Downtown Mardi Gras: New Carnival Practices in Post-Katrina New Orleans
By Leslie A. Wade, Robin Roberts, and Frank de Caro
University Press of Mississippi
New book a study of how the culture and customs of a city foster its rebirth
By Howard Philips Smith
Special to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans has had to reconstruct itself on many levels. A substantial number of natives have chosen not to return to their hometown. This gap, however, has been filled with a willing group of transplants eager to participate in the many celebrations throughout the year, and more often than not even contribute to the formation of new ones.
Leslie Wade, Robin Roberts, and Frank de Caro chart these new additions to the festivities in their new publication, “Downtown Mardi Gras: New Carnival Practices in Post-Katrina New Orleans,” and as a result shed some interesting light on how the city has reconfigured itself in the process. Focusing on the downtown area of the city—the French Quarter, the Faubourgs Tremé and Marigny, and the Bywater neighborhood—the most evident and exciting new Carnival practices are embodied in several new walking clubs, mostly made up of women.
The history of Carnival walking clubs is a rich one but not necessarily a diverse one. The oldest marching club is the Jefferson City Buzzards dating from 1890 and processes through the streets on Fat Tuesday to join the Rex parade. Also notable are the Irish Channel Corner Club and Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Walking Club. These are all-male clubs and mostly white.
One exception is the Krewe du Vieux parade, formed from the remnants of the Contemporary Arts Center’s Krewe of Clones in 1987. One spectacular Clones parade in 1982 was led by Thelma Toole, the mother of John Kennedy T00le, with the theme “A Confederacy of Clones.”
The newer walking clubs formed after Katrina are mostly all-women and have more than likely inherited their élan from the richly diverse and eccentric Society of Sainte Ann. Named for the grandmother of Jesus—and arguably the grandmother of all the downtown walking groups—the society was formed in 1969 by Henri Schindler, Paul Poché, and Jon Newlin. Sainte Ann begins their parade in Bywater on Fat Tuesday and, as they process toward Canal Street to view the Rex parade around noon, costumed participants join the ever-evolving group as they go. In 2019 they celebrated their fiftieth anniversary with the resurrection of the fabled Golden Calf that was included in the first march and continued to attract the most diverse crowd seen on that day, including straight, gay, transgender, and many persons of color.
The book’s focus on these new walking clubs comes as a breath of fresh air. The city has recovered in the wake of so much devastation and the downtown neighborhoods have also prospered while undergoing a substantial transformation. This is indicative of a larger trend of assimilation of marginal groups and gentrification specific to New Orleans.
These changing demographics have also reshaped the memberships of downtown Carnival groups. The Skinz n Bonez group co-opts traditional all-male African-American traditions and transforms them into an all-female one. The Krewe of Jeanne d’Arc and the Krewe of Red Beans subvert notions of tradition and culture by valorizing strong women and female practices, such as meal preparation. Jeanne d’Arc is especially responsive to these cultural shifts by emphasizing “a woman who spoke truth to power and actively fought against it.”
The Amazons Social Aid and Benevolent Society takes its cue from the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club but focuses rather on women’s empowerment. Also founded by Dianne Honoré are the Black Storyville Baby Dolls who continue the practice of African American Creole women dressing up like young girls but resist expected gender norms. The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, an inclusive club centered in the Bywater neighborhood that uses science fiction and utopian themes in their parades, and ‘tit Rəx, whose floats are tiny shoeboxes and often sexually charged, both subvert the more traditional and conservative Uptown Carnival.
The book concludes by noting that, despite all the problems within the city, these groups have helped transform the city’s most important celebration into a diverse and exciting phoenix rising from the flooded waters with hope and joy.
Howard Philips Smith is author of “Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans” (2017), “Southern Decadence in New Orleans” (2018), and the forthcoming “A Sojourn in Paradise: Jack Robinson in 1950s New Orleans” (2020).