The history of Black Mardi Gras is one that is obscure. It is not often talked about, and most New Orleanians- my self included- celebrate each year without knowing about it’s history and origins. In addition to this, we are not able to see how the past can be seen in the present day in how we choose to celebrate.
New Orleans was a dominant slave port in the United States which was responsible for bringing in countless numbers of Africans as slaves in the 18th century and has contributed to the diverse culture and history. During the Middle Passage, most slaves brought to Louisiana came from Senegambia and was rich with ceremonial and festive performances. The mortality rate was high, as many slaves committed suicide rather than be taken from their homes and everything they once knew to face an uncertain future. Traders realized that allowing music on the ships was a way to reduce suicides and thus ‘“preserve them.”’ Song and dance was able to weather this dislocation, removal, and resettlement. However, once the slaves made it to shore and to their respective plantations, planters felt more ambivalent about letting their slaves sing, dance, and participate in large assemblies in the wake of the Natchez slave revolt of 1729 and potential alliances with Native Americans. The revolt was a major contributor to the creation of the Black Codes, which forbid slaves assembles punishable by floggings, branding with hot irons, and even death. This provides the first of many precedents to come that regulated carnival activities under Louisiana law. The Amendments of 1807 followed the Saint-Domingue slave revolution which placed further restrictions on slaves forbidding them from assemblies in their own quarters and denying of the liberty to dance during the night. The official black codes resulted in afro centric culture becoming a “transgressive and even subversive act” and permitted the hiding its origins and meanings for safety (Joseph).
These laws were not enforced heavily, however, as the French and Spanish regimes of the day were lax and during this period there was an increase in cultural performances, particularly around the festivities of the pre lenten period. Mardi Gras season typically came the end of an exhausting cycles of sugar production on the plantations and allowed for a “release of collective feeling” between slaves and slaveholders. This “feeling” (aka celebration) allowed for the survival and development of African celebrations to be centered within and around Europeans catholic rite and festivities (Joseph).
In addition to this, the failed economic stability of both France and Spain and reposition of dispossess people from around the caribbean and larger atlantic world, colonial louisiana relied on its native american and imported West African slave population for its material and cultural survival. Native Americans helped African slaves escape during this time. During this slavery, Native Americans helped slaves escape and would accept them into their society when slaves made a break for their freedom.
The support Native American provided to slaves has never been forgotten, as over time. As black people felt they could not participate in mainstream Mardi Gras due to slavery and racism, they formed their own “tribes” of Mardi Gras Indians according to the street of their wards or gang. The Mardi Gras indians have severed as a way to express an undying gratitude to native AMericans during for their assistance in helping slaves escape slavery. The Mardi Gras Indians are referred to an a hidden carnival, as their parade routes are never published. Although they tend to parade through the same areas each year, not formally publishing their routes symbolize the secret underground path followed by escaped slaves (Mardi Gras Traditions).
In addition to the Mardi Gras Indians, black people have celebrated Mardi Gras in many other fashions. One of the most prominent of these fashions is the Zulu parade and social organization. Typically, “race serves as a master trope for a broad spectrum of exclusionary designs and practices: classism, anti semitism, sexism…” and they have stepped into the Mardi Gras tradition. An example of an exclusionary practice would be the regulation of memberships to social organisation and ball invitations. These regulations determine where one is socially located and how they are judged. In terms of black people, they were never intended to be included into traditional mardi gras and when they were, the roles that possessed centered around torchbearers, mule herder, and street dancers, which cast them are social inferiors (Joseph).
To combat social inferiority and demeaning stereotypes of black people, Zulu was organized as a pardy. They tossed coconut, wore grass skirts, and painted their face black. Zulu walked a thin line between ridiculing and reinforcing the imagery that was a large part of racial hatred. In addition to this, Zulu served as an organization that promoted and appreciated the black diaspora. They would crown their own kings and queen, remembering that in Africa they were once kings and queens and dress up in elaborate and adorned costumes. Zulu served as a social aid club that advocated on behalf of the black community and gave back to it. Zulu represented black people- black men particularly- being able to enjoy patriarchal, economic, and political rights on their own accord.
Zulu is a reflection of other people within the black diaspora throughout the world that took it upon themselves to create and enjoy their own freedom. In 1608 in Mexico City, black men gathered at the home of free black or mulatto women where colonial authorities “believed gambling, drinking, and parties” happened to stage a coronation. These celebration comprised of both free and enslaved people “featured an elaborate simulacrum of a coronation involving fake crowns, chairs...with shouts of “viva el rey!” They selected a king and queen and would dance and feast though the night (MartÃnez 498-99).
Also, in New England black men were chosen as leaders of their people to enjoy certain white male privileges. Towns would hold special colony wide elections in the eighteenth century that allowed black to hold their own versions of those events. On these days, whites permitted gambling, drinking, and parading among their slaves. During the election, black men would campaign and give speeches, which provided the “first example of black men speaking in public and soliciting votes.” On election days, there were time for ceremonial performance of stylized gender roles “in which black male “royalty” head a procession on the town’s streets accompanied by a female consort.” These festivities were means by which black people could preserve West African traditions of processions led by kings and were the “training grounds for black male political leaders” (Adams and Peck 16-17).
Although centuries have gone by, many transformations of early designs and practices can be seen today. Black people have used cultural exchanges as opportunities to preserve tribal African traditions and ways of life as far down as Latin America, as far north as New England, and in many places in the caribbean. However, it is important to note that many of these designs were exclusionary towards black women and much of the history known is centered around black men and their roles in slavery and throughout history. In the future, I hope to find research that highlights the role of black women throughout the history of carnival.
Roach, Joseph. "Carnival and the Law in New Orleans." TDR (1988-) 37.3 (1993): 42-75. JSTOR. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.
Adams, Catherine, and Elizabeth H. Pleck. "Introduction." Introduction. Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. 3-27. Print.
MartÃnez, MarÃa Elena. "The Black Blood of New Spain: Limpieza De Sangre, Racial Violence, and Gendered Power in Early Colonial Mexico." The William and Mary Quarterly 61.3 (2004): 479-520. JSTOR. Web. 23 Dec. 2016.
"Mardi Gras Indians History and Tradition." Mardi Gras Indians History and Tradition | Mardi Gras New Orleans. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.