When my youngest sister, Moni, got into a bike accident in New Orleans, we chatted on the phone and she shared with me all of the compounding troubles she was experiencing in her last semester of college. So I was faced with a dilemma – take P with me to visit her now OR wait until our scheduled trip in May for her graduation.
It didn’t take much convincing for us to go now, but I was already anxious about travelling with a 3.5 year old – without Jordan. The cheapest tickets we could find had us arriving just before Mardi Gras. Having never participated in Mardi Gras, my only impression had something to do with ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ but I knew from my sister’s having lived there for several years that it wasn’t all like that. We met a mom and a little girl on the plane who were planning to attend parades the next day, so I was feeling better about this being a ‘family affair.’
We got in pretty late Monday night and the rental car agency gave me the largest vehicle in the lot – a Yukon XL – and a far cry from what we had ordered – a mid-sized SUV. Almost twenty years ago I took my driver’s test in a huge van, so I figured I could swing this without having swiped the side mirrors off too many cars. (And, ‘yes,’ I’ll take that extra insurance!)
It was freezing cold when we got in, but we were so thankful to finally be there! We found Moni’s place easily – she lives with two other post-college ladies, Bella and Cardinal. Bella’s sister was also visiting from Wisconsin, so we were in a full house! Cardinal had offered up her double bed to us for the nine days we’d be in town. But I’ll be honest, I had my doubts about this arrangement and packed extra cash in case we needed to high tail it to a hotel for the remainder of our visit.
The next morning we got up early and it was already pouring rain. Just great. I had been hoping to escape Seattle weather, even to feel warmth from the sun on my arms. But not this day! I’d only packed a light coat for P and myself, a decision I totally regret. Moni shared with me a couple of parades that were possibilities for us to attend, so we decided on Zulu, based on location, and took off with P, Bella, and her sister, Cirina.
We found $20 parking – a price I was happy to pay to not have to walk in the rain any further than we had to – and headed toward the parade route. We were able to meet up with our other New Orleans sister, Lisa, who’d been there since 8 am with a chair, umbrella, and a bag full of loot! Lisa held a cold, wet P while the other girls and I got to catching throws from the parades.
I think it’s important for a reminder here: it was pouring down rain – I probably got hit with objects more than I caught them because I just couldn’t see well. Soon enough though, I was catching necklaces, and balls. Then bigger items like stuffed animals, hula hoops, and the prized coconuts – I was really getting caught up in the excitement! A moment of ‘Ohhhh so this is what Mardi Gras is like,’ came over me and I was like Ok, now I get it.
But it was also about this time that the floats must have slowed down enough for me to see the people on the floats. I remember Lisa telling me that it costs thousands of dollars to even ride on the parades. And you usually have to be a part of the Krewes to do so. So when one of the floats stopped, I looked up and saw the person handing me a plastic fleur de lis clapper and saw that he was a black man… with his face painted black. And a white circle painted around his eye. And mouth. ‘Wait, what?’ I thought. This didn’t seem right. So I looked at each individual on the current float. Black man, black face. Black woman, black face. White woman, black face. Ummmmmmm. WTAF?! Seriously? What was going on? Had my restless night + early morning + jet lag caught up to me so severely that I was imagining this, or was this actually happening?
This wasn’t just one float. This was the entire Zulu Krewe parade.
I tried to reconcile what I was seeing. Ok, I thought, this is not my town, not my culture, not my event, not my parade, not my float. I was embarrassed to have not even noticed the black face until this moment. I was less prepared to discuss this with P than women lifting up their tops for necklaces (which never happened). Later that night, when Moni’s friends and roommates were around I asked about it – is this normal, do other parades do this, what’s the general consensus on this, why is it permissible in this day to don black face? It seemed that everyone was in agreement that this was… a very odd thing to be occurring in 2014. I just couldn’t let it go though.
After searching the internet to see what sort of dialogue was out there on this, I was surprised to not come up with much. The first thing I looked at was Zulu Krewe’s history for context. Here’s the only mention of blackface:
‘Zulus were not without their controversies, either. In the 1960’s during the height of Black awareness, it was unpopular to be a Zulu. Dressing in a grass skirt and donning a black face were seen as being demeaning. Large numbers of black organizations protested against the Zulu organization, and its membership dwindled to approximately 16 men.’
Then I happened upon the blog CocoJams where they discuss this controversy. Admittedly, the author has never been to or participated in Mardi Gras, but I think he highlights many of the important aspects of this. Specifically, the post shares why they wear black face – as a way to parody white Mardi Gras krewes.
So I am left feeling unsettled – can a white girl from Seattle judge what one group of adults do in another culture, during one festivity, thousands of miles away? I don’t know if I can. I am not black, I do not understand the complex history of the combination of black face and Mardi Gras, and I cannot begin to understand the importance of this 100 year-old tradition. But it still doesn’t sit well with me. And, if we are fortunate enough to be able to participate in Mardi Gras again, I would probably choose a different parade to attend.
I’d like to open this up to a conversation. I am curious how others perceive this within the context of the Krewe’s history. What do you think? What would your response have been? Would you ever attend a parade knowing that they sport blackface? Please join the conversation in the comments below!
Want to see more pictures from our trip? I am really excited about the FREE photobook I just ordered! Look for another Part 2 of our New Orleans trip soon!