On The Road #16
(Mardi Gras in New Orleans, February 25, 2006)—The first thing about Mardi Gras is that it’s nothing like what they show on television. Looking at a bunch of drunken idiots from suburbs all over America showing their tits on Bourbon Street and taking that for Mardi Gras is like watching a sporting contest on TV being broadcast from the concession stand. The people are there at the appointed venue, but what they’re doing has nothing at all to do with what’s going on in the game down on the field.
The fact is, Bourbon Street has very little to do with what we like to call the real New Orleans. Bourbon Street is just an elaborate stage set where the ovine tourists are herded together from their hotels and bed-and-breakfasts to be fleeced. Nobody from New Orleans ever goes to Bourbon Street unless they have a job in one of the shops or joints there, or when some square friends from out of town demand to be shown the sights they’ve seen on TV. It’s like a nasty, smelly, dirty, ugly, totally lame Disney World of tawdry vice for people who have absolutely no experiential knowledge of actual vice at all, and the less said about it the better.
No, dear friends, Mardi Gras is about something else altogether: Carnival is a gigantic civic event that involves nearly every citizen of the New Orleans metropolitan area and their thousands of guests from out of town all having their own sort of fun in a spectacular communal celebration that takes over the life of the city for two weeks and turns out crowds of 1,000,000 people in the streets at a time to watch and interact with the massive parades mounted by loose social groupings of middle- and upper-class white people who call their krewes Rex or Bacchus or Endymion or Thoth and dress up in ridiculous matching costumes and masks and ride down St. Charles Avenue on their garish floats perched high above the surging crowds who beg the riders to throw them some chintzy plastic beads and phony doubloons and gaudy trinkets imprinted with the names of the krewes.
“Throw me something, mister!” “Hit me!” “Over here!” The floats pass one by one behind their tractors, spelled by high school and college marching bands from throughout the area and all around the country, baton twirlers, military drill teams, horseback riders, masked revelers of every description, and the crowds throng and press around them for miles on both sides of the procession, cheering, shouting, waving their arms in the air, laughing, jumping up and down, having themselves a natural ball—moms and dads and little kids, extended families, couples, singles, drifters, affinity groups all costumed alike, squares and weirdos of every possible sort cavort and act the fool and chase the floats through the streets screaming for throws.
That’s the official face of Mardi Gras, and hey, that’s a pretty good face to show for a bunch of white people in America today. There’s a lot to be said for white people having some good clean fun in the streets for a few days—it offers them a rare opportunity to get their ya-yas out for a change, and it certainly provides a welcome diversion for the rest of us from their pressing business of keeping everything under control, maintaining their superior place in the social order and wringing every dollar out of the populace they can.
The peculiar form of the Mardi Gras celebration also serves to reinforce the dominant paradigm of our social system, where the people with all the goodies group together high above the hoi polloi and, masked as philanthropists, rain down worthless baubles on their grateful subjects to show us what great guys and gals they really are. They do this once a year, and the rest of the time they concentrate on making our society as brutal and heartless and ugly as they possibly can.
The social metaphor enacted by the Carnival krewes is particularly pointed this year, as post-Katrina New Orleans is locked in a bitter struggle over the shape of the future of this severely damaged city. The images of gaiety and abandon floating by actually reflect the glee with which the white people here are contemplating the shining city of their wildest dreams—a place where they have gained the majority and intend to proceed unimpeded with their plans to lock out the poor black people who are the bane of their existence while they rebuild carefully selected sectors of the city in their own image and make beaucoup profits in the process.
Maybe all the details have yet to be worked out, but the white business elite in New Orleans clearly envisions a radically reconstructed future which will literally have no place for the poor black working and jobless people who have given the city its very soul. The white people basically intend to refuse to rebuild the ruined African American neighborhoods like the Lower 9th Ward and Back o’ Town and New Orleans East and to force the residents relocated by the Flood to remain in the places to which they have fled.
Another prong of the White People’s Dream is aimed at the sprawling housing projects where the people for whom they have no jobs have been warehoused and maintained on public assistance for several generations now. The projects have been boarded up since the Flood and their tenants refused re-entrance except for the 400 or so who’ve been allowed to visit their apartments in the past month.
