The French Quarter is the quintessential center of Mardi Gras in New Orleans and traditionally what people associate with the celebration. Here, debauchery is at its most extreme and anything goes. Locals work on costumes for months and concerns of too much glitter, too many feathers and beads, too much naked skin never come to mind. But Mardi Gras is much more than this.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is (now) as diverse as the city is. Uptown parades are family-oriented with cookouts on the neutral ground (the median the streetcar rolls along). Families set up ladders for children to stand on to better see and have a chance at catching throws. It is not uncommon to see tents, large areas taped off, couches, and other assorted furniture on the neutral grounds of the city during Mardi Gras.
One of my close friends has lived in both Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans, Louisiana–two cities that have always observed Mardi Gras and squabble over bragging rights concerning which stately southern city first celebrated the historically Catholic event. Mardi Gras began about 60 miles south of New Orleans at Point du Mardi Gras, or Mardi Gras Point, in 1699. Mobile’s first official celebration was in 1703. Since New Orleans was not “founded” until 1718, Mobilians consider the Point du Mardi Gras celebration in 1699 null and void!
Mobile can also stake claim to initiating the parading “krewes,”
helping their friends in New Orleans establish this tradition in 1857
with their first parading Krewe of Comus. Krewes developed as social
and benevolent organizations. The history of Mardi Gras Krewes in both
cities, however, includes White exclusionary practices against people
of color. Though all people in Mobile now participate in Mardi Gras,
segregation within Mardi Gras krewe organizations still exists.
Beginning in the early 1990s, however, all krewes in New Orleans were
ordered by the courts to open their membership. Today some krewes are
more integrated than others and a dominance of white-only male krewes
That said, several important, long-standing Black Mardi Gras traditions
thrive in New Orleans. The Krewe of Zulu, the first Black Krewe in the
city, is celebrating their 100th anniversary this year. Though this
krewe has been criticized for members donning black face during
parades, the tradition continues among its Black, White, male, and
female members. On Mardi Gras Day, the Krewe of Zulu, still
predominantly Black, parades through the traditionally White and
upper-class streets of St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street,
reconfiguring, if only temporarily, the social geography of the city.
The North Side Skull and Bones Gang was founded in 1819 in the Tremé, a
primarily Black-inhabited neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter.
They began to parade in the 1930′s. Dressed in skeleton costumes, they
parade through the Tremé neighborhood beginning at 6 a.m. to awaken
everyone for the day’s festivities. They often wear papier-mâché skull
heads and carry joints of raw meat. A good friend of mine’s son paraded
with the gang last year as their youngest member at 7 years old–an
important part of preserving the tradition.
Other Krewes largely composed of minorities or less-powerful groups in
New Orleans also temporarily disrupt the social landscape. Krewe du
Jieux celebrates and plays on traditions of the Jewish community in the
city. Instead of beads, Krewe du Jieux throws include gold-painted
bagels. The Krewe of Muses, traditionally a female-only krewe, spoofs
images and ideas of femininity, starting with a woman’s high heel shoe
as its hallmark. Muses throws include strands of beads with small
purses, compacts with “Muses” stamped on them, and “Muses” teddies. The
Krewe of Barkus, a dog-only krewe, parades through the French Quarter
(Quarterites do love their canines!). As with all krewes, Barkus
chooses a different theme every year for their parade. This year, the
theme was Batman: The Dark Night. I believe the French Mastiff shown
here intended, or rather his owners intended him, to be The Joker. This
dog was unbelievably calm, posing patiently for pictures. When I asked
his handler if he ever got excited, she said, “When he gets home!”
On Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras Day, small “unofficial” local krewes form,
seemingly haphazardly. These “unofficial” krewes comprised of Blacks,
Whites, women, men, young, old, poor, and rich, celebrate with
libations, food, and costume contests as they parade, often with no set
route, through the streets of New Orleans. My favorite local
neighborhood marching krewe, St. Anne, begins in the Bywater, a
traditionally Black neighborhood, and travels upriver through the
Marigny, historically an immigrant-dense and less-well-off French
Creole neighborhood, through the French Quarter. A virtual cornucopia
of brightly colored mystical costumes, beating drums, tingling
tambourines, and thundering brass make the experience one of the more
magical moments in my New Orleans cadre of memories.
Rebecca Sheehan, Ph.D.
Department of Geography
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
I just wanted to say thank you to Dr. Rebecca Sheehan for submitting this great account of Mardi Gras in the United States. If anyone else has any cool stories about Mardi Gras that they would like to share, we would love to hear them!
The My Wonderful World Staff