It’s Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, and folks are ready to “Laissez les bons temps rouler.” That’s Cajun for “Let the good times roll.”
For some young African-Americans who call this city home, Mardi Gras is as much about entertaining the millions of visitors who come to party as it is about preserving community traditions. Mardi Gras is historically known as the last day for people who fast for Lent to eat rich, fatty foods. Black Mardi Gras celebrations honor the history, resilience and artistry of black and Native American New Orleanians.
“These traditions are important because they were born in a time when black people faced both legal, social and economic segregation,” said Kim Vaz-Deville, the editor of Walking Raddy: The Baby Dolls of New Orleans.
The Baby Dolls were established in 1912 by prostitutes who worked near the French Quarter in a section known as Black Storyville. The clientele who frequented the French Quarter provided a source of income for these women, who were then called “baby dolls.”
“They were locked out of mainstream Mardi Gras events, other than being asked to work as servants for such events,” Vaz-Deville said. “They had to set up a way to enjoy themselves, and they did this by forming these clubs with specific themes that were grounded in the popular culture of the early 20th century.”
One of the most popular aspects of Black Mardi Gras is the practice of creating elaborate suits traditionally worn by various Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Today, the historic art form has been especially embraced by post-Hurricane Katrina millennials dedicated to keeping Black Mardi Gras connected to its roots.
“This is way bigger than Christmas to me. This is the biggest event of the year; honestly, it’s bigger than my birthday,” said Joseph Boudreaux Jr., the second chief of the Mardi Gras Indians Golden Eagles tribe.
Boudreaux is a third-generation Mardi Gras Indian, a group known for its ceremonial dress and resilience. He said the Golden Eagles honor Native Americans who helped slaves escape bondage. As a result, various Mardi Gras Indian tribes use masking as a way to commemorate their shared oppression with African-Americans.
“We have to keep our culture going,” he said. “It’s for the black streets, it’s for the black neighborhoods, for the people who were not allowed to go on Canal Street to see the floats.”
For Boudreaux, his father and his three stepsons, celebrating and passing down black Mardi Gras traditions are a major part of their lives.
Terrance Williams Jr., one of Boudreaux’s stepsons, has chosen to honor Mardi Gras Indian customs by starting his own tribe. He formed the Black Hawk Hunters last year at the age of 15.
“I’m carrying on a culture that’s been around for over 100 years, and my generation has to keep it going,” said Williams.
He said most Mardi Gras Indians won’t form new tribes until they are in their 20s. To do so, he had to get approval from other tribal chiefs. Now that he is chief of his own tribe, he will also honor the legacies of other tribes and teach masking to younger generations.
Mardi Gras Indians start making new suits the day after Mardi Gras of the previous year. The elaborate beadwork, feathers and other accessories involved make the process expensive and time-intensive. Suits designed for Mardi Gras 2019 will finally be unveiled Tuesday.
“They’re not a real Indian if they don’t have a bead collection,” said Tahj Williams, a 20-year-old suit designer and Tulane University student. Williams likes to make unique designs, from her gloves to her headdress. The compliments she receives from young girls help inspire her. Last year, she created a red Mardi Gras Indian suit that was featured in Vogue magazine.
“People would only come out to see the men. There’s started to be an evolution,” she said. “The biggest moment for me is that people are starting to pay more attention to the queens,” she said.
Queens refer to women involved in masking. Their contributions to the process were overlooked for generations, Williams said. Tahj Williams considers queens to be the backbone of each tribe and the reason that the tradition survives.
“I can’t wait to see what happens 20 years from now, for my kids and grandkids to start getting into the culture,” she said.
But in some ways, the culture has been stagnant, she said. Tahj Williams can’t form her own tribe like Terrance Williams Jr. can. Women are not allowed to do so because, throughout history, men were the ones looked at as leaders.
Still, the male-dominated culture has not deterred Williams from embracing it. She wants to show other women that they can get involved.
For Tahj Williams, this black Mardi Gras culture not only helps younger generations lay claim to their heritage, it gives them purpose and the structure and discipline needed to commit to their craft.
“I don’t think we shine a light on my generation enough and the positive things that we are doing,” she said. “They [society] don’t show you these young chiefs or young children who participate in Mardi Gras Indians to keep them out of trouble.”
Waldorf Gipson IV attends Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He’s part of the Young Men Jr. Olympian Benevolent Association Inc. (YMO), a masking group that works to increase access to health care for black communities. The 135-year-old organization is also the oldest “second line” social aid and pleasure club in New Orleans. A second line is a tradition in New Orleans in which members dance in a parade as they follow a brass band.
“We do this for everybody, not just for ourselves,” said Gipson.
YMO consists of six divisions, all of which were organized at different times. Gipson is a part of the Furious Five, which was founded in 1985. “This means everything to me. I’m 20 years old, and my daddy started this 34 years ago, so I was born into it,” he said.
Like Gipson, Victoria Spotts also had a parent who participated in Black Mardi Gras traditions. Spotts, 31, joined her mother’s organization last year. It’s called Mahogany Blue and is within the Baby Dolls sisterhood.
“I absolutely love it; it’s pretty much a natural high, parading through the streets of New Orleans, empowering other women to do the same,” Spotts said.
Black Mardi Gras events will come to a close Tuesday, as Mardi Gras marks the end of carnival season.