of-nyx-founder-apologizes-after-alllivesmatter-post-a

Sakakeeny, M. (2020, February 21). Mardi Gras Indians — Know Louisiana. Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://64parishes.org/entry/mardi-gras-indians

The Pink

Stories that Empower one and Educate everyone.

Allison Gaines

Written by

Essayist, Poet, Activist, and Scholar, EIC of CULTURED, Founder of #WEOC, with bylines at Momentum & ZORA ♥︎ www.allisonthedailywriter.com

The Pink

The Pink

Our mission is to empower people through stories that focus on Feminism & Equality, Love & Life. The Pink was created with the belief that in order to empower a community, everyone needs to be educated. Join The Pink community today!

Allison Gaines

Written by

Essayist, Poet, Activist, and Scholar, EIC of CULTURED, Founder of #WEOC, with bylines at Momentum & ZORA ♥︎ www.allisonthedailywriter.com

The Pink

The Pink

Our mission is to empower people through stories that focus on Feminism & Equality, Love & Life. The Pink was created with the belief that in order to empower a community, everyone needs to be educated. Join The Pink community today!

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