Now Nadine Jarmon, head of the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), the federal agency that controls the properties, has revealed to James Varney of the New Orleans Times-Picayune [“Future residents must meet new criteria,” February 21, 2006] that the agency is “already implementing changes to how residents are selected for the available permanent public housing. In the Iberville complex, for instance, about 400 of the 800 families who lived there before the storm want to return…. But all future residents have to comply with new entry restrictions.
“‘Part of the overall process is asking about people’s ability or willingness to work,’ Jarmon said. ‘If someone says, “Well, my income qualifies me for public housing and I want to come home,” but they don’t express a willingness to work, or they don’t have a training background, or they weren’t working before Katrina [emphasis added], then you’re making a decision to pass over those people. Yeah, it’s going to be controversial,’ she said.”
Jarmon’s crime partner, Councilman Oliver Thomas, commented that “Given the dire situation, such moves make perfect sense,” Varney reported. “Expressly directing his comments to African-Americans, Thomas, who is black, said: ‘There’s just been a lot of pampering, and at some point you just have to say, “No, no, no, no, no”.’”
Good God! If this is what black people in the power structure are saying about the poor black people who have to live in those squalid, dilapidated, prison-like structures called housing projects without jobs or other means of livelihood beyond the niggardly portions of public assistance they are afforded or the proceeds from petty criminality that barely enable them to exist from day to day, you can bet that the white people are going to be even more vicious. They’ve been bitching about the “pampered” project dwellers ever since they sentenced them to live there, and now they’re ready to get rid of them entirely.
Don’t let the black people back in the projects, don’t let them rebuild their houses and neighborhoods, don’t let their exiled culture return to the city and dig in its roots again—this is all well and good as a conceptual agenda, but it’s not gonna happen. Now as always, in the future as in the past, there’s no New Orleans without the people whose ancestors were brought here in chains and sold as slaves in the marketplace, the people of African descent who did the work for the plantation owners and the businessmen and the satraps of the local ruling class and made the city what it is today…or what it was before the Flood.
Quiet as it’s kept, or as they say in the 6th Ward, “a whole lotta people don’t know” that the black underclass is essential to the functioning of the city. “Guess what?” They’re the ones who do all the work, not only in the service industry but at the bottom of every job ladder. They’re the laborers, the dock workers, the ditch diggers, the plasterers, the painters, the secretaries and clerks, the cleaning ladies and maids, the cooks and dishwashers and bar-backs and servers, the people who work at the post office and in the bars, restaurants, nightclubs and hotels that service the tourist industry. And they’re the people who make the music and the vibrant street culture that has made New Orleans a destination of choice for people from all around the world.
“The people are the ticket,” trumpet man James Andrews—“the Satchmo of the Ghetto”—told Geraldine Wyckoff in OffBeat magazine last December. “There would be no music without the people of New Orleans. The real population of New Orleans makes the culture and it takes everybody to participate in our culture to make the music bloom and blossom…. The poorer the people, the less likely they’re coming back. They can’t afford to come back. You can’t even find a black motherfucker nowhere in town. All the black neighborhoods are like—‘No one home baby.’”
In the past two months—since the Christmas holidays—“the real population of New Orleans” has been easing back into town, staying with relatives and friends, cleaning out their houses and beginning repairs…and getting ready for Mardi Gras, when they’ll return to the streets and let everybody know they’re back. This includes people from the projects and the rented houses in the ghetto neighborhoods and the working-class enclaves and the destroyed parts of town like Gentilly and Central City and the Lower 9th and the suburban-styled housing developments and mansions of New Orleans East. “We don’t need permission to come back,” the wealthy black entrepreneur and political insider Sherman Copelin of New Orleans East told the Times-Picayune in early January. “We are back.”
