“It has been said that a Scotsman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans.” — Mark Twain
Mardi Gras has come and gone, leaving little traces as reminders of the celebration. Walking around during March in the YAV house in New Orleans, you’d see beads strewn across tables, chairs and desks; upon leaving the house, you were bound to find glitter hiding somewhere on your body. (There also may or may not have been a stale king cake sitting on the counter for a few extra weeks. . .)
Leading up to Ash Wednesday in New Orleans was unlike any other experience I’ve had. Mardi Gras, the long and joyous celebration between Epiphany and Lent, defines joyful excess; it was like a massive, month-long bloc party tradition of old friends and family reuniting to indulge in a marathon of long nights, loud music, belly laughter, king cakes, street dancing and strategizing to catch coveted throws (beads and various trinkets tossed by Krewe members riding on a float in a parade). In “1 Dead in Attic,” Chris Rose explains it well for those holding onto common misconceptions about the holiday:
“Mardi Gras is not a parade. Mardi Gras is not girls flashing on French Quarter balconies. Mardi Gras is not an alcoholic binge.
Mardi Gras is bars and restaurants changing out all the CD’s in their jukeboxes to Professor Longhair and the Neville Brothers, and it is annual front-porch crawfish boils hours before the parades so your stomach and attitude reach a state of grace. .
Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once.”
Even after Hurricane Katrina, a large number of those who had been displaced from the storm came back for Mardi Gras because it’s just that important to the soul and life of this city. Mardi Gras was, and is, a sign of hope in New Orleans. It’s a glittering glimpse of the diverse and vibrant colorfulness that brings joy to a broken and suffering world; a vision of just how sweet everything can be.
Leading up to Mardi Gras, the NOLA YAVs read Michele Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:” a detailed account about the African American male experience in the criminal justice system that’s developed out our colorblind nation following the Civil Rights movement and the declaration of the War on Drugs.
It was a challenging, eye-opening and difficult read. Most of the material was hard to swallow and I felt a lot of anger toward society, and disappointment in myself. I was unaware of how drastically the prison industry has grown in the past 30 years; the extremes to which men of color are targeted and locked-up for minor felonies is shocking. The aftermath is even more upsetting when you see how they’ve been systematically exiled from society – not just behind bars, but even as ‘free’ men after release from prison. I’ve worked with a few patrons who have a criminal record, and even after months of job applications and interviews, they’re unable to secure work. Reading Alexander’s book, watching the documentary ’13th,’ and listening to the This American Life podcast ‘Cops See It Differently’ has been crucial for me this YAV year as I work alongside many individuals who face numerous forms of systematic exile – not just the criminal justice system. As a white middle class American, I needed to be made aware of my privilege, my colorblindness, and my natural tendency to only see one side of the story.
Bringing it full circle, it was an interesting contrast to enter into the season of Mardi Gras with a magnifying glass hovering over race relations in the US. While Mardi Gras’s hopeful and colorful display of joy is a unifying statement of culture and values celebrating the diversity of the community and the belonging of each individual, like all good things, it isn’t perfect.
I was more aware of race and class divisions while watching some of the parades, and felt myself in an uncomfortable place because it seemed as though, from my perspective, the joy that is Mardi Gras maybe wasn’t completely accessible to every member of the community (i.e. watching predominantly white male Krewes who pay money to be riding in floats carelessly tossing beads, contrasted with predominantly African American male ‘flambeaux’ carriers – some of who are students at the downtown library – dangerously twirling around fire lanterns for a little extra cash). A fellow McCormick classmate and Belfast YAV (’14-’15) Will Massey pointed out that in New Orleans and elsewhere (like Belfast), community celebrations have an unfortunate habit of replicating day-to-day injustices because they fall short of completely transcending racism, classism or sectarianism that trouble society every other day of the year. But the hope is that celebrations like Mardi Gras have “the potential to carve out a sacred space where the joy lifts us out of the profane realm and helps us imagine a community that is free from racial/economic/sectarian division,” and embraces the differences in cultures and traditions. This is where hope is found.
Needless to say, I was emotionally and physically exhausted by the time Ash Wednesday rolled around, and it’s taken me some time to process this blog post! I was very thankful to be engaging and resting in the spiritual journey of Lent this past March.
Transitioning out of Mardi Gras, we cleaned up the glitter and returned to the dust (but how cool would it be to use the leftover glitter as ashes in New Orleans?!) Ash Wednesday was, and is, an invitation to rethink our true identity, recalling and reaffirming our creatureliness as we prepare(d) for the Lenten journey. “To recall our creatureliness is to affirm the command of responsibility, the prohibition at the boundaries, and the permit of generosity that envelops all of our life. All of this goes with being God’s breathed on dust. . .we are invited in the gesture of ashes to remember.” – Walter Brueggemann. It’s a call to journey with Jesus through the suffering, the deserts of our lives, being made new in our humanness as we turn away from our old ways of being, thinking and acting. In terms of Mardi Gras and New Orleans, a call to repent colorblindness, and embrace colorfulness. “You make beautiful things out of the dust. . .you make beautiful things out of us.”
This journey of Lent has been extremely fruitful, and I look forward to sharing reflections with you next week!
P.S. Highlights from my first Mardi Gras:
Commuity day parades in Uptown: Krewe of Pontchartrain, Krewe of Choctaw, and Krewe of Freret, followed by the Marigny: Krewe of Chewbacchus on Feb 18 (yes, it was Star Wars themed!!) It was a sunny day in NOLA, and we made the most of it with dinner at Dat Dog, and the Frenchmen Art Market. I learned how to successfully make eye contact with a masker (float rider) in order to get some beads, and continued to use that technique to collect as many as possible. Now, what I could do with the beads is anyone’s guess. . .
I was very impressed by the “ladder seat” contraptions a lot of the kids’ parents had built for them to sit on during the parades (and was slightly jealous that I didn’t have one of my own). They were lining St. Charles Avenue where kids tossed around footballs, and old college friends cranked the stereo, divvying out food and drink.
There was nothing more adrenaline-producing than the hope of a Nyx purse or a Muses’ shoe! I’m happy to say with hard work and determination I managed to get one of each, and all of my YMCA coworkers spent our Friday morning telling our shoe stories with each other.
Orpheus was by far my favorite parade for a few reasons: Harry Connick Jr. co-founded the Krewe (he was also in the parade); the floats were absolutely breathtaking, intricately designed floral and forest patterns; the marching band music was the best out of what I’ve seen; it was more relaxing because I wasn’t trying to catch a particular throw; the Krewe members were the friendliest, and the most diverse (both race and gender).
One of my favorite parts of the celebration was having an excuse to get dressed up in our “Mardi Gras Uniforms” for Endymion day, wearing wigs and glitter, and experiencing the unique celebration with my lovely housemates for an entire month (even on weeknights!)
It’s a certain thing I’ll be back for Mardi Gras one of these days. . . 🙂