Now, Black Mardi Gras in New Orleans is always something else, but this year it’s something else altogether. Black Mardi Gras is what Sylvester Francis calls “backstreet culture,” and he’s got it enshrined at his Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Treme, where there’ll be a huge blowout on Fat Tuesday with all the characters from the 6th Ward and their followers: the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi Mardi Gras Indians, the North End Skeleton Gang, the second-liners who follow the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs like the Sudan and the Money Wasters and the Sidewalk Steppers and the Black Men of Labor on their annual neighborhood parades (yeah, there’s one almost every weekend all year round). There’ll be a lot of cats who play in the brass bands, and WWOZ Radio will be there to broadcast ‘live’ all afternoon from the front porch of the Backstreet Museum.
This is the kind of thing that’ll be happening all over town, too, in the streets of the funky ghetto neighborhoods where the Wild Indian tribes will be carrying on in their elaborate hand-sewn suits of beads and plumes and rhinestones and hand-beaded patches, chanting and singing with the backing of frenetic hand-drummers, bass drum thumpers, tambourine shakers, cowbell whackers and cats hitting wine bottles with sticks to make a rhythm they can move to. They’ll be back in a big way to let everybody know where they’re coming from—comin’ back better than ever.
Black Mardi Gras, like the year-round backstreet culture of African American New Orleans, is a deeply subversive construct invented and developed over the course of the past 200 years by several successive generations of black working and underclass citizens determined to make a way to preserve and extend those elements of their ancestral culture they had managed to preserve during their long sojourn in this cold and cruel land. Today their culture serves not only to sustain them and inspire them in their daily struggle to survive with their humanity intact, but it’s also a blazing emblem of their incredible achievement: To create a culture of flamboyant humanism in the face of every possible type of opposition mounted by a ruling class that would not even recognize them as humans.
Backstreet culture is a culture of resistance. It fights oppression on every front, from the way people walk and talk to the music and art they make, the public rituals, the forms of communal celebration, the dancing and singing and praising the Lord and seeking sexual release through song and dance—the whole range of social behavior that makes it possible for people who don’t have a goddamn thing of their own and no prospects for the future, who live from day to day with nothing but a few crumpled dollars in their pockets, who have been robbed and cheated and prevented from learning and locked out of the dominant economy, who have been given nothing and expect to get nothing as far as they can see—the culture they have evolved in the back streets of New Orleans enables them to reclaim their humanity and have a ball just the same. And “Jock-a-mo fino hey,” like the song says—if you don’t like it you can kiss my funky black ass.
“[T]raditional New Orleans is subversive in a way that the Sex Pistols never were or could have been,” a very perceptive musical character from the local “hipster culture” called Mr. Quintron explained to Gambit Weekly. “And even after a devastating hurricane, we still have those values intact. All these rich people deciding to stage Mardi Gras anyway, to buy plastic beads, instead of ‘more important things’—there are no more important things.” Or like the bard put it, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” The Li’l Rascals Brass Band chants “Gimme a dime!” and the guy says “I only got 8!” Well, let’s take the 8 cents and roll, baby, let’s have as much fun as we can possibly have today and later for the rest, because it’ll almost be a miracle if we can manage to survive to live another day in this mean, cruel outpost of America.
That’s the outlook that’s made New Orleans what it was, is and will be—the oppositional culture of the back streets that’s overcome slavery, the Black Codes, Jim Crow, racial discrimination, unequal opportunity, the oppressive public school system, the housing projects, the police force, the War on Drugs, the prison sentences, the entire ugly mechanism of oppression that’s geared to grind black people down and keep them from advancing into full participation in the benefits of American life.
That’s the spirit of Black Mardi Gras, and the soul of New Orleans itself—beating back adversity and coming back for more, dancing and singing and playing the most beautiful music in the world. This is the spirit that’s coming back to the ravaged neighborhoods and the beat-up houses and the locked-down projects and the streets of New Orleans. “This is a different New Orleans right now,” James Andrews says. “This isn’t the New Orleans we grew up to know…. [but] the comeback is going to be a bitch.”
Let’s leave the last word to the great Crescent City musical luminary Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, and his band, the Lower 911, like Mac and Herman Ernest and the fellas chant at the end of their Hurricane Suite called Wade:
“Wade in the water Comin’ back—like we oughta Wade in the water Comin’ back—better than ever”
February 25, 2006
© 2006 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.